Stairs and Your Knees

People who climb Mount Everest have to navigate almost a mile of vertical distance to reach the top of the mountain. That’s like climbing a staircase with nearly 20,000 steps! But did you know that you use the same muscles as mountain climbers every time you go up and down a single flight of stairs?

The following information will explain how walking up or down stairs affects your knees and what you can do to tackle stairs with confidence.

What Muscles Do I Use to Climb Stairs?

When you go up stairs, your body has to contract several muscles (such as hamstrings, quads, calves, and glutes) to lift your body. Walking down stairs involves a controlled lengthening of those same muscles, and the muscles in your back also help stabilize your body. Walking up and down stairs is actually a great opportunity to strengthen many different muscles in your body and improve your lungs and cardiovascular system at the same time.

Why Is It Hard to Walk Up or Down Stairs?

You may notice that you breathe a bit harder and your leg muscles burn and feel tired when you climb a long set of stairs. Or you have discomfort in your knees when going up or down stairs. Maybe you even feel some grinding in your knees or hear some faint popping noises. Believe it or not, all this is normal!

It takes more muscle energy to lift your body up an incline or stairs — just ask the Mount Everest climbers! When you expend more energy, it’s normal for muscles to burn and feel tired. Your body also needs to deliver more oxygen to your hardworking muscles, which is why you may become out of breath while climbing stairs.

Grinding sensations and popping noises in your knee can be alarming, but are not usually a cause for concern.1 They are the normal sounds of cartilage rubbing on the surface of the knee joint as it moves. You may notice these sensations and sounds when your body is working harder to move up or down the stairs. But they can also happen when you move your knee in any position. These sounds do not mean that your knees are damaged or that you’re doing your body harm.

What Can I Do to Decrease Pain When I Take the Stairs?

Like the Everest climbers who train to reach the summit, you can improve your body’s ability to handle stairs by building strength.

The stronger you are, the more easily and painlessly you’ll be able to go up and down stairs. Strong quadriceps muscles (located at the front of your thighs) are especially important because they help stabilize the knee joint and take some of the load off of your knees when climbing stairs.

Many Hinge Health exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles required for stairs. So it’s likely you’re already well on your way to decreasing pain when you take the stairs! And if you avoid the stairs because they cause pain, one of the best ways to build the muscle strength you need to combat that pain is to gradually start taking the stairs again. This may cause some discomfort at first. But remember that strengthening your body happens one step at a time.

Key Takeaways

  1. Walking up or down stairs uses the same muscles and has the same impact on your knees as walking uphill or downhill.

  2. Heavier breathing, muscle burning, joint noises, and a mild increase in discomfort are all normal when walking up and down stairs.

  3. The best medicine to improve your ability to navigate stairs is to strength train.


  1. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (n.d.). By itself, knee "crunching" sound generally not cause for concern. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from