Step-up Exercise: How To, How Many,…

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You can choose many exercises for your resistance training workouts. Find out how to do step-ups and why they can be good.

In simple words, you can describe the step-up exercise as stepping on an object at around knee height.

By doing this you work important leg muscles like your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. If you approach step-ups right, you can grow and strengthen these muscles.

One of the benefits of step-ups is that they offer a lot of resistance without using that much equipment at home or in the gym.

At the same time, some people will find that the balancing aspect of step-ups gets in the way of training their leg muscles enough for their fitness goals.

How to do a step-up

To do this movement you will need a few step-up exercise equipment options first.

More specifically, you need an elevated platform at about knee height. A plyo box, a stepper, a park bench, a concrete platform, certain stairs, and even some weight benches are examples of things you can use.

Once you have a good elevated platform, take the following steps to do a step-up:

  1. Stand in front of the object with your face toward it and feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Raise one foot and put it on the surface of the object. Make sure your sole is entirely on the surface.
  3. Raise your body by pushing through your elevated leg until it is slightly less than stretched. Your lower leg should not really do anything besides keeping you balanced.
  4. Lower your body back to the ground.
  5. Complete your set of step-ups on one leg and then do the same number of repetitions with your other leg on the object.
How to do a step-up

Besides the balancing required, step-ups are relatively straightforward and beginner-friendly. Just make sure you don’t forget to work both of your legs about equally to avoid muscle imbalances.

If step-ups are currently too challenging for you, you can start with two-legged resistance training exercises like bodyweight squats.

On the flip side, bodyweight step-ups can also become too easy to see optimal growth and strength progress over time.

In that case, you can do step-ups with resistance options like a short weighted vest, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, grocery bags, etc.

Lastly, you could theoretically do this exercise faster. However, even though step-ups burn calories and engage your cardiovascular system, these are not really the main goals of the exercise.

Muscles used in step-ups

Some of the primary muscles worked with step-ups include:

  • Quadriceps (front thighs)
  • Glutes (butt)
  • Hamstrings (back thighs)
  • Calves

Some of the secondary muscles worked with step-ups include:

  • Hip abductors (outer thighs)
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Hip flexors
  • To some extent core muscles like your abs, obliques, and erector spinae

Interestingly enough, you can somewhat shift the focus of step-ups depending on how you do them.

Standing closer to the platform and barely putting your foot over the edge will work your quadriceps more.

Standing farther and really putting your upper foot forward will make step-ups focus more on your glutes and hamstrings.

You can also do something like lateral step-ups, also known as side step-ups, to focus more on your hip adductors (inner thigh) and hip abductor (outer thigh) muscles

That aside, keep in mind that you still have to work these muscles with enough pressure, reps, and sets.

Since the leg muscles are relatively strong, this will mean doing the step-up exercise with weights for a good amount of people.

For a goal like building a lot of muscle mass with the step-up and its variations, you want to do about 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 15 repetitions per leg.

Benefits of step-ups

Helping you build muscle is not the only benefit of step-ups. Some of the other positive points of this exercise are:

  1. Can help with losing weight: Step-ups burn more energy and can help you build muscle. In turn, step-ups can help with weight loss but you may still have to make other changes in your lifestyle to see results.
  2. Helps you avoid muscle asymmetries: Step-ups work the muscles in one leg at a time. This ensures you train each side more or less equally which can help you avoid muscle imbalances.
  3. Offers a lot of resistance without equipment: Because you put your full body weight on one leg at a time, step-ups are relatively challenging for your muscles. This can be helpful for people who want to do resistance training at home without a lot of equipment.
  4. Balance & coordination: Since step-ups can be challenging in terms of balance and coordination, they can also potentially help you improve your skills in these areas.
  5. Can improve athletic performance: Your leg muscles are responsible for generating the power required for running. By growing and strengthening these, you could improve your performance in sports that involve fast running.

Step-ups are not the only compound leg exercise that offers these benefits.

However, these effects could still convince you to implement step-ups more often.

Potential risks

Something you do want to keep in mind is that some people will find step-ups uncomfortable on their ankles, knees, hips, and/or back.

If this is the case for you, you can find a lower platform to do step-ups on and give this a try.

Another option is doing lighter leg resistance training exercises with a smaller range of motion.

As you get stronger over time, you could become able to do step-ups successfully.

Something else to note is that step-ups can be challenging in terms of balance.

If this is not your strong point, you may want to start with something like lunges.

Step-up alternatives

Step-ups are definitely still a great exercise but you may want something with fewer balance requirements, something less challenging, or leg exercises with a slightly different focus.

In these cases, you can consider one of the step-up alternatives below instead.

  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Jump squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Pistol squats
  • Box jumps
  • Deadlifts
  • Single-leg press

Which of these step-up alternatives is the right choice for you depends on details like your training goals and the fitness equipment you have available.

Are step-ups a good exercise?

Step-ups can be a great exercise for growing and strengthening important leg muscles like your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Especially if you don’t have a lot of fitness equipment available, step-ups are good in the sense that they offer a lot of resistance with just your body weight.

One potential downside is that you still need a sturdy elevated platform to do the exercise.

Additionally, not everyone will likely the balance aspect of step-ups.

Especially once you start using extra weights, the balancing could distract you from working your muscles optimally.

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Matt Claes founded Weight Loss Made Practical to help people get in shape and stay there after losing 37 pounds and learning the best of the best about weight loss, health, and longevity for over 4 years. Over these years he has become an expert in nutrition, exercise, and other physical health aspects.