The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Down the Stairs

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Readers Carol, Don, Teresa, AJ, and others asked about strength, and knee pain and placement when descending stairs.

Physical trainer Teresa wrote:

"Hello Dr. Bookspan,
"The post on "Better Exercise on the Stairs" from July 2007 contains the following statement: 'When descending stairs or hills, bend your knees when landing for soft shock absorption. Don't step down on a straight, locked, knee.'

"Some clients I work with have the habit of descending stairs on one leg because they can land straight-legged on the "weak" leg. Pain or fear of pain keep them from having the confidence to bend that "weak" leg sufficiently to support themselves for a soft landing on the other leg, but the "strong" leg will let them land softly on the "weak" one. When I get them to practice it, they find the proper motor pattern that is pain-free, but end up falling back on the old motor pattern that creates pain.

"Do you have any ideas on this one since descending usually requires more use of the toes than climbing the stairs does?

"I keep recommending your site to loads of people because you are sooo right. It's about motor patterns of moving our bodies, not just "exercise." Thank you for your time and assistance!"
Teresa Merrick, M.A.
ACSM HFI, NSCA-CPT/CSCS, NASM CPT
Master Trainer


Climbing stairs is a functional (real life) skill. Not having the strength to support your own body weight is serious weakness:

  1. It is not healthy to land straight-legged with a locked knee on either a weak or strong leg. The functional life skill needed to descend the stairs is similar to what is needed for simple daily healthy bending (right drawing). Bending knees to retrieve and reach is something everyone needs to do many times a day. How many times a day do you think you bend for ordinary actions? Click How Good Would You Look From 400 Squats a Day - Just Stop Unhealthy Bending

  2. Use the simple built-in life activity of healthy bending using the half squat (right drawing) to train your legs for the strength and mobility needed to descend stairs in a healthful way.

  3. When you bend in the half squat, keep both heels down and your weight shifted back over the whole foot (right drawing), not just the toes (left-hand drawing). Pull back more to the heels if you slide forward.

  4. No need to increase the inward curve, called hyperlordosis, or overarch (left). Hyperlordosis pinches the spine and can cause impingement and mystery back pain (Prevent Back Surgery). Overarching is sometimes taught to weightlifters because it shifts some of the effort onto the lower spine joints called facets, making the lift easier. It is healthier to keep the weight on the muscles and not overarch. Keep neutral spine (right drawing).

  5. Keep heels down for bending using the half-squat, instead of lifting the heel. Keeping heels down shifts weight to the thigh and hip muscles and off the knee joint. Enjoy the free, built-in Achilles stretch with each bend. Specifics on this in the post Free Exercise and Free Back and Knee Pain Prevention - Healthy Bending.

  6. Descending the stairs should not be a toe-intensive maneuver. Your body weight belongs on the strong muscles of the thigh and hip.


Once you have the idea of the healthy bending you need for daily life bending, transfer that healthy movement to the stairs:

  • Keep more weight on the leg on the upper stair, instead of flopping and stomping all weight down on the foot that is stepping down.
  • Keep your weight back more toward the heel on the upper leg.
  • Keep heel down longer on the upper leg, instead of lifting the heel right away. Get the free, built-in, functional Achilles stretch.
  • Bend knee slightly upon stepping down instead of landing straight-kneed. Remember this is the same strength and skill that you need and have been developing (or should have) for ordinary daily bending, which totals many dozens every day.
  • Use good shock absorption from the thigh muscles of the leg stepping down.


Instead of dong artificial leg exercises like leg raises, use legs for real life to get automatic built in exercise in the way you need to move. The movement gives built-in strengthening and stretch and movement patterns. The built-in strengthening and stretch and movement patterns directly improve daily function.

More will come in future posts. Have a real life of activity and fun, and enjoy.

Related:

Better Exercise on the Stairs
Common Exercises Teach Hip Tightness When Kicking, Stretching, and on the Stairs
Click the label "stairs" under this post for all Fitness Fixer articles on stairs.

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Drawing copyright by Jolie from the books Fix Your Own Pain and Health & Fitness THIRD edition.

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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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