Every training program should feature variations of the Squat, Lunge and Deadlift, but another lower-body exercise offers unique benefits—the Step-Up. Although it’s heavily underused, it’s an outstanding unilateral (single-leg) exercise, because it challenges the lower body musculature in a distinct way. The Step-Up not only builds size and strength in the quads, glutes, hip flexors, and hamstrings, it also significantly challenges the core musculature, because of the dynamic pelvic stability required to properly execute the movement. The single-leg nature of the exercise also makes it an excellent choice for athletes looking to enhance their lower-body stability.
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Let’s take a look at some Step-Up variations. Before attempting to load these, you should be able to properly execute the movement with just your body weight. The step or box should be high enough to create at least a 90-degree angle at the knee joint when the trained leg is on the box. In addition, you should also be able to step down safely and appropriately before attempting the following variations.
Incorporate any of these Step-Up exercise variations in your lower body training sessions. Aim for 2-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions per leg. Try to perform them at or near the beginning of your training sessions, because they are relatively demanding movements.
1. Barbell Forward Step-Up
The Barbell Stationary Forward Step-Up allows for heavier loading than any other variation. It also challenges the spinal erector musculature.
- Carefully un-rack a barbell from a power/squat rack.
- Position the barbell in a balanced position on your upper back, right above your posterior shoulder muscles (like you would for a Back Squat).
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Keep your shoulder blades back and maintain a proud chest.
- Stand about 12-16 inches away from the box/step/bench.
- Step onto the box with either leg, ensuring that your entire foot is on it.
- Dorsiflex your ankle or flex/point the bottom foot and toes up, to eliminate assistance from your trail leg. Don’t push off with your trail leg at all.
- Drive through the heel of the elevated/lead leg, and extend the lead knee and hip until you’re standing on box with both feet.
- Step down carefully. Repeat for the remaining repetitions, then repeat on your other leg.
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2. Barbell Lateral Step-Up
The Barbell Lateral Step-Up confers the same benefits as the Barbell Forward Step-Up, but it challenges the body in the frontal plane of motion, which is important for athletes who need to cut and change directions, side shuffle, and more.
- Same instructions as the Forward Step-Up, except you stand a few inches to the side of the box and step up with the leg closer to the box.
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3. Dumbbell Rotational Step-Up
This is an underused variation that improves hip mobility, which is vital for athletes and trainees alike. It targets the hip adductors more. It also challenges grip (forearm) musculature.
- Hold a set of moderately heavy dumbbells in a Farmer’s Walk position, with your shoulder blades back and chest proud.
- Stand 10-12 inches to the side of the box.
- Drive your knee up on the leg closer to the box, and externally rotate your hip to place your foot on the box.
- Follow the same instructions for previous variations.
4. Plate Overhead Step-Up
This is an advanced variation with an additional component: shoulder stability. The shoulder stabilizers, along with the anterior core, are challenged by maintaining the overhead load (plate).
- Hold a 10- to 45-pound plate (depending on your current strength/skill level) with both arms overhead.
- Keep your elbows extended but don’t fully lock them out.
- Follow same instructions as for the Barbell Forward Step-Up, but, once you are standing on the box, drive the knee of your opposite leg up (the initial trail leg).