Is The Step-Up Really The Best Lower Body Exercise?

July 10, 2019
girl stepping up onto box with dumbbells

All of my clients do step-ups – whether it’s bodyweight onto a smaller step, with dumbbells onto a box, or even a barbell onto a high box – and almost all of them dislike the exercise. Vehemently.

So why would I have them doing an exercise they dislike so much? Is it because I love doing step-ups, so feel I should spread the love? Actually, I hate them too (especially the barbell variant), however I do believe they’re a great functional strength exercise with good opportunities to assess lower body capability – after all, the majority of us do climb stairs multiple times per day.

Are they beneficial for everyone, though, and can you really assess strength using this movement? Let’s take a deeper look into what a step-up does and what the benefits are.

The benefits of the step-up

The step-up is a classic exercise for building single-leg strength which is infinitely scalable, whether someone is learning to walk again after an accident or if they’re an athlete looking to build explosive strength. The main drivers of the movement are the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and hip, but really the full body is involved as we stabilise the movement with our core, and depending on the variation we’ve chosen, either hold equipment with our upper body or use it to help drive us upwards.

girl doing a dumbbell step up in pink tights

A study into the recruitment of different muscles during different lower-body weight bearing exercises found the gluteus maximus (the biggest muscle in your glutes) to be the most active muscle during a step-up of those that were measured in the study. Strong glutes do help stabilise the hips and look after your back and knees, however another study showed the step-up puts a lot of force through the knee compared to other single-leg stepping exercises, which is worth considering if you experience any knee pain. As a contradiction to that statement, the Petersen step-up was said by Charles Poliquin to be the number one exercise against knee pain, so as with most movement it’s about finding the variation that works best for the individual.

How to do a perfect step-up

Essentially a step-up is stepping onto a raised surface with one leg, the other coming to join it, then stepping down with control to the start position, or you mighty start the movement from the top. For something seemingly so simple with little research, there’s a lot of discussion around step-up techniques and there are as many different variations with loading and height as you can think of, therefore technique is going to differ depending on the variant you’ve chosen.

girl doing dumbbell step ups in pink tights

There are a number of consistent cues though, which include:

How to choose a step-up variant

This one is going to come with experience. It’s a given that you’re unlikely to have your elderly client doing a high box step-up with a heavy barbell on their back, but the rest of the client continuum might be challenging to make the right decision for. If in doubt, work in the simplest form of the movement until your client feels strong and confident, then progress one variable at a time, whether that’s box or step height, dumbbell or barbell weight, or adding a tempo. Step-ups require proprioception and they’re difficult to fail safely, so err on the side of caution, even if it means starting with stepping onto a 20kg plate on the ground.

girl doing dumbbell step up in pink tights

How to assess the step-up

The step-up is included as part of the OPEX movement assessment, and as it’s such a scalable movement, it’s ideal for including in your beginner or elderly clients’ programmes up to a very low step. Watching your client (or a video of yourself) doing step-ups can give you an idea of the strength and mobility of their lower-body, but it’s important to remember that one movement during one session or assessment in isolation won’t give you a full picture of how well someone moves or their likelihood of injury. It does, however, give us a line in the sand to assess from in the future plus a springboard for our coaching and programming.

Watching the step-up from in front of your client, notice any lateral dropping of the hips or falling inwards of the working knee. Pay attention also to where this dropping in seems to originate from – is it the foot, or the hip? If you watch from the side, observe how much forward lean there is on the way up or down, how much ‘spring’ there is from the back foot on the way up, and whether they can control the tempo on the eccentric portion of the movement. You then may use this information to programme workouts or adjust your coaching cues going forward.

girl resting between doing dumbbell step ups in pink tights

So – is the step-up THE best lower body movement?

Realistically, there’s no single, catch-all, best movement for anything and everybody, and any article or person saying this is probably being over-simplistic or nebulous. All of my clients do step-ups, but all do step-up variations and volumes that are suitable for their abilities and their goals.

But honestly – with little specific research out there, much of this article is anecdotal from my clients and my own experiences. I’m really interested to hear from others with different experiences of using the step-up, so do leave a comment below or on social media whether your thoughts differ or are along the same lines as my own.

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Sarah fitness blog Manchester

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Welcome to That Squat Bot, established 2013! I'm Sarah, a fitness professional based in Manchester, UK.

I love feeling strong and lifting heavy, but I also love trying different types of movement and using my fitness to adventure outside of the gym. I'm also a massive Marvel nerd!

Find out more about me here.


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