Health advisors often recommend “Take the stairs.” Many of us interpret this to mean “Take the stairs UP,” as our previous experience tells us that stair climbing is when we feel the burn in our legs and the heaviness in our breathing. We associate this fatigue with hard work, which is why it is easy to believe that if we regularly take the stairs up, we will improve our fitness. However, research is now suggesting improvements in health and fitness from stair climbing are more nuanced than this.
The reason we experience higher heart rates, heavier breathing, and greater perceived exertion during stair climbing than stair descending is because the muscle contractions we perform during these two activities are different. When we ascend stairs, the quadriceps and glutes, for example, shorten to produce the force necessary to propel our bodies up the stairs. These muscle-shortening contractions are called concentric contractions. When we descend stairs, the muscles of our legs produce force to ensure we do not tumble down the stairwell. However, these forces are generated as our muscles lengthen. These muscle-lengthening contractions are called eccentric contractions, and they are known to be less metabolically-demanding than concentric contractions.
Numerous experiments, including one summarized in a previous blog, have revealed eccentric muscle training causes greater improvements in health and function than concentric muscle training. This is why researchers in Taiwan investigated if an exercise program that involves only stair descending (eccentric training) improves health and fitness more than an exercise program that involves only stair ascending (concentric training). A total of 30 obese women over the age of 60 were participants in the study. Fifteen of the women completed the stair descending program, and the other 15 women completed the stair ascending program. Their programs involved either descending or ascending 5 floors of steps twice per week for 12 weeks (24 stair exercise sessions). The total number of steps for the 5 floors was 110. The time required to ascend or descend the 5 floors was 2 minutes.
The exercise program was progressive. During the first 2 weeks, participants completed the stair descent or ascent twice per exercise session. Then, every week thereafter, the number of repetitions increased by 2, such that by week 12, participants were ascending or descending the stairwell 24 times within an exercise session. The total time to complete the exercise in the final week was approximately 1 hour. An elevator was used to take the participants in the stair descent group from the ground floor back up to the 5th floor. The elevator was also used to take the participants in the stair ascent group from the 5th floor back down to the ground floor. This ensured the stair descending program consisted primarily of eccentric muscle contractions, whereas the ascending program consisted primary of concentric muscle contractions. Before and after the exercise program, the following measurements were taken from the participants: resting heart rate, blood pressure, body composition, muscle strength, balance, insulin sensitivity, and lipid profiles.
Over the 12-week program, each participant traversed 1,560 floors, totaling 34,320 steps. Participants in the stair descending (eccentric) program experienced greater benefits in health and fitness than the participants in the stair ascending (concentric) program. On average, participants in the stair descending group experienced a 10% reduction in resting heart rate, 9% reduction in systolic blood pressure, 6% increase in bone mineral density of the right heel bone, 34% increase in quadriceps muscle strength, 42% improvement in the 30-second chair stand test, 7% improvement in the 6-minute walk test, 20-25% improvements in balance test performance, and 10-25% improvements in measures of insulin sensitivity and blood lipids (e.g., fasting glucose, total cholesterol). Participants in the stair ascending group also improved on some of these tests, but not to the same degree as participants in the stair descending group. Finally, participants in both groups improved equally on diastolic blood pressure (~6%), body weight (~2%), body mass index (~2%), percent body fat (~2%), and the 8-foot up-and-go test (~8%).
Results from the study indicate that 12 weeks of stair descending and ascending exercise improve health and fitness. However, improvements are greater for most outcomes after stair descending exercise. Stair descending is comprised of eccentric muscle contractions. Thus, the results indicate eccentric training is particularly effective at improving health and fitness, especially as this type of exercise is less metabolically-demanding and perceived to be easier than concentric training.
The best way to apply the results from the current study is to start taking the stairs down! However, not everyone has access to stairwells in 5-story buildings. An alternative is to mimic the stair descending exercise using “eccentric only” mode in the V-Form Trainer. This mode ensures that resistance is applied to the body only when the muscles are lengthening, as in stair descending. The Vitruvian app also contains a number of lower-body exercises that mimic the joint actions that occur when descending stairs.
So, to apply the results from the study to the V-Form trainer, try the following:
1) select the “lunge,” “belt lunge,” or “Bulgarian split squat” exercises
2) attach the bar, handles, or belt to the device depending on the exercise selected
3) select “eccentric only” mode
4) select a low-to-moderate resistance
5) select 20-25 repetitions
6) set the movement range of motion for the exercise with the first 3 calibration repetitions
7) complete 20-25 repetitions through full range of motion
8) complete 3 sets, making sure to exercise the right and left legs equally
9) over 12 weeks, progressively increase the number of sets performed
Note: Participants in the study completed 110 steps each time they descended the stairwell. However, 1 step is not equivalent to 1 eccentric repetition on the V-Form Trainer. The amount of Work performed for each repetition on the V-Form Trainer is greater than the Work required to descend 1 step. This is because more resistance and range of motion is used to perform one exercise repetition on the V-Form Trainer compared to descending just one step.
Chen TC, et al. Effects of descending stair walking on health and fitness of elderly obese women. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 49: 1614-1622, 2017. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001267.