The 'Phantom Step-Up': Why This Unorthodox Exercise Is Amazing for Athletes

By putting more weight on one side of the barbell than the other, the exercise breaks a classic rule of weight training. Here's why it works.

You put equal weight on both sides of the barbell.

It's up there with "no curling in the squat rack" and "always use a spotter when you max out" as a cardinal rule of weight training.

The Phantom Step-Up breaks that rule.

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You put equal weight on both sides of the barbell.

It's up there with "no curling in the squat rack" and "always use a spotter when you max out" as a cardinal rule of weight training.

The Phantom Step-Up breaks that rule.

That's Eric Treske, Strength and Conditioning Coach and Offensive Coordinator at Lakeland University (Sheboygan, Wisconsin), demonstrating the movement. He first learned about uneven barbell loading  from Eric Donoval, an old workout buddy who's now the Associate Director of Sport Performance for Wyoming Football.

When we see someone training with more weight on one end of the bar than the other, we assume it's a befuddled beginner who doesn't even realize their mistake. But in the right circumstances, it can actually be a potent tool for enhancing athletic performance.

With regards to the Phantom Step-Up demonstrated above, the idea is to overload the end of the barbell opposite the side of the working leg. Nothing major—Treske says he typically starts athletes out with just a 5-pound difference, but that can gradually increase all the way up to a 25-pound discrepancy (beyond that, he's found form tends to break down). The total load utilized is going to be much less than what you'd use for a traditional Step-Up, but the challenge of the asymmetrical loading is more than going to make up for that.

"They're hard," Trekse says. "There's a lot less weight on the bar then my athletes are used to trying to push, and they're like, 'This looks like it should be easy.' (But) you can feel it."

The why behind the move is that the asymmetrical load places a greater demand on the working hip (including the oft-neglected glute medius muscle) to stabilize the body.

"It forces the hip to be the stabilizer. It helps create a strong lateral wall," says Treske. "You have to stabilize from the knee to the shoulder, and the hip is what's controlling it."

After noticing many of his athletes lacked lateral hip stability while sprinting, resulting in a loss of power and inefficient mechanics, Treske decided to program the Phantom Step-Up as a corrective exercise.

"We watched our athletes sprint, we watched them move, and a lot of them lacked lateral hip stability. You'd see that rotation when they were sprinting—their foot would turn out (and) their knee would turn out when you'd break it down in slow-motion," says Treske.

"We looked at that as an issue of lateral hip stability and an issue of foot function. Those were the two things we targeted when we chose that movement…We want to shore up any power leaks. If there's a leak in an athlete's power chain, we're trying to shore that up with the moves we're choosing. This has been a really good tool for us to do that."

In terms of cues, Treske stresses to his athletes to keep a big chest and to stay vertical, as the asymmetrical load will often make them want to "lean" to one side. He recommends 2-3 sets of 4-8 reps on each side, "driving explosively" on each rep as shown in his above demonstration. Remember to perform all the reps for one leg before switching to the other side, and that the heavier load should be on the end opposite the foot you're stepping onto the box with.

Give it a go and see what you think. Remember to start light and keep the initial difference in load small before gradually increasing it. If you dig it, you can try the same for a Barbell Good Morning, following a similar protocol.

"The Good Morning would be the other one (to use an uneven bar load). Kind of for the same reason—with the bar being loaded on the shoulder, it forces you to stabilize form the knee to the shoulder," says Treske.

"You could start with your feet even and then stagger them. Whatever side is the heavier side will be the front leg."

Photo Credit: Eric Treske

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Topics: GLUTES | GET FASTER | ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE | HIP MUSCLES | WEIGHT TRAINING | GETTING STRONGER | WEIGHT LIFTING