Out of Breath Walking Up Stairs? Here's Why—and What To Do About It

Anyone can have shortness of breath climbing the stairs. Here are three strategies to help.

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If you've ever felt winded after climbing a flight or two of stairs despite considering yourself fit, you're not alone. The American Lung Association notes that a sudden change in breathing for no obvious reason could be cause for concern but that it's normal to feel breathlessness after exercise.

While it might seem strange to huff and puff while doing something as simple as going up the stairs, there's good reason for it.

Why Stairs Make You Breathless

"You're introducing a new variable very quickly," explained Joe Holder, a Nike master trainer and health and wellness consultant in New York City. "You go from resting to doing something very quickly that's typically under 10 seconds. That means you're going to be in an oxygen-depleted environment and then have to go back to normal; your body takes a second to catch up."

Frank Baptiste, founder of Frankly Fitness in New York City, added: "In order to deliver more oxygen to more muscles, you're going to start breathing heavier to take in that oxygen, and your heart rate is going to increase to deliver it to your muscles."

But while it's normal to get winded, the timing of when you start to huff and puff depends on the individual. Each person has a threshold, Holder noted.

"Depending on the number of steps, you get to a point where it becomes more and more conditioning," explained Holder. "Some people get through four steps without being winded, and it's nothing. Some people eight, and some people 12. You have to find out what your threshold is."

For some people, Holder said, "those short first bursts don't need oxygen, but then there's that transition period where...your body starts to know that [it has] to use oxygen a little bit more, and that's when you're like, oh whoa—you're a little bit tired."

How To Make Climbing Stairs Easier

So is there anything you can do to get a handle on your breathing while going vertical? The answer is yes. You have to work on your conditioning; the better conditioned you are, the further you'll be able to push that threshold back. Here are three strategies to help.

Take the Stairs More

If you want to get better at stairs, there's a simple solution: walk up them more often. The more accustomed your body becomes, the better you'll become at this skill. "Half of the problem has to do with the fact that your body isn't efficient walking up steps," said Holder.

Climbing the stairs more often can increase the efficiency of your muscles so that, eventually, they'll need less oxygen to move and produce less carbon dioxide, according to an article in Breathe. In turn, you won't have to inhale and exhale quite as much.

If you don't encounter stairs often but want to feel good walking up them when you do, Holder advised using a StairMaster.

Add Intervals

"This is the best way to make those incremental jumps in your VO2 max, a measure of how well your body uses oxygen," said Baptiste. "Ultimately, how efficient you are in taking in oxygen and using it will allow you to do something as intense as stairs for longer.

Baptiste recommended going fast up one flight, then slowing down on the next. "Or take two steps at a time, and then just one step on each leg after that."

You can even hop on a stationary bike to help you prepare to conquer that climb, added Holder. "Go as hard as you can for 6 seconds on a bike, slowing down for 20 seconds. This will get you used to maintaining that constant power output while still increasing your volume of work," Holder said. "It will also help you acclimate to repeated short little bursts of energy while at the same time not totally resting, but going into a little bit of lower intensity."

Strengthen Your Stems

"It is important to decipher whether your lungs are getting tired first or if it's a situation where your legs are just beat," noted Holder. If it's the latter, you need to strengthen your lower body because walking up steps takes muscle power.

As Baptiste explained about the movement: "You're essentially doing repetition after repetition of single-leg bodyweight squats. You're only going up, but it's all of your body weight on one leg." Climbing the stairs involves multiple muscles and triple extension (moves involving the hip, knee, and ankle).

To power up your legs, try these three moves from Baptiste:

Step ups. This exercise builds strength and endurance. Here's how to do it:

  1. Hold a 5-pound dumbbell in each hand (adjust the weight according to your comfort level).
  2. Step onto a low bench or stair with your right foot.
  3. Bring up your left foot until you are fully standing.
  4. Step back down, right foot first.

Baptiste suggested three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per leg.

Squats. This exercise increases lower-body muscular endurance. Here's how to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, chest high, abs drawn in, and hands clasped in front of your chest or straight out with palms down.
  2. Sit nice and deep, bringing your hips to just below parallel.
  3. Push into your heels to rise to a full-standing position.

Baptiste recommended three to four sets of intervals lasting 30 to 45 seconds.

Toe taps. This exercise develops cardiovascular endurance. Here's how to do it:

  1. Stand with a ball (medicine, soccer, or rubber playground ball) or a low box in front of you.
  2. Tap your right toe on the ball or box.
  3. Jump up as you switch feet in the air, landing with the left toe on the ball or box.
  4. Continue alternating feet as fast as you can.

Baptiste suggested performing four sets where you work for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds of rest. Repeat two to three times.

A Quick Review

Even if you consider yourself "in shape," it's still normal to feel out of breath after climbing stairs. That's because you're transitioning from a resting state to a high-intensity exercise quickly, and your body needs more oxygen to deliver to your muscles (hence why you start breathing heavily). Depending on how conditioned your body is for climbing stairs, you might tire fairly quickly, or it might take more time before you start huffing and puffing. Regardless, three strategies can help get your body in stair-climbing shape: walking up steps more often, adding intervals to stair-climbing exercises, and strengthening your leg muscles.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Learn about shortness of breath.

  2. Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(1):97-100.

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