Step-ups are a resistance training exercise which means they work certain muscles a lot. Find out which ones and how to see progress.
Step-ups mainly work your quadriceps (front thighs), glutes (butt), hamstrings (back thighs), and calf muscles.
The way you do your step-ups influences what muscles you work more. For example, the closer you stand to the elevated platform, the more you will focus on your quadricep muscles.
By doing step-ups with the right resistance and workout plan, you can grow and strengthen some or all of the muscles above.
Besides the ones above, your hip abductors (outer thighs), hip adductors (inner thighs), and core muscles like your abs, obliques, and erector have to work to a small extent to keep you balanced and upright.
When doing weighted step-ups, other muscles will have to work to keep the resistance in place. Which ones depends on your equipment choice.
Step-ups muscles worked
There is a lot going on during the step-up exercise but there are a few muscles that have to exert the most force.
More specifically, the main muscles worked during step-ups are your quadriceps (front thighs), glutes (butt), hamstrings (back thighs), and calves.
To focus more on your quadriceps, you would try to get a bigger knee extension range of motion. You do this by putting your top foot near the edge and your lower foot near the platform.
On the other hand, you can focus more on your glutes and hamstrings by putting your feet farther apart. This will involve a bigger knee extension range of motion.
That aside, your hip abductors (outer thigh muscles) and hip adductors (inner thigh muscles) will also have to work a good amount to keep your thighs at the desired angles.
Especially when your body weight rests on one leg.
Next, core muscles like your abs, obliques, and erector spinae will have to work to a small amount during step-ups to keep your torso upright.
If you hold something like dumbbells in your hands, your forearm grip muscles will have to work hard too.
Lastly, there are side step-ups, aka lateral step-ups, where you step sideways on the elevated platform. These will work your inner thigh muscles and outer thigh muscles more.
Do step-ups build muscle?
While step-ups can help you build muscle, just doing this exercise a few times will likely not be good enough to achieve this goal.
To grow muscles you have to pressure them with enough resistance, repetitions, and sets. After that, you need to rest enough and provide your body with the necessary nutrients.
How much resistance and how many reps are enough depends on your current strength.
A rough guideline is that you want to do 6 to 25 (and potentially even up to 50) (weighted) step-ups for 3 to 6 sets with a resistance where you are just able to complete these ranges to build muscle.
Make sure the object you are stepping on can hold these amounts of weight.
In short, one of the benefits of step-ups is that they can help you build muscle in combination with the right weight, repetitions, sets, nutrition, and rest.
One potential downside of step-ups for building muscle is that they can be somewhat challenging when it comes to balance.
Especially certain weighted versions like barbell step-ups where your center of gravity is relatively high.
This can make it harder to work your muscles to sufficient extents.
Do step-ups grow glutes?
As briefly mentioned, there are different ways to do step-ups.
The more quadricep-focused variations will not be great for growing your glutes.
On the flip side, you can easily make some modifications to the exercise so that step-ups are able to grow your glutes anyway.
The main goal is to make the range of motion for these muscles bigger.
In practice, this will mean putting the highest foot farther on the platform and/or putting your foot at the bottom farther away from the elevated platform.
Step-ups vs squats muscles worked
Since back squats are such a fundamental lift, resistance training exercises like step-ups typically get compared to them.
First of all, squats mainly work the same big muscles. The question is how these exercises differ in what ratios they work the muscles and this depends on how you do the step-ups.
For example, by standing really close to the elevated platform, step-ups focus more on the quadriceps compared to standing farther away.
Additionally, the exact placement of your barbell influences in what ratio you work your quadriceps vs your glutes in the squat exercise.
That being said, squats tend to focus more on your quadriceps than step-ups. In turn, step-ups tend to work your glutes and hamstrings more than squats.
Step-ups also work your inner and outer thigh muscles more than squats.
Other important muscle-related differences
What muscles step-ups and squats work is not the only important thing. There are also other factors that can influence the effectiveness of your training.
Squats tend to be better for getting in a big range of motion with your muscles. This is generally good for growth and strength progress.
You do have to do the squats the right way to take advantage of this possibility.
Besides that, because of the extra balance challenge, squats and certain other two-legged step-up alternatives tend to be easier to do with a lot of weight.
Especially for experienced lifters who need a lot of weight, this extra balance requirement could be a big downside.
On the flip side, step-ups require less weight because you are working one leg at a time. That means you may find the balance requirements doable.
Additionally, this potentially makes step-ups the better option for people who don’t have a lot of weights available. Squats without enough resistance can be suboptimal.
So your choice between squats and step-ups will depend on things like your training goals, equipment collection, balance skills, personal preferences, etc.
How high should step-ups be for the glutes?
To do step-ups for your glutes you want a somewhat lower step where you can really take a big step forward. That way, your glutes can go through a larger range of motion.
What glute muscles do step-ups work?
Step-ups mainly work the gluteus maximus muscle. Additionally, you engage the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus to a small extent.