Step-Up Exercise Guide

One exercise that is very rarely performed in the gym is the step up. Balance, coordination, and athleticism sum up the requirements for this important exercise. This excellent exercise targets the main muscles of your leg – the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The muscles of your calves assist while your core muscles stop your body from leaning forwards or twisting. The exercise helps develop, and also puts demands on, your heart and lungs. Beginners should start with body weight until they are familiar with the movement. You can use a bench or any device if you can get a firm base of support for at least one leg.

Step-ups can serve as an effective substitute or alternate for squats. You may struggle to do squats because of the pressure placed on your knees (knee pain) or because of the significant amount of strength you need in your quadriceps muscles in the front of your thigh. Although the step-up can still place impact on your knee joint, moving slowly and precisely and placing your foot gently on the platform will reduce some of this impact and can be more tolerable if you have weak, arthritic or injured knees.

How To Do A Step-Up Correctly

STARTING POSITION: Facing a bench, load a barbell on the top of your shoulders behind your neck or try this exercise holding dumbbells at your sides. The bench or some kind of box should be high enough to allow an angle of 90 degrees at your knee joint when your foot is on the box. Place one foot (right) on a block (elevated platform) in front of you, preferably with the raised knee at close to 90 degree angle. Make sure your body is vertical, your chest is up, and your knee is directly over your foot.

ACTION (MOVE): Keeping your back leg straight, push through your top (right) leg, extending your right knee and hip simultaneously to drive your body up and over the step. Place the foot of the left leg on the platform as well. At the highest position, stand erect and pause before beginning the downward movement. Step down with the left leg by flexing the hip and knee of the right leg as you inhale. Finish the set leading with one leg, then switch to other.

Dumbbell Step-Up Exercise

Dumbbell Step-Up Exercise

Barbell Step Up

Barbell Step Up

Step-Up Tips & Key Points

  • Avoid leaning forwards or twisting when stepping up and down.
  • Move your shoulders back and your chest out so your back is flat and your torso is erect (do not “round” your back).
  • Don’t lean too far forward as you step up.

Muscles Involved in Barbell/Dumbbells Step-Up

Main muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus
Secondary muscles: hamstrings, adductors
Antagonists: iliopsoas, sartori

Step-Up Variations

  • Body weight step-up
  • Barbell step-up
  • Dumbbells step-up
  • Perform this exercise by alternating between the right and the left leg every time until all repetitions have been performed for both legs.
  • Varying the height of the box adds variety and changes the focus from glutes (higher) to quads (lower). Stepping up from the side of the box works your lateral rotators and adductors as well.

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