Shelter-in-place restrictions may be loosening across the United States and around the world, but with gyms still closed in most US states and many online fitness sites sold out of equipment, finding safe and effective means to work out at home continues to be a mission for many of us.
Look no further than a couple of stairs. You don’t need a full flight; using only two stairs and your own body weight, you can train your whole body.
If you don’t have access to stairs, you can modify the exercises below, using a sturdy wooden chair or box. Or check out one of my other at-home training routines, like this couch workout.
When using stairs as a training tool, balance is essential for safety. Wear sneakers with minimal soles that still provide good traction. This is especially key on slicker surfaces, like marble, wood or tile.
When the sole is too thick, your ankle is more likely to roll laterally and you’ll have a harder time sensing ground contact. Get shoes with a minimal, flexible sole and adequate grip to get the sensory feedback needed for stable, intentional movement without sacrificing necessary traction. \
Wearing the right footwear is important, but that alone can’t prevent falls if you’re not steady on your feet. Before beginning any stair-based exercises, do a balance check. Without holding anything for support, try standing on each leg for 10 seconds.
If you’re unable to do so unsupported, these exercises aren’t for you right now. Instead, focus on mind-body exercises that strengthen the aspects of your nervous system impacting balance, your proprioceptive and vestibular systems. Once you’ve improved your balance, you’ll be better equipped to safely perform this workout.
Even people with stellar balance can sometimes feel wobbly. When training on stairs, use the railing whenever necessary to steady yourself. And, as with any new exercise program, consult your doctor before attempting these exercises.
If you’re using a full flight of stairs, walking up and down them for two to three minutes can be a good warm up. Pay close attention to your steps, walking slowly at first to establish balance and control, before gradually speeding up as much as you feel comfortable.
Otherwise, if you only have a few stairs (again, you only need two steps for the workout), stay on the ground and warm up by doing a set of 20 jumping jacks and a minute or two of jogging in place.
The stair workout
Perform the seven exercises below for the prescribed number of reps. Repeat all exercises in order for two to five rounds. In between rounds, rest for a minute or two and drink plenty of water.
Step-up: 10 to 15 reps per side
This is one of the most obvious — and effective — exercises to perform when training on the stairs. Step-ups primarily target legs, glutes and core. As a unilateral (single-limb) exercise, it relies on one leg at at time to power the movement.
Begin by standing, facing the stairs. Step one foot up to the second stair. Drive through that heel to lift your opposite foot up off the floor, also placing it on the stair. Step back to the floor with the same foot you just lifted.
Repeat with the opposite foot on the stair.
Want an added challenge? When you bring your back foot up to meet the foot on the stair, pause at the top, balancing on one leg with your opposite knee lifted toward your chest before placing your foot down next to the other one.
If stepping up only two stairs doesn’t feel challenging enough, and you have more than two stairs, you can also try stepping up three stairs at a time.
Elevated hip lift: 10 to 20 reps per side
This hinging exercise offers a nice counterbalance to the squatting movements in this workout by taking the load off your hip flexors. It strengthens the backs of your legs, glutes and core.
Lie down in front of the stairs. Place your heels up on it, hip distance apart, with your knees bent and hips, back and head on the floor. If it’s more comfortable, place a mat or towel under you.
Exhale as you drive through your heels to lift your hips and back up off the floor in a bridge position. Do not arch your back: Keep it straight and flat. You should feel the muscle activation in your hamstrings and glutes (backs of legs and butt) — not your lower back. Return your hips to the floor.
Repeat on the other side.
To increase the challenge, do a single-leg variation with only one heel on the stair while keeping the other leg lifted and straight.
Rear-foot elevated split squat: 6 to 10 reps per side
Also known as Bulgarian split squats, this unilateral exercise strengthens quads and glutes as well as hip stability and mobility. Balance is definitely a factor, so be sure you establish a stable base through your front foot and leg before you begin the movement in your back leg.
Stand 1 to 2 feet in front of the stairs, facing away from them. How far you stand from the stairs will be determined by your leg length: closer if you’re shorter, like me, and further away if you’re taller. Lift one foot back behind you, bending your knee to place your toes onto the second stair. Keep your forward leg straight, grounding down into the floor to establish a firm base. This is your starting position.
When you feel balanced, begin the exercise by bending from your front knee to lower your back knee downward, keeping your torso upright and hips squared. Stop when your front knee is at 90 degrees without allowing your knee to track over your toes.