Growing up, my dad was a bit of an exercise fanatic, but he would never invest in a treadmill or any large fitness equipment because he was convinced it would turn into an “expensive coat rack.” Whenever he couldn’t go to the gym, my old man would sneak off and run the stairs for 20 minutes like he was the Rocky of the suburbs. Except, instead of fighting Apollo Creed, he would attempt to make dinner afterwards.
I never thought much of this until I recently stumbled across the 25-7-2 workout, a play on the 12-3-30 workout that went viral this past year. While the 12-3-3- involved a treadmill, this new session (25 minutes, at level 7, twice a week), uses my old man’s favorite fitness secret: the humble, heavy StairMaster, a rotating set of stairs also referred to as a stepmill.
Most of us have seen these dinosaurs lurking in dark corners of the gym, and for ages, I couldn’t understand how they never went extinct in an ever-evolving fitness industry. But as Teddy Savage, the National Lead Trainer at Planet Fitness explained, the main reason why no equipment has ever replaced the StairMaster is because it’s simply that great of a workout. Since the StairMaster’s inception in the mid-1980s, there’s yet to be a piece of machinery that’s topped it.
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The Case for a StairMaster Workout
“The challenge it provides to both your muscular and cardiovascular endurance has always been both alluring and effective,” Savage told me. As he explained, the stepmill is a unique way to build stamina, lower body strength and improve your cardiorespiratory health. The main secret to its effectiveness is that the stairs engage larger muscles like the quads, glutes and hamstrings “while also placing your heart under positive stress,” Savage says. This combination makes for “a dynamic workout that is adept at burning calories, building lean muscle and increasing blood circulation throughout the entire body.”
At the same time, Savage says “functional fitness” has also risen in popularity, which can be defined as exercises that mimic daily movement patterns. As much as the StairMaster has been a mainstay for many athletes over time, this new trend has created a perfect storm for its resurgence among fitness newbies. “There is no better example of this synergistic relationship between in-gym to out-of-gym benefit than the stepmill,” Savage says.
What About Normal Stairs?
Given there are actual stairs in most gyms, all of this begs the question: why wouldn’t people just run on those? Well, by utilizing a machine, people can have more control over the pace and environment. “Our environment plays a large role in the enjoyment of the exercise,” Savage says. By dodging others using the stairs for conventional purposes (and dodging their passing judgment, too) the StairMaster, “allows you to focus on using proper form and mechanics to achieve optimum results.”
In other words, you cannot watch an episode of Shark Tank while running up real stairs — and if you were to somehow try, you’re just asking to get injured. This, combined with all of the reasons Savage mentioned, is why the StairMaster has maintained gym supremacy over the span of several decades.
We Tried It Ourselves
To see for myself, I wandered into my local Planet Fitness in Logan Square to see what the StairMaster hype was all about. Following the directions of the 25-7-2 workout, I set the machine to level 7 and attempted to last for 25 minutes. (Likewise, this is supposed to be repeated twice a week for optimal results.)
As someone who makes a point to take the stairs and exercises regularly, I assumed it would be easy. But within the first five minutes, I realized I was terribly wrong. Listening to a deranged yet motivating mix of Ween, John Prine and Miley Cyrus, I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it the full time.
After 15 minutes, I started to get the hang of it — literally hanging on the arm bars as I dragged my body upwards, against the resistance of gravity, for another 10 minutes. By the end of the workout, I had outlasted three different people on the StairMaster next to me, further evidence of the machine’s popularity and my stubborn stamina. But no matter how long they went for, I could feel in my glutes that all of our asses had been individually kicked.
Of course, a StairMaster is anything but cheap, retailing for nearly $8,000, compared to a treadmill (which typically costs a few hundred dollars). But Savage insisted that it’s worth it, at least for buyers at large fitness chains, which have about four of the machines in every location. Ironically, my parents now live in a ground floor condo without stairs. So for my dad more than anybody, a StairMaster would be much more than an expensive coat rack. It would prove a timeless piece of fitness equipment.