Five Best Outdoor Stair Workouts in DC

Stair workouts tone the lower body and build cardio fitness—and may be safer than simple jogging.
Five Best Outdoor Stair Workouts in DC
The Watergate stairs, on the river but off the tourist track. Photograph by Rob Crandall/Alamy.

Want to torch maximum calories in minimum time while sculpting your legs and booty? Try climbing stairs. Besides being a workout you can do practically anywhere—in your office building during lunch, on the bleachers at the local high-school track, in your hotel while traveling—stair workouts not only tone your lower half but have major benefits for cardiovascular health, too.

Consider this: When otherwise healthy hospital employees opted for stairs instead of the elevator for three months, they experienced a “significant decrease” in LDL, or so-called bad cholesterol, according to a 2015 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation.

You don’t need to spend an hour trudging up and down stairs to reap major benefits. One recent study showed that when sedentary women did short bursts of stair sprints for just ten minutes three times a week for six weeks, they increased their cardiorespiratory fitness, or how well the heart and lungs work in tandem to provide oxygen to muscles during physical activity. Translation: You can work out harder and longer without getting Jell-O legs.

DC personal trainer Errick McAdams is a fan of stair workouts, training his clients on outdoor steps all over the city. “Running stairs builds strength, explosive power, and cardiovascular fitness all at the same time,” he says. “Also, studies have shown that you can burn more calories in less time running stairs than actually running.” A 150-pound person will burn 170 calories running stairs for ten minutes; it would take 15 minutes of running a nine-minute mile to burn the same amount.

What’s more, during his 16 years as a trainer, McAdams says he’s found running-related injures to be far more common than stair-running injuries: “I believe it’s because you can’t run stairs as [far] as you can run distance—so less pounding on the joints—and the body naturally assumes a more anatomically safe, forward-leaning posture, so there’s no heel striking when running stairs.”

Here are some of McAdams’s favorite outdoor stairs.

Meridian Hill Park

Columbia Heights

“These stairs are the perfect height for speed,” says McAdams. “Up and down ten times is almost a mile. If you can do them ten times in under ten minutes, you are elite.”

1,000-yard stair: Meridian Hill Park, built for speed. Photograph by Jon Bilous/Alamy.
1,000-yard stair: Meridian Hill Park, built for speed. Photograph by Jon Bilous/Alamy.

Lincoln Memorial

National Mall

The gentler incline of these makes them ideal for endurance—try running up all 145 without stopping.

“Exorcist Steps”

Georgetown

Not only is this stairway (used in the movie The Exorcist) super-steep, but the height of the individual steps makes them great for throwing in some lunges, says McAdams. The pull-up bar at the bottom offers an upper-body component, too.

DC’s Scariest Workout: The so-called Exorcist Steps, steep and storied. Photograph by Rubens Alarcon/Alamy.
DC’s Scariest Workout: The so-called Exorcist Steps, steep and storied. Photograph by Rubens Alarcon/Alamy.

Watergate Steps

Foggy Bottom

If you want to work out along the river—but would prefer not to be eyeballed by throngs of tourists—try these little-known steps, which ascend from Ohio Drive, along the banks of the Potomac River, to a flat patch of grass behind the Lincoln Memorial—and are a literal “water gate” to nowhere, meaning they’re usually not frequented by tourists or pedestrians.

Spanish Steps

Kalorama

On these stairs—they’re on 22nd Street, Northwest, just south of S Street—McAdams likes to throw in cross-training between flights, adding in box jumps or step-ups on the wide ledge near the lion-head fountain.

Step to the Beat

Some of trainer McAdams’s favorite songs for stair workouts:

1. “Hard Work,” 50 Running Cadences of the US Military Remixed

2. “Seven Nation Army,” the White Stripes

3. “Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

4. “Started From the Bottom,” Drake

5. “Slight Work,” Wale featuring Big Sean

These articles appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

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Kim Olsen
Associate Editor

Kim Olsen joined Washingtonian in 2016 after moving to DC from Pittsburgh, where she earned an MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Alexandria.