Fitness Equipment for Your Garage Gym: Stairmaster, Stepmaster, and Stepper Cardio

Every year that New Year’s resolution kick goes full throttle and people launch into the gym with a new sense of purpose. Hundreds of thousands of clients get on treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, and stairmasters, only to burn out a few months later from overworking themselves on cardio equipment and not seeing long-term weightloss.

Enter the garage gym revolution, a quiet place where you can work and train in the peace of your own home. Never again do you have to be subjected to the crushing press of people in the commercial gym environment, sweating all over you, not cleaning their equipment properly, and leaving you feeling gross from touching the same equipment that thousands of others have touched over and over again.

But now that you have a home gym, what kind of equipment do you put in it?

By far, one of the most popular pieces of fitness equipment that seems brutally hard to acquire these days is the stairmaster, also known as the stepmaster, stepmill, or its smaller twin, the stepper. Do you have stairs? Do you like stairs? How about endless stairs? Then this cardio piece is for you.

The stepmaster was originally founded by Tri-Tech in 1983. It simulated a flight of stairs that constantly rotated, similar to an escalator. Other iterations of this stairmaster eventually were developed to simulate stepping place, instead of having a rotating set of stairs.

These machines are incredibly popular, and incredibly expensive, found at most commercial gyms nationwide. You will see lines forming behind these machines. For some reason, everyone from cardio bunnies to powerlifters adore this particular piece of cardio equipment.

But what makers the step master unique? A recent influencer video stated that the stairmaster gave her abs! Is this really true? What other benefits might a stepmaster give someone?

Stairmaster
(Credit: Core Health and Fitness, Stairmaster)

 

The low impact cardio environment which the stepmaster provides is incredible for reducing joint pain, unlike the pounding a treadmill gives you. Some people even have issues with ellipticals if the range of motion is not quite right. The stepmaster is built for people of all ages to do low impact cardio, and get their conditioning, heart health, and workout in all at the same time.

With a stepmaster, or stairmaster, the motion is soft, consistent, and helps strengthen your entire lower body, from hamstrings and glutes to calves and knees.

Unfortunately, these stepmaster machines are usually gigantic, taking up significant footprint in the home gym space. So, is there a compromise?

For sure!

Not only are there different models of the stairmaster, there are more compact versions of the full sized traditional rotating stairmaster, and a smaller version called a “stepper” which is manufactured by different companies.

Stepper Life Fitness
(Life Fitness Stepper)

There are also multiple companies outside of the Stairmaster brand that sell similar stepmaster or stepmaster units. Depending on the manufacturer, they can be incredibly reliable and sturdy, and just as good as the official Stairmaster brand. Normally these units run in the thousands of dollars per unit.

Brands that manufacture similar stepmaster (rotating stair) units include:

  • Matrix
  • Life Fitness
  • Jacobs Ladder
  • Aspen

If you want more of an economy stepmaster, one that doesn’t have rotating stairs like an escalator, but allows the same kind of motion by simply stepping place, a stepper is extremely compact and affordable. You can pickup these units for a few hundred dollars, versus spending thousands on a full size stepmaster.

Brands that manufacture stepper (step-in-place) units include:

  • Tectrix
  • Life Fitness
  • Nautilus
  • Matrix
  • Cybex
  • Precor
  • Technogym
  • Star Trac
  • SciFit

All of these brands make very similar equipment. Most steppers will look the same, or similar, across the board, and the same can be said of stepmasters.

So, if you are building a home gym, what option would you choose?

This really depends on a number of factors:

  • First and foremost, what are you training needs?
  • Will you use this equipment regularly, or will it sit there collecting dust and laundry?
  • What kind of motion do you prefer? An actual stair, or a step-in-place motion?
  • Do you care about brand or reliability? Will any brand work as long as it is reliable? Or do you just want something cheap?
  • Are you buying new or used?
    • If new, what’s the warranty on the unit? If used, what is the condition of the unit?

Why Choose a Stepmaster?

If you have the space, and enough ceiling height, go with a compact stepmaster unit. Stairmaster makes a smaller SM3 that tops out at 73” instead of almost 89” with the full-sized stairmaster. This can save you a ton of room, and keep you from hitting your head on the ceiling during a workout. These units also have excellent resale value if properly maintained, and purchased used.

Keep in mind these units can be pricey. Think $2000+ for a high quality used stairmaster.

If you are a firefighter or first responder, having a physical set of rotating stairs is a great feature since this involves a large portion of your actual work. If you have a physically demanding job where you are required to climb stairs in emergency situations or need that cardio piece to ensure you can “make it” during go-time, a stepmaster or stairmaster is a great choice.

