On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I got a chance to try my first bootcamp class that used a StairMaster instead of a treadmill for its cardio component. I’d bought an intro pack to Bünda (pronounced boon-duh), a group fitness studio that combines weight lifting and step climbing. After only a few minutes on the machine, I could already feel my cardiorespiratory system kicking into higher gear—even though we weren’t moving fast. I was winded and a pool of sweat started to form inside my sports bra, behind which my heart was beating right in time to the high BPM playlist bumping through the speakers.
By the end, I was convinced that what trainers have been saying for years is true: Stairmills like the StairMaster are the most effective (and most underrated) cardio machine. But my time at Bünda also made me curious about how the benefits of getting your steps in on a StairMaster compare to doing the same thing during an incline treadmill workout like 12-3-30, since the two forms of cardio seem so similar.
Climbing on a StairMaster and walking on an incline treadmill work the same muscles
No matter which machine you choose, you’re going to primarily work your lower body. “Walking with incline…strengthens the muscles in your posterior chain, aka the muscles from your calves up to your back,” Aaptiv master trainer John Thornhill previously told Well+Good. And Katie Lunger, CSCS, creator and co-founder of Bünda confirms the StairMaster is going to do the same.
In both cases, if you opt to not hold onto the handrails, you’ll also work your core and stabilizer muscles as well since they’ll need to fire to help you keep your balance.
The metabolic burn potential on a StairMaster is higher
Even though both workouts are high intensity, if you were to be moving at the same pace on both machines, you’re going to use more energy on a StairMaster because it requires more effort to climb stairs than it does to walk up an incline. This remains true even after your workout is over as your body comes back to baseline. It’s kinda the difference between climbing a mountain vs. a hill.
“Walking on an incline would be the next best thing to compare to the stairs, but in reality, the intensity is gonna be lower—it’s not enough of an incline,” Lunger says. You’re not getting as much of a metabolic effect. “The more intense and the more effort you put into a workout, the more your metabolism is gonna rise after.”
A StairMaster offers less impact
Both cardio machines are considered low impact, but Seth Maynard, former director of fitness Switch Playground in New York City, previously told Well+Good that the StairMaster “is easier on the knees,” and Lunger agrees. It’s a big part of why she created Bünda’s workouts with a StairMaster vs. an incline treadmill. “The main reason why I love the StairMaster more so than a treadmill is because the StairMaster, while it is really metabolic, it’s less impact on the joints,” she says. When climbing stairs, you’re putting weight into a bent leg, and then straightening up, whereas on a treadmill you’re more likely to step onto a straightened knee, which puts more pressure through the joint.
Climbing on a StairMaster is a more functional movement
Unless you live somewhere hilly like San Francisco or Seattle, the StairMaster is going to better mimic an everyday movement pattern most people use more regularly—stepping up stairs—which makes the workout more functional than walking on an incline treadmill.
So who wins in the StairMaster vs. incline treadmill debate?
In terms of offering a lower-impact, higher-intensity workout that’s more functional—with a bigger metabolic bang for your buck—the StairMaster comes out on top. But, as Lunger says, incline walking is a close second. And ultimately, which cardio machine is the best choice for you will come down to your fitness goals and which piece of equipment is most accessible.