A previous post on unilateral training focuses on the Bulgarian split-squat. The step-up is another valuable unilateral (one-leg) resistance exercise.
How do you do them?
A step-up is done by placing your front foot on a box, usually 12 to 24" in height. The box should ideally be tall enough to result in a 90 degree angle between your knee and hip joints when your front foot is placed on the box. A lower box is easier, a higher box is harder.
You shoulder the barbell or lift the dumbbells, place your front foot on the box, and then step up with the back foot. Use your front foot to generate the force needed to step up; your back leg lifts but doesn't push off the floor. Keep your body upright and on balance.
When you step down, step down slowly and under control. Don't drop the foot down or come down heavily on it. Place the ball of the foot down and then lower the heel in a smooth motion. The step-down portion of a step-up is like the descent on a deadlift - it's not the main part of the exercise, but it can be dangerous if you screw it up.
The box is important - choose a box with a non-slip top. Special athletic steps exist for this, but you can use a bench, wooden box, milk crate, etc. Be sure it can support your weight plus the load you intend to use, and that it can fit your entire foot comfortably on the top. Make sure the floor isn't slippery, either!
How do I load it?
Here are two ways you can add weight to a step-up. One is loaded with a barbell:
Next is the dumbbell.
Both of those linked animations show the exercise done with alternating legs - left leg rep 1, right leg rep 1, left leg rep 2, etc. That's one way to do it. Generally I do them one leg at a time, doing all the reps for one leg before switching to the other leg. If you do not alternate, you do not need to take your front foot off the box! Plant it firmly and leave it there.
Of course, you can load them more creatively. Try one these variations:
- Vary the dumbbell position. Instead of at your sides, hold them straight out, out to the sides, or even overhead (you'll want to go light).
- Hold a sandbag cradled in your arms, or shouldered. If you shoulder the weight, it's a little easier with the weight on the same shoulder as the stepping leg (the one with the foot on the box).
- Hold kettlebells or plates instead of dumbbells.
- Hold a plate in front of your chest with both arms, either close to the chest or straight out.
- Wear a weighted vest, either instead of, or in addition to, another form of weight (dumbbells are good, since a barbell would further load the torso).
- Use bands - this can be difficult to set up; you'll need the bands to hold firmly to the ground and then loop them around a barbell, or hold them at your sides.
Of course, varying the box height changes the exercise as well!
- the higher the box, the harder the exercise. When progressing to a higher box, be conservative on the loading. Use a lighter weight than usual.
- If the box is too high, you may stress your front knee. Go up in high carefully. Remember you want the front leg to do the work. If you go too high, you'll need to "boost" yourself up with the back leg. That will reduce the load on the leg you're ostensibly trying to exercise.
Why do I recommend this exercise?
Like any other unilateral exercise, you can get a big training effect with comparatively little external loading. You get to practice moving on a single leg, something you need for all sports and in your daily life. It's also easy to do. Unlike the Bulgarian Split-Squat, it doesn't call for as much balance. You don't need to worry about getting enough depth or height - you step up, you step down. There is no worry about foot placement like in a lunge. It's comparatively simple, technically.
Plus, like all of the single-leg exercises, they never get easy, just easier.
Always step onto a firm surface. While a padded weight bench is fine, a deeper, spongier surface is potentially dangerous. An unstable "step" will make the exercise more challenging but also dangerous. If your front foot is not stable when you're bringing your back foot up, you can fall, lurch sideways (potentially tearing a knee ligament), or wobble badly enough to force your body to "catch" the load (barbell, dumbbell, etc.) in an unstable position. This can cause all sorts of injuries. In the end you'll have to go much lighter and be more careful, making it much harder to get a training effect from the exercise. This is also the reason for the non-skid box on a non-skid floor. Don't mess around with these on a rickety chair, short-run (narrow) step ladder, or on a throw rug on a wooden floor at home. Find a stable surface and use that!
How else can I do step-ups?
Besides the variations in loading and box height, you can add some variations in performance.
- Add a knee lift. When you lift the back leg, keep lifting it as far as you can above the box. Think of bringing the back leg up and into a knee strike (for you fighters) or as if you were going to place it onto an even higher box in front of you.
- Combine it. Step up to a box, then step down and do a reverse lunge. This can be a very hard combination; it's best to weight it lightly, not at all, or use a vest.
- Step Down. Instead of starting at the bottom, start at the top. Lower yourself slowly and under control. Then, use the leg that stepped down to help push yourself back up. You can load these a little more heavily because both legs do the "up" portion.
- Step sideways. Go light with these, and a lower box. Instead of stepping forward, step laterally.
Need more detail? This excellent article on single-leg exercises at T-Nation (not w/f safe), written by Mike Robertson, has more details on some of these variations.
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