You likely know that climbing stairs can be good for your general health. Find out if it also helps you build muscle or if your legs burn for another reason.
Whether or not climbing stairs helps you build muscle depends on your personal strength level. If you can climb 25+ steps on each side without your muscles fatiguing, you are likely not building (aka growing) your muscles.
At the same time, working your muscles can still increase endurance and keep them healthier.
Additionally, you can increase your chances of building muscle by climbing stairs by skipping a step or adding weights (if you can do so safely).
Lastly, even though a lot of muscle growth is not one of them, there are still many benefits of climbing stairs. This habit could still deserve a spot in your routine.
Resistance vs cardiovascular training
Different types of workouts can be put into different categories. The two most popular ones are resistance training and cardiovascular workouts.
Resistance training is typically done to grow and strengthen skeletal muscles. Cardiovascular workouts mostly focus on training the cardiovascular system which includes the heart and lungs.
These are often not completely separate but it is typically possible to say that a movement focuses on one category.
To really build muscle, aka grow your skeletal muscles, you have to put them under enough resistance (pressure) in combination with the right repetitions, sets, nutrition, and rest.
How much is enough depends on your personal strength. Strong people will need a lot more resistance than someone who has not worked out in a while.
Can you build muscle with stairs?
So there are both people who can and people who can’t build muscle by climbing stairs. Luckily, there are some general guidelines to find out in what group you are.
A rough rule is that if you can take 25+ stair steps with each leg (so 50 in total) without your muscles fatiguing (not being able to continue), climbing stairs will likely not help you build muscle.
Something to note is that working your muscles in a situation can still offer muscle endurance improvements and other benefits but just not muscle growth.
If you fatigue before the 25 steps on each side, you can likely build aka grow certain leg muscles when completing a few sets of stair climbing and enough nutrition and rest.
How to increase your chances of muscle growth
The numbers above are when using just your body weight and climbing the stairs regularly step by step.
However, there are also ways to increase how hard your muscles have to work during this activity. This can help you build more muscle.
The first way to increase your chances of muscle growth when climbing stairs is to skip a step each time. You basically transform the move into a set of step-ups.
Secondly, you can wear a weighted vest or hold extra weights like dumbbells when climbing the stairs. Since they have to move more weight, your muscles will have to work harder. At some point, enough to build muscle.
The goal is to be able to make climbing stairs so challenging that you can only do up to 25 steps with each leg before fatiguing.
An added bonus is that these things also increase the number of calories burned with stair climbing.
Something important to note is that you want to make sure you can do the things above in a safe way. For example, if you don’t have good balance, these techniques are likely not recommended.
What muscles are built by climbing stairs?
So if you make climbing stairs challenging enough, you can grow and strengthen certain leg muscles.
Which of the one(s) below you can actually grow and strengthen depends on their current strengths. This can vary from individual to individual.
1. Gluteus maximus
The gluteus maximus, aka your main butt muscles, are responsible for moving your thighs back into one line with your upper body.
In every stair step, they generate force to push your body upward.
The hamstrings are the muscles located in your back thighs.
These have different functions but while climbing stairs, they mainly help the glutes extend your legs into one line with your body.
Your quadriceps are the muscles located in your front thighs. These are mainly responsible for moving your lower legs to stretch your legs.
While you may not pay attention to it, in every stair step you stretch your legs to help generate the upward force needed to climb the stairs.
The calf muscles are located at the back of your lower legs.
These help you push down your front feet and prevent your ankles from “falling” down when they hang in the air.
5. Secondary muscles
While climbing stairs, the muscles above will have to work the hardest. However, there are also a few secondary muscles that are active to a smaller extent.
The first ones are the inner thigh and outer thigh muscles. These move your thighs inward or outward and will have to work to balance yourself in each step.
Secondly, there are the hip flexors “between” your thighs and hips. These help you raise your legs to put them on the step above.
Lastly, there are the core muscles around your waist which keep your upper body upright. Without them, your upper body would fall forward, backward, or to the sides.