There's a reason that so many people take part in step classes and compete in stair-climbing events: They're a really good workout. Not only can climbing steps help with your aerobic conditioning, but it can also be a way to tone the leg muscles, since you're lifting your entire body weight against gravity. To tone those leg muscles, try one or all of the exercises outlined here, giving yourself a minute or two of rest in between the various exercises.
Toning is not just about weight training -- it's also about burning fat. In order to get those hot new muscles to show, you have to remove some of the fat that's surrounding them. Naturally, stair climbing is going to be a cardiovascular workout that will burn calories, but you can rev it up even more by doing interval workouts. High-intensity interval training can help you burn more calories and improve your overall fitness level. Try it on the stairs by alternating between walking and sprinting; walk up a few flights to warm up, and then sprint up one flight. Walk the next flight, and then sprint the next one. Do a round of eight sprint-walks to get a killer workout that you'll definitely feel the next day.
You can also build muscle in your legs by doing various strength-training moves on the steps. One option is to do lunges. As with any workout, warm up by walking up a few flights, or until you've broken a light sweat. On regular ground, a lunge involves stepping forward and getting the back knee toward the floor. On steps, it involves skipping a step and then dipping down slightly with that back leg as you do it. Do three flights of regular lunges, and then switch to crossover lunges, in which you cross the right leg past the left side of the body as you step upward. Try three flights of crossover lunges; after those six flights, your legs will likely cry for mercy.
Plyometric training involves continual jumping movements, and is used to strengthen muscles and develop "explosive" power, according to the American Council on Exercise. And since you're continually jumping up after landing, it can be easier on the joints. You can try plyometrics on steps by doing sets of hops. Start by hopping with both feet up one flight of steps. On the next flight, hop with one foot for 5 steps, and then switch legs and hop with the other foot, alternating feet until you reach the top. On the next flight, turn your body to the side so your front is facing the hand rail, and hop with the foot nearest the top of the steps for 5 steps. Then turn your body and hop with the other foot for 5 steps until you reach the top of the flight.
Do these exercises two to three times a week, giving your leg muscles at least 24 hours' rest in between workouts. Over time your leg muscles are going to become adapted to the exercises, so you'll need to add intensity to keep making gains in strength and further toning the muscles. To add intensity, try holding a set of dumbbells as you do the lunges. For hops, put on a weight vest to add intensity. Also try giving yourself less rest time in between flights, or moving faster up each flight. To monitor this, use a stopwatch or have a friend time you.
Nicole Vulcan has been a journalist since 1997, covering parenting and fitness for The Oregonian, careers for CareerAddict, and travel, gardening and fitness for Black Hills Woman and other publications. Vulcan holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and journalism from the University of Minnesota. She's also a lifelong athlete and is pursuing certification as a personal trainer.