Stepmasters also are extremely popular with powerlifters, due to their low impact cardio effect, and more efficient approach to fitness. You can watch TV while getting a great cardio pump, and burning off those calories. Not only that, but the burn to your hamstrings, glutes, and quads is absolutely incredible.

A lot of bodybuilders prefer the stepmaster/stairmaster to the pounding on your knees that treadmills give you for not a whole lot of benefit. Straight line running is boring! At least with stepping up stairs you have some sense of direction and progress, and the workout feels more active.

Stepmasters also have speed and resistance options which can keep you from dropping off the unit if you’re exhausted, or pick up the pace if you feel like you’re going too slowly. This essentially combines cardio and resistance training into one awesome machine, something you won’t get from traditional treadmills, which only allow increased speed, but not necessarily increased resistance against your lower body.

However, keep in mind that with a stepmaster you are going to have higher maintenance costs due to more moving parts and stairs that need to be cared for. There is generally more that can break on these units compared to other cardio pieces like steppers. Things like cogs, flywheels, drive belts, even the stairs themselves, can break, crack, or malfunction. More on this later in this article.

But what about other options?

If you don’t care about the rotating stair function as much, and you want something with lower maintenance, or something that doesn’t involve as much effort and resistance on your lower body, go for a stepper unit. Not only are they compact, they’re extremely affordable (around $400-$800 used).

Nautilus Stepper
(Nautilus Stepper)

 

While a traditional stepmaster or stairmaster combines increased resistance with awesome cardio, pushing back on a physical stair with your feet to move the unit, a stepper involves more in-place stepping, pressing down on the pedals of the unit with your feet, rather than pushing back on a step during a climb. Simply stand on the stepper and step in place. You can even increase or decrease the resistance of the steps to step faster or slower during a workout.

With this motion, you have an even easier time working out, as the workout is far simpler, and if you need to stop from exhaustion or some other reason, you can simply stop stepping, and let the pedals lower you to the floor. On a stepmaster, you may end up falling off or having to physically step off the unit in order to stop it, especially if you are exhausted and on your last legs.

Our recommendation would be a Life Fitness, Matrix, or Precor model. All of these brands have great track records and reliability, and most are battery powered so you don’t have to worry about changing out the outlets in your home to accommodate a commercial grade machine.

The stepper units are generally going to involve less maintenance as the drive system is very simple. Batteries are easy to change and most will not require a plug-in function. If you do need to replace parts, the shrouds (plastic covers on the unit) come off and the entire unit, including belts, motherboard, etc. are easily accessible.

NOTE: Make sure you look at the dimensions of these units prior to purchase! If you find a different manufacturer, ensure that the unit will fit your space.


Fitness Equipment Repair

A Note About Maintenance

Ensure that whatever cardio equipment you choose will be properly stored and maintained. If you don’t have an air conditioned and heated garage, be sure to store any and all cardio equipment with electronic parts in an indoor heated and cooled or somewhat climate controlled space. There are no guarantees that the electronics will last if you put a cardio piece in an unheated area. Moisture, heat, and cold, will ruin electronic systems and make for costly repairs.

Again, this is important: KEEP ALL ELECTRONIC COMPONENTS AWAY FROM THE ELEMENTS.

This includes garages without heating and cooling, screened in porches and patios, covered carports, and other non-climate controlled areas, to name a few. Areas where the temperature fluctuates dramatically in particular can wreak havoc on cardio. Again, be warned that if you decide to do this, you risk frying the electronic components of your equipment, whether it’s cardio equipment, strength equipment, or smart connected devices.

To be clear, this advice applies not just for stairmasters, stepmasters, and steppers, but for ANY cardio equipment with electronics like treadmills, ellipticals, and rowers as well. If you do decide to put your equipment in an unheated space, just be aware of the risks and potential downsides, as the wear and tear on the unit will accumulate much faster than in an indoor environment.

So you’ve decided you want to break the monotonous cycle of boring cardio and step up your game with something a little more exciting? Then you’ve made the right choice! Whether you decide to go with a stairmaster/stepmaster, stepper, interactive rowing machine, smart connected bike, or any of the more engaging options currently on the market today, you will find that cardio worries become a thing of the past. You need to have a little fun when you’re working out! So why not bring in something that brings you joy, rather than forcing yourself to do a terrible workout all the time? Get something that will not only last, but that you will use for years. Switch it up and get more active!

Commercial gym equipmentStairmasterStepmasterStepperUsed gym equipment

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