Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
The step-up is an incredibly popular exercise to target the lower body. There are many benefits from performing this exercise as well as variations to change the focus.
The step-up exercise targets one leg at a time. The unilateral nature of this exercise makes it great for building single-leg strength. This is important for teasing out and balancing asymmetries which can help mitigate injury risk.
While it is not technically a lunge, I would say a step-up would fall under the lunge category of the 6 fundamental movements. It also has aspects of a single-leg squat depending on the variation. Let’s just stick with a lunge for simplicity’s sake.
There is a tendency to use your calf to “bounce” off the floor to make this exercise easier. This limits the work the quad and glute need to do initially. I like to offer a simple cue to prevent this and improve the effectiveness of the exercise.
First, let’s start with the specific muscles targeted by the step-up. Next, how to perform a step-up properly. Then, a quick fix to improve the step-up exercise. Finally, a few variations to keep this exercise fresh.
Muscles Targeted During the Step-Up Exercise
The step-up incorporates two primary movements: knee extension and hip extension. The quadriceps are the main muscle group responsible for causing knee extension. The gluteus maximus is the primary driver of hip extension. The hamstring portion of the adductor magnus as well as the hamstrings (save the short head of the biceps femoris) also play a role in hip extension.
The other key piece of the step-up exercise is maintaining a level pelvis throughout the movement. This is largely accomplished via action of the gluteus medius, with contributions from the gluteus minimus and the tensor fascia lata.
You will also target the gastrocnemius and soleus on the leg you are stepping up to. Their role is primarily through stabilization, rather than their actual function of ankle plantarflexion. (More detail on the role of these muscles during the step-up later)
Another great thing about this exercise is all these muscles are doing their job in a functional way. You aren’t intentionally creating an environment to isolate a single muscle. This is part of what makes the step-up such a popular exercise.
Key Components of the Step-Up Exercise
As with any exercise, there is a correct and… not so correct way to perform it. Using proper form and intent with the step-up will ensure you are getting the most out of the exercise.
Let’s start with the part where you are defeating gravity (temporarily). Place your top foot flat on a box, bench or other step and shift your weight over that foot. Think about driving your leg through that whole foot as you rise.
Initially, your glutes will be doing more of the work in order to extend the hip. Towards the top, the work will shift to the quads as they extend the knee. As I mentioned earlier, your gastroc/soleus will work throughout the exercise to maintain stability in that leg.
Since gravity is undefeated (ignoring space exploration to make my point), what goes up must come down. The descent requires a bit more control than the ascent.
Start by shifting your hips back as if you were trying to sit in a chair. This will engage the glutes once again. Slowly lower yourself back down, controlling the descent with your quad. Try not to reach with that back leg. Doing so can result in that side of the pelvis dropping down. Losing a level pelvis decreases the effectiveness of the lateral glutes.
Instead, make sure to keep your pelvis level as you control the descent. The gluteus medius is primarily responsible for this action and is incredibly important for hip and knee stability.
Come to a complete stop at the bottom of the movement before starting another rep. This will ensure that your glutes and quads are initiating movement without momentum.
There are two main ways to increase the difficulty of this exercise. You can increase the height of the step. You can also add external load to the exercise.
In order to increase the height, it is important to master the form on a smaller step. Raising the height can lead to compensations if you lack the strength to perform the exercise. In general, I prefer to add resistance with a smaller step, rather than increase the height without external load.
There are a few ways to add external resistance to this exercise. You can hold either one or two dumbbells by your sides. You can also hold a single dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest, as with a goblet squat.
As demonstrated in the picture above, you can also use a barbell. This is a more advanced movement since you will not be able to use your hands to steady yourself.
Finally, you can use a weighted vest if you have access to one. All of these are good options that will keep your center of gravity relatively consistent.
As with any other single-leg exercise, you will have to double however many reps you choose to do on each leg. I tend to shoot for anywhere between 6-12 reps for each leg, depending on my goal and how much external load I am using.
Of course, this rep range is just a guideline. The more load you use the fewer reps you will be able to perform. On the other side, less load should lead to more reps. It all depends on your goal.
A Simple Cue to Improve the Step-Up Exercise
While this is a great exercise for many reasons, there is a tendency to overutilize the plantar flexors on the trail leg. Humans are masters of compensation.
When humans A) lack the strength, or B) find an easier way to accomplish an exercise, we cheat. The biggest way we cheat during the step-up is by turning it into a calf raise on the trail leg.
When humans A) lack the strength, or B) find an easier way to accomplish an exercise, we cheatTweet
This takes away part of the work being done by the glutes, quads and hamstrings of the front leg. Sure, they still need to work to finish the exercise, but the initial momentum is being generated by the calf. While this is not the end of the world, there is a simple cue to fix this issue.
