Stairmaster vs Incline Treadmill: Here’s How They Compare

AndOn a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to try my first bootcamp class that used a Stairmaster instead of a treadmill for the cardio component. I bought an intro pack for 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 high gear — even though we weren’t going fast. I was winded and a pool of sweat was starting to form inside my sports bra, behind which my heart was pounding in time to the high bpm playlist through the speakers.

In the end, I was convinced that what trainers have been saying for years is true: stairlifts like the Stairmaster are the most effective (and most underrated) cardio machines out there. But my time at Bunda made me curious about how the benefits of taking your steps 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 similar.

Climbing a flight of stairs and walking on an incline treadmill work the same muscles

No matter which machine you choose, you’re primarily going to work your lower body. “Walking with an incline… strengthens the muscles in your posterior chain, aka the muscles from your calves to your back,” Aaptiv Master Trainer John Thornhill previously told Well+Good. And Katie Langer, CSCS, creator and co-founder of Bünda confirmed that the StairMaster is going to do the same.

In either case, if you choose not to hold on to the handrail, you’ll also be working your core and stabilizer muscles because they need to help you balance.

Stairmasters are more prone to metabolic burn

Although both workouts are high intensity, if you want to move at the same speed on both machines, you’re going to use more energy on a stairmaster because it requires more effort to climb stairs than walking up an incline. This remains true even after your workout is over as your body returns to baseline. It’s the difference between climbing a mountain vs. a mountain.

“Walking on an incline would be the next best thing to comparing it to stairs, but in reality, the intensity is going to be low—it’s not enough for an incline,” says Lunger. You’re not getting as much metabolic effect. “The more intense and more effort you put into a workout, the more your metabolism will increase.”

A stairmaster offers less impact

Both cardio machines are considered low-impact, but Seth Maynard, former director of New York City’s Fitness Switch Playground, previously told Well+Good that the Stairmaster is “easier on the knees,” and Langer agrees. That’s a big part of why he built Bunda’s workout with a stairmaster vs. an incline treadmill. “The main reason I love the Stairmaster more than a treadmill is because the Stairmaster, even though it’s really metabolic, is less impactful on the joints,” she says. When climbing stairs, you’re putting weight on a bent leg and then straightening, whereas on a treadmill you’re more likely to step on a straight knee, which puts more stress 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 a daily movement pattern that most people use regularly—climbing the stairs—making the workout more efficient than walking on an incline treadmill.

So who wins the Stairmaster vs Incline Treadmill debate?

When it comes to offering a low-impact, high-intensity workout that’s more effective—with a bigger metabolic bang for your buck—the Stairmaster comes out on top. But, as Lunger says, inline 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 equipment is the most accessible.

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