Everything You Need To Know About Step-Ups

The step-up is a functional, unilateral, multi-joint movement that has a high carryover to many activities of daily living and sport, but it is often performed incorrectly, if at all. Furthermore, many people do not recognize the value of step-ups for muscular development, but as Drs. Angel Spassov and Terry Todd point out in their article Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets, step-ups may develop more complete muscularity than squats:

“One thing coaches in the Soviet Union and Bulgaria noticed was that those athletes, both lifters and those in other sports, who dropped the squat and used the high step-up developed more complete muscularity than those who simply squatted. Many of the coaches say that the legs of those who work hard on the high step-up look more like those of someone who did sprinting and jumping as well as squatting. Apparently, the balance required in the high step-up calls more muscles into play, producing fuller, shapelier development.”

Spassov and Todd go on to mention that the Bulgarian weightlifting team dropped all back squatting in favour of the high step-up for safety purposes – performance improved and many world records were formed. Now whether that is still the case today is questionable, but one thing is for certain, the step-up is a great exercise!

Here are several step-up variations that should be in everyone’s repertoire:

Dumbbell Side Step-Up. Start with the step beside you and bodyweight only. Over time you can hold on to a pair of dumbbells as your strength and stability improve. A common mistake is to push off with the non-working side either by extending the knee and/or ankle. To correct this “cheat” tendency, keep the knee locked and ankle dorsiflexed (i.e., toes up) — tap the floor with the heel only.

Dumbbell Side Step-Up - Bottom PositionDumbbell Side Step-Up - Top Position

Dumbbell Forward Step-Up. A progression over time to increase range of motion involves placing the step in front of you and raising the height of the step.

Dumbbell Forward Step-Up - Bottom PositionDumbbell Forward Step-Up - Top Position

Barbell Front Step-Up. Another variation of the step-up involves the use of a barbell across the shoulders either in front or behind the neck. By raising the center of mass, greater stability is required.

Barbell Front Step-Up - Bottom PositionBarbell Front Step-Up - Top Position

Decline Step-Up. Performing step-ups on a decline bench is a great option for individuals with limited ankle mobility. I discovered this step-up variation in a 2001 article titled Convergent Phase Training written by Olympic weightlifting coach and competitor Charles Staley. To make the exercise more challenging over time, increase the range of motion by positioning the foot of the working leg higher on the bench.

Reverse Step-Up. If ankle mobility/flexibility is not an issue, try the reverse step-up as illustrated on page 128 of The Elite Trainer. This is an advanced option that heavily targets the quadriceps muscle of the thigh, particularly the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) fibers.

Atlantis Leg PlatformThe key with step-ups is to determine the appropriate height first. This is the height where proper form is exhibited. There should be no assistance from the opposite (non-working) leg, the trunk should remain as vertical as possible, and the knee of the working leg should track over the middle toes. Keep raising the step height until form deteriorates, and then go back one level. This is where you should begin.

Aerobic steps and plyometric boxes can be used, but one of the best units on the market for step-ups is the C-206 Leg Platform by Atlantis. It allows you to adjust the height from 10 inches to 34 inches in 2-inch increments to accommodate various strength and skill levels. This is the unit that we use at our training facility and the one we recommend to others.

As mentioned earlier, flexing the opposite foot upwards (i.e., ankle dorsiflexion) will help deter pushing off with the back leg. I picked up this tip many moons ago from strength and conditioning coach Charles Poliquin who picked it up from Dr. Mark Scappaticci, a certified chiropractic sports specialist. However, there are some individuals that have difficulty executing a step-up in this manner no matter how low the step is. In this case, do the exact opposite: flex the foot of the non-working leg downwards (i.e., ankle plantarflexion). Have your client brush the ground with their toes, pause for a second, and then return to the top position. This technique will also prevent pushing off with the back leg and works well with many beginners. I learned this little gem from Dr. Trevor Cottrell, the program coordinator for Sheridan College’s Exercise Science and Health Promotion degree and its new Human Performance Training certificate.

With any step-up version you perform, here’s how to determine which side to start with. Place one foot on the step. Now put it down on the floor and place the other foot on the step. Start there.

To your success,

John Paul Catanzaro

Related: Step-Ups Develop Muscular Legs
Related: Eliminate The Push-Off During Step-Ups

Posted Dec 10, 2014

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