I’m a MACHINE! I Calculated How Much Horsepower I Generate, and You Can Too!

I watch a LOT of game shows. One of my favorites is (and always has been) “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” – I even auditioned once, a few years back! So I was giddy when they had a stair-related question on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” My love of game shows and my love of stairs, finally united! Here’s the question:

It’s really not that hard a question –  even if, like me, you’re not a scientist or mathematician. The answer is B: Horsepower.

The contestant got it right, and moved on to the next question. Not me. I paused my TiVo, opened my laptop, and started Googling. Now that I knew I could calculate my horsepower using a flight of stairs, I had to figure out how. What a fun project this could be!

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The internet did not disappoint. And “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” was right: all you need are those three statistics, and the equation that you plug them into. Actually, there are two equations.

Here’s the first one:

Some additional information:

  • m = your weight, in pounds. This is an easy number to get: step on the scale. My weight is 255 pounds.
  • h = height of stairs, in feet. You only need one flight of stairs to figure out your horsepower. Grab a tape measure or a ruler, and measure the height of one step. (It’ll likely be between 6 and 8 inches.) Then count the number of steps in the flight. Multiply the number of steps by the number of inches of one step, and you’ll get the total number of inches in the whole flight. Then divide by 12 to convert that into feet.
  • t = time of climb, in seconds. You need to time yourself climbing the stairs. And by ‘climbing,’ I mean sprinting. The faster you move, the more horsepower you’ll generate! So grab a stopwatch, and time yourself. Start the timer when your foot first touches the first step, and end it when you first touch the landing at the top.
  • A note about the other numbers in the equation: 9.81 is the gravitational constant. You multiply your weight by .454 to convert it to kilograms (since this formula only computes in metric). And you multiply the height by .3048 to convert it to meters.

Plug all those numbers in the above formula, and you end up with the watts that you generate. (W = watts, a measurement of power.) Take your watts, and plug it into this second equation, and you’ll end up with your horsepower:

Simple pimple, right?

One of the websites I read while researching this formula said that most humans can generate 1-2 horsepower sprinting up a flight of stairs. (For comparison’s sake, my Jeep has 180 horsepower.)

TIME TO CRUNCH SOME NUMBERS! Calculating horsepower for one flight of stairs is one thing. But I’ve raced up some of the tallest buildings in the country. How much horsepower do I generate during one of those races?

I plugged in the statistics from one of my most recent races, in the 63-story Aon Center in downtown Los Angeles in April. I set a PR at that race, getting to the roof in 14 minutes, 30 seconds, which is the same as 870 seconds. And I know for a fact that the building that 1,393 steps, and each one is 7.36″ tall (my friend Stan measured and counted them!) – which means the total height of the climb is 854.4 feet.

I did the math, and during that race, I generated .45 horsepower! But wait, doesn’t that seem awfully low? I’m fast when I climb stairs, faster than most people, so shouldn’t I be at least in the normal range?

My father is much more adept at mathematics that I am, so I called him, and spent 30 minutes on the phone going over the equation and double- and triple-checking everything. My math was right. And then my father pointed out that my race isn’t a true sprint: I pace myself, so I don’t conk out too early.

That inspired me to conduct an experiment on a single flight of stairs, in the building where I live. I used a single flight of stairs with 16 steps. Each step is 7″ high, so that means the total height of the stairs is 9.33 feet.

I brought a stopwatch and timed myself doing an all-out, balls-to-the-wall sprint up the stairs. My first attempt clocked in at 3.17 seconds. I tried it again, and went a few hundreds of a second slower. I pushed myself to get under 3 seconds, just for my own satisfaction, and on my sixth try, I clocked myself finishing in 2.83 seconds. Woohoo!

I plugged those numbers into the equations, and the horsepower I generated sprinting up one flight of stairs was… 1.52 horsepower!

Much better.

1.52 horsepower. It’s not really a figure that means much to me, and yet, I love knowing this little bit of information. (I’m a nerd, what can I say?)

Keep it up, David!


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8 Responses to I’m a MACHINE! I Calculated How Much Horsepower I Generate, and You Can Too!

  1. Ice_Badger says:

    this is awesome!!

    It makes me want to go and run up and down the stairs…only I am at work so probably shouldn’t… I might at lunchtime though 😀

  2. camille says:

    hi david! i was trying to do the math and can’t seem to get the same answer as you. i’ve tried getting 1.52 horsepower but i keep getting 5 horsepower. i’m plugging in the right measurements into the equation (the ones you have provided) but i don’t understand what i’m doing wrong. PLEASE HELP ME I HAVE TO GENERATE ONE HORSEPOWER FOR PHYSICS and i really liked how you did this. maybe it’s your weight? you said it was 255 but maybe it changed? PLEASE REPLY DAVID I NEED ALL THE HELP I CAN GET!!
    thank you:)

    • David says:

      Hello Camille – thanks for stopping by! I’m not sure how else I can help. I just double checked my math and it all works out for me. If you have to generate your own horsepower, perhaps you could try doing the experiment for yourself: find a flight of stairs, measure their height, time yourself going up them, and plug that data set into the equation. Good luck with your project!

  3. Andrew Fong says:

    A real scientist would use dimensional analysis to make sure you get the conversion factors right, but that seems about right. A horse is much larger than a typical human and so they can outwork us. I remember doing this same calculation during a freshman physics class and the conclusion is that a human can outwork a horse in short bursts, but he can’t keep it up for as long as a horse can.

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