Split squats, lunges, squats, leg presses, and deadlift variations get most of the love in your leg routine because they’re responsible for most of your leg gains. But a neglected exercise often gets overlooked in many lifters’ routines in the step up exercise. It looks so simple because all you do is place your foot on a bench and step up.
It’s not like a barbell squat or deadlift where you must go through a mental checklist to rip the weight up from the floor or squat up from the hole. You put your foot on an elevated surface and step up.
The stepup is quickly regressed or progressed for all fitness levels, and it fits into almost any exercise programming to build unilateral muscle and strength in your quads and glutes. Here we’ll dive into the stepup, how to do it, how muscles are trained, benefits, things to watch out for, and variations to spice up your stepup game.
Ready to step up to the plate? Then let’s go.
WHAT IS THE STEPUP?
The stepup combines the lunge and stepping upward, like climbing the stairs. Do you take the stairs instead of the elevator? You push through your lead foot to lift yourself to a standing position on a bench. Then you slowly step backward with the non-lead leg to the starting position. Ensure that your lead foot is glued to the step.
HOW TO DO THE STEP UP EXERCISE
- Depending on your hip mobility and strength, place your foot on a box so your knee is bent at a 90-degree angle or the hip crease is slightly below your knee. Ensure it’s on a level surface.
- Either perform with body weight, hold dumbbells by your side, and stand around one foot away from the box.
- Place your entire lead foot on the box with your toes pointed forward.
- Push through your lead foot to stand up. Think of driving in glutes forward into hip extension as you stand up.
- Once your knee is extended, either place the other foot on the box, balance on one leg, or drive your non-working leg into a high knee.
- Step down slowly with the non-lead leg and reset and repeat.
STEP UP EXERCISE FORM TIPS
It looks like nothing to it because you put your foot on a box and step up. Yes, this is true, but there are certain things to watch out for to get the best out of the step up.
- Choosing Your Box Height: A general rule on box height is that your knee forms a 90-degree angle when your foot is on the box. If you’re new to this exercise or knee pain exists, stepping up on a smaller box is advisable. When you’re feeling adventurous, increasing your box height so your knee is slightly higher than your hips is great too. More range of motion means more muscle-building potential. But it would be best if you watched for a few things. First, if your torso leans too far forward, you disadvantage your anterior and posterior core. You don’t want to stress your lower back, only your quads, and glutes. Second, your knee may cave in, or your hips may become unlevel in the effort to stepup higher. Better to stick to a range of motion you can control and doesn’t cause potential problems.
- Control The Eccentric: A tendency, especially when tired, is to drop your back foot to the floor and neglect to control the eccentric contraction. Not only is this not great for your joints, but you miss out on strength and muscle gains. ALWAYS try to control the lowering part of the stepup.
- Let The Front Leg Do The Work: The point of the stepup is for the front leg to do the work to fuel your quad and glute gains. But when the weight gets heavier, and the lifter becomes tired, there can be a tendency to push off the back leg. Doing so makes it easier for the lead leg, but you will use momentum and lose muscular tension on the front leg.
The stepup primarily works the legs and core with little involvement from the upper body, except if you use load. Here are the primary muscles trained by the stepup.
- Quadriceps: All four quad muscles work together to extend the knee.
- Glutes: Because the hip is in flexion, the glutes extend to assist you in standing up.
- Hip Adductors: Assist in hip flexion and provide stability for the knee to avoid collapsing inwards.
- Hamstrings: Assists the glutes with hip extension, and the hamstring’s eccentric strength helps your lower down with control.
- Calves:A slight plantar flexion is involved during the stepup, but the calf muscles work overtime to keep you balanced on one leg.
5 BENEFITS OF THE STEP UP EXERCISE
Once you have mastered the bodyweight stepup, adding weight to this exercise is the bomb. Adding load will build unilateral strength and helps with better muscle development between sides, and make climbing the stairs easier. Here are a few other significant benefits of the stepup.
- Improved Single-leg Balance: Stepups will improve your balance and proprioception (sense of awareness in space) because you’re controlling yourself as you step up and down on one leg. Plus, you will focus more because you don’t want to lose balance and embarrass yourself to the gym masses.
- Better Muscle Development And Unilateral Strength: Bilateral exercises are great and where most of your gains happen, but sometimes that hides muscle and strength imbalances between legs. Performing single-leg exercises like stepups helps strengthen these imbalances and leads to better muscle development in each quad and glute.
- Accessible And Easily Progressed: All you need for stepups is a box, bench, and some weights, making it easily accessible to beginners and advanced lifters alike. It is not a technical exercise like barbell squats and deadlifts and requires minimal instruction. Plus, it is easily progressed by increasing the height of the box and by using heavier dumbbells.
- Easier on the Lower Back: Like most single-leg exercises, there is a less compressive load on the spine, so your spine is under less pressure. Plus, you don’t need as much load to get a training effect due to the unilateral nature, like with the back squats and Romanian deadlifts.
- May Improve Your Barbell Squat: A common weakness with the barbell squat is rising slowly or getting stuck in the hole, and one way to stop this is by improving leg drive. Split squats and pause squats are great options but don’t sleep on the stepup. With its focus on the quads and glutes and your ability to load up, stepups are another option for improving your leg drive.
STEPUP PROGRAMMING SUGGESTIONS
The stepup is an exercise to strengthen imbalances between sides and improve muscle development but don’t mistake it for an absolute strength exercise because it is an accessory exercise. Nobody brags about their one-rep stepup max.
Here, use good form as your guide for load and not ego. Use these recommendations as a guide, which can be tweaked to suit your fitness goals.
For Hypertrophy: Performing three to four sets of 8 to 15 reps per side and pairing it with another glute or quad exercise works well for adding muscle. For example
1A. Weighted Stepup: 8 to 15 reps per side
1B. Bodyweight Hip Thrust: 15 to 20 reps
For endurance: Two to three sets of 15 to 20 reps per side using body weight or a light load in order to feel the burn. Your heart will be pumping afterward, so pairing this with a floor exercise works well. For example:
1A. Step Ups 15 to 20 reps per side
1B. Passive Leg Lowering: 10 reps per side
3 STEPUP EXERCISE VARIATIONS
Stepping up and down is excellent for glutes and quads but can get dull in a hurry—spice up your usual stepup exercise with these three variations.