Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tools of the trade: The key to climbing stairs

By Sean Kingswell   

Features Sean Kingswell

Taking the stairs is a four movement biomechanical process that engages many parts of the body.

Heading up numerous flights of stairs loaded with the heavy gear and equipment of fire fighting can be a demanding task. The lungs and legs are challenged most as the staircase begins to feel and even look steeper. We need to be capable and effective at this task for many reasons, including the fact that the stairs are just the trip to work. Often only a few flights are required based on protocol, but a full climb is always a possibility with the dynamic nature of the job.

Being efficient at getting to the fire is an important part of our job and a better understanding of climbing stairs can help us excel. We often associate lifting our leg with climbing, but it’s driving with the elevated leg that propels us. There are four steps (no pun intended) to taking a stair. The lead leg is lifted, which uses mainly hip flexors. The positioning of bunker pants can limit good hip flexion as can friction from sweat. Next, the foot makes contact with the step as the hamstring and glute are engaged isometrically and load with stored energy. Third, there is concentric firing of the hamstrings, glutes and quads that lift the body. Finally, we are on the once elevated leg and ready for the next step. It is a symbiotic relationship between many parts of the body that help us achieve this biomechanical process. Most lower body muscles are used, including the glutes, adductors, abductors, quadriceps, calves and hamstrings. The calves and soleus are involved when the foot is pushing off in plantar flexion while the tibalis anterior is engaged during dorsiflexion as the foot lands on the step. The core is used significantly in many ways, from offsetting uneven loads to transferring power to the upper body. We need to be able to maintain the proper speed when climbing. There is no need to be way ahead of your crew but falling behind won’t do. Cardio is an important part of stair climbing and something we should work on regularly for many parts of the profession. We need to be careful when descending stairs, as heading down can be very hard on the body and a nemesis to the knees.

There is an ideal form when it comes to climbing stairs. Depending on tread depth it is preferred to have as much foot as possible on the step. Pushing with more foot than toe allows us to engage the strong posterior chain of our body. This includes the large glutes rather than the smaller knee muscles which are prioritized when we are on our toes. The same principles apply in the gym for squats and other movements. Toe dominant climbing is hard on the shin and foot and reduces leverage and balance. If you notice that the knee is collapsing during a climb (falling inward) this can be due to a weak hip and needs to be corrected. Try not to lock out the knee and look to extend the hip ahead of the knee. Leaning too far forward is not proper form and holding the handrail can be an asset but do not pull on it.

In a gym setting we can improve our stair climb by working the lower body muscles. Endurance training in this area can help as climbing many flights can last a lot longer than a typical strength set. Unilateral training can also be helpful. This can mean working each leg independently as well as doing work with loads on one side for upper body exercises. Core strength is required to be good at stairs and this can be improved through core isolation movements or compound movements that work other body parts and include the core. There are many modalities to consider when we select a routine but often the principle of simplicity is best applied. A great way to get better at climbing stairs is to climb stairs. Real stairs will be better than a stair climber or step mill but these machines will be an asset also. Try to carry some weight at times as the best-case scenario in reality is bunker gear and SCBA while more typically also loaded down by hose, tools, spare bottles, etc. Workouts on a staircase can involve any combination including two steps at a time, single steps at different speeds, and often such routines turn into interval training naturally. Be careful coming down or take the elevator and be sure to stretch afterwards. Consider incorporating stair climbing into your regular routine along with exercises that support it.


Sean Kingswell is an experienced professional firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. Contact Sean at

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