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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Motorized or manual?

For the most effective, lowest-impact workout, choose a motorized stair climber that regulates movement for you. Manual stair climbers are less expensive than motorized, but because you regulate the movement, there’s more impact on your joints. Manual stair climbers that use hydraulics provide more resistance than those that are self-propelled. If you have a very limited budget or space, consider mini steppers with detachable resistance bands.

Foot action

Parallel pedals trump angled pedals for keeping your weight and center of gravity balanced. When purchasing a manual stair climber, choose one with independent foot action, which forces you to lift each foot completely after taking a step, providing a proper workout.

Workout programs, displays and features

Look for stair climbers that offer preset programs which vary your workouts, and displays that track steps, time elapsed and calories burned. If a heart rate monitor is all that’s missing from your stair climber, purchase one separately instead of upgrading to the next model. Choose additional features like water bottle holders and reading racks wisely—more features means a higher cost.

Construction and maintenance

Spending more will get you a well-made stair climber with a longer warranty. Choose a stair climber with handrails that offer a firm grip for safety and be sure the stair climber’s weight limitation won’t be exceeded.

Placement and storage

Higher-quality stair climbers are also the largest. Know your stair climber’s footprint as well as its weight before buying and strive to strike a balance between workout and space needs.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Feedback mechanism

Another term for the display on a stair climber. It may also refer to advanced workout data.

Dependent foot action

A stair climber design that uses your body weight to provide motion. Each time you press down with one foot, the pedal beneath your other foot rises.

Hydraulic

Stair-climber mechanisms that use pressurized fluid to provide resistance. This technology does not require electronics or motors for power.

Independent foot action

A stair climber design that forces you to lift your foot off the pedal to move the other pedal, providing a better workout than dependent foot action.

Manual

A stair climber that uses pistons or hydraulics to regulate foot movement, or a model where you propel yourself using dependent foot action. These models are not motorized and take up less space than their motorized stair climbers.

Motorized

A stair climber that uses a chain or belt-and-magnet system powered by electrical motors. This is the style of stair climber found in health clubs.

Motorized or manual?

There are two main styles of stair climbers: motorized and manual. Motorized stair climbers are similar to what you see at the gym and use either belts or magnet systems to move the stairs for you to climb. Because the motorized stair climber rotates the stairs for you, it delivers a workout suitable for people who want to add a low-impact form of exercise to their fitness routine. If you’re considering a motorized stair climber, be sure the area you plan to use it has a power source available.

Manual stair climbers can be self-propelled or use hydraulics to move the stairs. Manual stair climbers tend to be smaller than motorized stair climbers and are a good choice if you’re tight on space at home and aren’t concerned with the level of impact your workout provides. Pay attention to how manual stair climbers control resistance. Self-propelled stair climbers may offer you a more natural workout, but hydraulic shocks provide better resistance control, letting you make your workouts more intense.

All stair climbers make noise, which can be an issue if you’re in an apartment or have a sleeping infant in the next room. Manual stair climbers tend to be the quietest. Motorized stair climbers with belt drives are much quieter than those with chain drives.

Placement and storage

Figure out where you’ll use and store your stair climber before you buy. Spending more gets you more: expensive, higher-quality stair climbers are the largest and heaviest and therefore may only be appropriate for a home gym or a separate large room (ideally on the first floor). Some midrange and budget-priced stair climbers are smaller, lighter and may actually fold up for storage. Be sure to check a stair climber’s footprint as well as its weight before buying and strive to strike a balance between workout and space needs.

Foot action

If you’re considering a manual stair climber, avoid models with dependent foot action, where pushing down one pedal raises the other pedal. This design makes it tempting (and easy) to cheat yourself out of an effective workout because it doesn’t force you to lift each foot completely to take the next step. Choose manual stair climbers with independent foot action instead, so that you’re getting those feet lifted during each workout.

The stair climber you choose should have wide, comfortable foot pedals that are at least as large as your shoe size (or that can accommodate the foot size of everyone who’ll use the stair climber). Pedals that are too small can cause foot strain and discomfort. Look for pedals that keep your feet parallel at all times. Stair climbers with pedals that move to an angle at their highest position push your weight forward, destabilize your center of gravity and reduce the effectiveness of your workout.

Workout programs, displays and features

All stair climbers offer the ability to set resistance and time manually. Look for preset programs if manual options alone aren’t enough to keep you interested. Programmable stair climbers also let you vary your workouts with preprogrammed resistance intervals, fat-burning modules and targeted cardio programs or create and store your own custom workout.

Stair climber displays vary greatly from model to model. Basic displays track steps, distance and time elapsed, while more advanced displays calculate calories burned or monitor your heart rate. If you need a heart rate monitor but the stair climber you like doesn’t offer it, purchase a separate heart rate monitor to use during workouts. You’ll get the same benefit for a lot less than upgrading to the next stair climber model.

Many stair climbers offer additional value-added features for fun, more effective exercising and convenience. These include water bottle holders, reading racks and dual-direction training (forwards and backwards) for working different muscle groups.

Construction, maintenance and warranty

No matter which stair climber you choose, you’ll want to pay careful attention to its construction. Budget stair climbers don’t get high marks from consumers or professional testers because they’re not very sturdy and don’t last as long.

At a minimum, look for stair climbers that feature hand rails with a secure grip for safety when you mount and dismount or to steady yourself during a workout. Be sure the stair climber you choose can sustain the weight of the heaviest person who will use it—exceeding the stair climber’s weight limitation can lead to injury and shorten its lifespan.

A stair climber requires ongoing maintenance to keep it in top condition. Make sure the manufacturer outlines maintenance procedures and that any special lubricants or cleaners are easy to find. If your stair climber doesn’t come with a rubber mat to prevent it from moving or skidding during use, buy one separately to protect you and your floor.

Stair climber quality and warranty quality go hand in hand. The more you spend, the better the warranty. Warranties to avoid are those good for 90 days on everything; the best warranties are lifetime warranties on parts and one year on labor. Keep in mind that there are many varieties of warranties in between these parameters, so read that fine print carefully.

Mini-steppers

If you want the benefits of a low-impact, lower-body workout and don’t have the budget or the space to go large, consider a mini-stepper.

Mini-steppers, though not technically stair climbers, are good alternative to a full-sized stair climber if you have limited space or if you travel and want to work out on the road. Mini-steppers typically consist of a floor-level frame with footplates and detachable resistance bands, but they lack hand rails to help you keep your balance. Even so, testers give them high marks for stability.

Experts say

  • Fitness Equipment Source.com—LifeFitness Lifestep 9500: “This stair stepper has dependent steps, which means that when one step goes down, the other comes up and vice-versa. Life Fitness has the # 1 selling stepper in this category. They have proven workout programs enabling the user to have a more fun and interactive workout.”Source: Fitness Equipment Source.com
  • ConsumerGuide—“The Bowflex TC5000 requires a little more time to master than a standard stair stepper, but it's an effective piece of equipment; the footboards alongside the belts and the supporting handlebars make it safe, as well.”Source: Howstuffworks.com
  • Outside Magazine—“Climb on the StairMaster 4400 PT, cue up ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ and you'll know how Rocky Balboa felt atop those steps. A patented chain-driven resistance system that keeps pedal speed even throughout the stroke lets you find a seamless rhythm, as if you’re ascending the real thing.”Source: Outside Online