I like to keep the ankle on the trail leg locked in end-range during the step-up. This can either be in dorsiflexion (pulled up) or in plantarflexion (pointed down). Both will minimize or eliminate the amount of work the calf can perform to affect this exercise.
Keeping the ankle on the trail leg plantarflexed will make the exercise slightly easier. This is because the range of motion required in the top leg will be reduced by keeping the other ankle in plantarflexion.
Similarly, locking the trail leg ankle in dorsiflexion will increase the motion required by the top leg. This makes the exercise a bit more difficult.
Either ankle position you choose will greatly reduce the help the trail leg calf can offer the other leg. Muscles need to be able to perform their function in full ranges of motion. This guarantees the proper muscles are being utilized throughout the exercise.
There are many variations you can make to this exercise to accomplish slightly different things. Here are a few of my favorites.
Lateral Step-Up (Step-Down)
This is a classic variation of the step-up exercise. It is generally known as a step-down since you don’t typically place all your weight down on your trail leg.
With the lateral step-up, it is imperative to be cognizant of your knee position. As with the regular step-up you want the patella tracking over the lateral half of your foot. This keeps the knee out of valgus and in a generally safer position.
Think about sitting back into your hips rather than driving the knee forward. This cue will help to engage the hip rather than force the quad to do the majority of the work. Both muscle groups are important!
It is completely fine to have your knee move towards (or even past) your toes. However, if you do not have adequate ankle mobility, you may end up coming up off your heel if the knee moves too far forward. This will decrease stability and potentially compromise the movement.
It is also important to maintain a level pelvis. Engaging your gluteus medius will help limit the pelvis from dropping on the other side. Try not to reach with your trail leg – this will also help keep the pelvis level.
This step-up variation takes place largely in the frontal plane, rather than the sagittal plane. This allows the hip to go through more lateral movement.
Because the thigh starts in adduction, the lateral hip muscles are placed on stretch. This allows the hip musculature to work through a greater range of motion and stimulates muscle fiber growth.
In addition to having the stance leg placed in hip adduction, the contralateral pelvis will also be lower compared to the stance leg. In order to level the pelvis, the gluteus medius will need to contract. This further enhances the role of the lateral glutes during this variation.
Focus on performing this exercise slowly and under control. Your knee will naturally be placed in some valgus during this variation. Knee valgus is not inherently bad. It is actually important to learn control and stability in this position. This will help build resilience when forced into knee valgus in other situations.
This variation moves through the transverse plane as you rotate through about 90-degrees from start to finish. Moving three-dimensionally is massively important for normal human function. If we only performed exercises in a sagittal plane we would be missing out on so much.
Incorporating rotation into the step-up forces the hips to open up. As I mentioned, the lateral glutes are placed on stretch during the crossover step-up.
Here, the inside of the hip, including the adductors and medial hamstrings are placed on stretch. They are asked to contract in a lengthened state. This creates a novel stimulus for muscle growth in a new range of motion.
Because of the rotational nature of this exercise, you will likely not be able to use as much external load. You will still be able to gain strength while performing this variation.
If mobility is not your strong suit, you may need to use less than 90 degrees with this exercise. If you have good mobility and control, you may be able to perform this exercise with more than 90 degrees of rotation.
The emphasis here is on utilizing proprioception to create stability. Not to sound like a broken record, but slow and controlled movement is key.
The final variation I will touch upon begins to incorporate speed into the step-up. When you increase speed with the same external load, you will increase power.
I have preached slow and controlled movement with each of the previous step-up exercise variations. One of these things is not like the others (hint: it’s this one!). This variation should be performed with as much speed and intensity as you can.
To perform this variation, I like to begin with the top leg hovering above the box or bench you are stepping up to. To initiate the movement, stomp that foot down and push up through the whole foot. Drive through the top leg, extending the hip and knee rapidly.
Instead of having the trail leg stop at the box, I also like to encourage bringing that leg up to about 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion. Hold for a brief moment at the top of this movement before slowly controlling (I said it again) your descent.
Also, I am less concerned with the trail leg ankle position during this variation. When focusing on form and keeping certain muscles isolated, the ankle position is important. When the focus is on creating power it is okay to get assistance from other areas.
You can also perform this “speed-focused” version of the step-up with some of these other variations. When you incorporate speed with movements in the frontal and transverse planes, you significantly increase the stability needed to move efficiently and effectively. Be sure you are ready before trying to tackle these more advanced movements.
The key to mastering the step-up is to focus on isolating the appropriate muscles and to limit the compensation from others. These exercises can be progressed either by increasing the step height or by adding external load. This can be in the form of dumbbells, barbells, weighted vests or other equipment.
With all this said, the step-up exercise is a valuable tool to help build single-leg strength and stability. It is also a versatile exercise, as shown by the many variations I have demonstrated (as well as others I have not). Incorporating step-ups into your workouts is just one more way to create a stronger and more resilient version of yourself.