Stair Climber vs. Incline Treadmill Walking: Which Cardio Choice Builds Your Glutes?

When it comes to lower-body strength, here's how these two cardio machines stack up against each other.

Stairmaster vs. Incline Treadmill
Getty Images.

If your main fitness goal is to grow your glutes, your workout routine likely already includes a variety of lower-body strength training exercises (think: glute bridges, squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and more). After all, strength training is the most effective way to build muscular strength, and since the gluteus maximus (aka your butt) is the largest muscle in the body, there's no shortage of exercises that target the area.

Typically, cardio exercise isn't touted as an effective way to build muscular strength, since steady-state cardio is a type of aerobic exercise that strengthens your slow-twitch muscle fibers (that is, muscle fibers that assist with sustained, slower movements). Strength training, on the other hand, is anaerobic exercise, which increases the size and amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers and therefore builds muscular strength, according to the International Sports Sciences Association.

However, if you're looking for a cardio option that complements your lower-body strength training, you might turn to one of two options in the gym: the stair climber (which you may know by the brand name Stairmaster) or incline walking on a treadmill. But which one is a more effective form of exercise, and does one have more butt-building benefits than the other? Here's what to know.

Stair Climber Benefits

The stair climber machine, in case you're not familiar, is a cardio machine (by brands such as Stairmaster) that mimics a never-ending flight of stairs, with railings on the sides and settings that allow you to change the speed of the belt to adjust intensity. Here's more about the various stair climber benefits.

Trains Functional Movement

"Without noticing, we go up and down steps, staircases, and curbs every day," says Erin Beck, NASM-certified personal trainer, XPRO and director of training & experience for STRIDE Fitness. "Using a stair climber during your workout can help you correctly develop the muscles needed to properly execute using the stairs for years to come." Plus, the stair climber is a way to maintain that functional muscle mass as your age, says Amy Potter, certified personal trainer and strength coach at Ladies Who Lift. "Being able to climb stairs is a very functional capability to have and maintain for as long as you can." So if you find yourself getting winded after taking a few flights of stairs when the elevator's out, it may be time to hit the stair climber machine more regularly.

Improves Mobility

When you're sweating through a stair climber workout, you're constantly lifting your knees to hip height, engaging your hip flexors, and contracting your glutes. In doing so, you're taking your muscles through a greater range of motion than when you walk on a flat road (or even on an incline), says Potter. "The stair climber requires your lower limbs to move through greater ranges of motion than walking on a flat surface or a moderate incline," she explains. "This is great for improving or maintaining mobility of your joints." 

Builds Lower-Body Strength

"Strength is the secret sauce of the stair climber," notes Potter. "Not only are you getting a great cardio workout, but you are also building strength, particularly in your glutes, hamstrings, and quads." A stair climber workout may help you build muscle more than walking or other forms of cardio, she adds. Plus, you can change the way your foot lands on the stair climber machine to target different lower-body muscle groups, as Shape previously reported. Land with your heel fully on the step to target the hamstrings, or push off with the ball of your foot to hit the quads. Want to focus on your glute muscles? Skip every other stair. There's no shortage of ways to make the stair climber work for your needs.

Incline Treadmill Walking Benefits

While both stair climbers and incline treadmills allow to you climb in place, walking on an incline activates different muscle groups (and different benefits) than the stair climber. Plus, it's a welcome change to your usual treadmill slog, says Rebecca Kennedy, a Peloton strength and tread instructor who teaches incline walking, aka "treadmill hiking" classes. "I always say 'hikes' add more life to your days and days to your life," she explains. Here, learn more about the benefits of incline walking.

Offers a Low-Impact Workout

Reminder: Incline walking (and walking in general) is a low-impact workout, meaning that one foot is in contact with the ground at all times. Technically, using a stair climber is also low impact, but the stair climber may be less comfortable than walking for someone with knee pain. "Incline walking is much easier on your joints" than using a stair climber, says Kennedy. That's because as your foot lands, your hips, knees, and ankles absorb a lot of the shock of the impact. "But if the slope you're running on is higher, the impact is less, which means the shock to your joints is less," adds Beck.

Improves Cardio Capacity

While the stair climber is also a cardio machine, incline walking on a treadmill may have the edge for improving the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, says Kennedy. "You'll notice pretty quickly after being on an incline that your heart rate is elevating," she explains. "[A challenging pace is] great for endurance and creating a solid cardio baseline. I also like to work in hill repeat intervals to work on our conditioning." Think: alternating 30 seconds of power walking with 30 seconds at a slower pace while maintaining a 10 percent incline.

Increased Core Strength

In addition to working your lower body, incline walking engages your core as you're called on to lean forward slightly. "Taking your chest and leaning forward about five degrees will also help engage your core, take the pressure off your lower back, and align you for more traction and control in your walk," advises Kennedy. But careful: Avoid hunching over with rounded shoulders, and focus on your form to reap the full benefits of incline walking. And most importantly, avoid the temptation to hold onto the treadmill's handrails for dear life, says Kennedy. "You won't get the most out of the workout and you'll be teaching your body to always find the path of least resistance and muscle memory of incorrect form."

How to Choose Between the Stair Climber vs. Incline Walking

Struggling to decide how to best spend your time on a cardio machine? Here's how the stair climber vs. incline walking on a tread stack up for various goals.

For beginners: Incline walking

While both forms of cardio are fairly accessible to most populations, incline walking is just a bit more beginner-friendly, says Potter. "If you are a beginner, the stair climber might feel more intimidating than a treadmill," she explains. "It can be more challenging than walking, so start small with a shorter duration and slower speed, then you can build up to longer workouts with a faster pace." It's also a bit easier to get on and off a treadmill vs a stair climber, so keep that in mind.

For shin splints: Stair climber

Suffering from the pain of shin splints? Back away from the treadmill. "If you're suffering from shin splints, walking uphill will dramatically put more tension in your shins as your foot is constantly in dorsiflexion," notes Kennedy. Instead, someone with shin splints should use the stair climber machine for a low-impact workout instead.

For those with balance issues: Incline walking

If you're a bit clumsy or you've got muscular imbalances, incline walking is probably a safer bet than the stair climber. "If you lack balance or coordination, I would advise working on those skills before hopping on a stair climber," advises Potter. "The stair climber is elevated so there is a greater risk of falling if you miss a step or don’t get your foot fully on top of the step."

For training for outdoor adventures: Incline walking

If you're planning to hit some hiking trails in the near future, incline walking will help develop the muscles you need to traverse tricky terrain, dodge low-hanging branches, and navigate slick paths. "Incline walking minimizes the risks of the uneven, rugged, challenging, and surprising terrain outdoors," says Kennedy. That's because incline walking builds strength in your ankles and other stabilizing muscles in your lower body, which help you stay injury-free on the trails.

For building lower-body strength: Stair climber

"If you are solely looking to 'bulk up,' a stair climber is probably a better option than incline walking, as incline walking lends itself to longer efforts at higher speeds, thereby making the immediate cardio calorie burn a bit higher," says Beck. Translation: If growing your glutes is your main goal, the stair climber might have the edge over incline walking.

So, Which Is Better — Stair Climber vs. Incline Treadmill Walking?

The debate over stair climber vs. incline treadmill walking depends on your personal needs and goals. But if you're focused on building lower-body strength (and muscle mass growth in your butt that often comes with those muscle gains), dedicate your cardio time to the stair climber.

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