Step-ups can be a powerful exercise but experienced lifters likely need to do them weighted to see a lot of benefits. Find out how you can do this.
There are a variety of weights you can use in step-ups. These have their own advantages and disadvantages. Make sure you choose the right ones for your personal situation and training goals to get the most out of your workouts.
After the different equipment options, you can also find a reminder about what weighted step-ups can be good for.
There is one more important thing to note before you give these weighted step-ups a try.
Make sure your step-up equipment, more specifically the elevated platform you will step on, is strong enough to deal with the extra pressure from the weights.
1. Dumbbell step-ups
Dumbbells are one of the most popular types of fitness equipment and for a good reason. Among other benefits, they are extremely versatile.
Dumbbells do stand out for their upper body training options but you can also use them for exercises like the step-up. This is also called a db step-up in short.
The first version of this exercise is the goblet step-up where you hold the dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands.
However, most people want to avoid this version since you can hold less weight and you are less balanced compared to the next version.
You can also hold one dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang by your sides. This allows you to hold more weight and you can still use your arms for balance to some extent. That may be needed during your step-ups.
One of the advantages of dumbbells when it comes to weighted step-ups is that basically any commercial gym has them. Even individuals with home gyms likely already have a few dumbbells laying around.
The main downside of dumbbells is that they require good grip strength. Your forearm grip muscles that have to hold the dumbbells are a lot weaker than the main muscles used in step-ups.
It is possible that these forearm grip muscles will fatigue before you have trained your leg muscles enough to get the results you are aiming for. You can resolve this with something like lifting straps but this is not ideal.
Another potential downside of this weighted version is that if you don’t have any dumbbells at home yet, these do require a decent initial investment.
2. Barbell step-ups
A barbell with weight plates is another common way to make exercises weighted for popularity reasons similar to dumbbells. There are both upsides and downsides to doing weighted step-ups with a barbell on your upper back.
This variation can be good in the sense that you can add a lot of weight without having to worry about grip muscles. Stronger individuals may need this to make their step-up sets challenging enough for their leg muscles.
That being said, the placement of the barbell and how you have to hold it in place can be big downsides.
One of the positive effects of step-ups is that they can help you train balance. However, when trying to grow and strengthen muscles, there is definitely a point where too many balance requirements interfere with this goal.
First of all, because your arms need to hold the barbell in place, you cannot use them to balance yourself.
Secondly, by holding the extra weight on your upper back, your center of gravity is relatively high. In the best case, this makes it so you can’t do your step-up with optimal technique. In the worst case, you fall over.
On top of that, it requires more effort and equipment to get the barbell on your upper back compared to something like simply picking up dumbbells.
Something that can be a small upside of barbell step-ups for some people is that you work your core muscles to a larger extent.
3. Kettlebell step-ups
Kettlebells are thicker steel balls with smooth handles. They are not as popular as dumbbells but many gyms do have kettlebells available.
That being said, if you want to do step-ups with weights, you preferably want to choose something different from kettlebells. No matter what variation you choose.
The first kettlebell step-up is another type of goblet step-up. That means you hold one kettlebell in front of your chest with both hands.
Similar to dumbbells, this is not great for balance and does not allow you to use that much extra weight.
The other option is holding one kettlebell in each hand. This is again not optimal. Even less so than the dumbbell version of this movement.
First of all, kettlebells are a lot thicker for their weight. Weighted step-ups are already challenging enough without kettlebells bumping around against your legs.
Secondly, the handles of kettlebells are typically smooth, they don’t have knurling (grooves on the handles). Knurling makes it easier for your grip muscles to hold the equipment.
By choosing kettlebells with smooth handles instead of dumbbells, the risk of fatiguing your forearm grip muscles before a good leg workout becomes bigger.
4. Smith machine step-ups
The smith machine is a construction where a bar that can be loaded with weight plates follows a fixed trajectory. Additionally, there are pins that allow you to rack the bar at multiple heights.
Smith machines can be good in the sense that they make step-ups a lot less challenging when it comes to balance.
This can help you focus on growing and strengthening the main muscles of the exercise which include your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
On the other hand, the fixed range of motion of the smith machine can also be a downside in a few ways. First of all, the way your shoulders have to follow the bar in weighted smith machine step-ups may simply feel uncomfortable.
Something less subjective is that smith machine step-ups will engage a variety of stabilizing muscles less compared to the regular version.
Examples of this include your hip abductors (outer thighs), hip adductors (inner thighs), and core muscles.
Lastly, challenging your balance in safe amounts can help you train this fitness component. With a smith machine, this will happen a lot less.
These advantages and disadvantages are not necessarily better or worse for every individual. Your training goals, personal situation, and preferences play a big role.
Something to note is that the smith machine can be great for lateral step-ups where your upper body does not sway around that much.
5. Resistance band step-ups
Resistance bands are pieces of fitness equipment that can be described as elastic cords. You can use these to do a variety of effective exercises, including a weighted step-up.
For this exercise, your best bet will be a relatively heavy loop resistance band. You want to anchor this band below the foot on the elevated platform and behind your upper back.
The most convenient way to do this weighted step-up is by keeping the top foot on the platform and finishing a set with each leg.
Some of the benefits of resistance bands include that they are relatively budget-friendly, easy to store, portable, and can be used for a variety of other movements.
There are definitely strong resistance bands that can make step-ups more than challenging enough for muscle growth and strength progress.
At the same time, you can still use your arms for balance and you are not fatiguing your grip muscles.
The main downside is that some people don’t like the tension “trajectory” of resistance bands. These get harder as you stretch them out. This may feel awkward if you are used to regular weights like dumbbells.
6. Weighted vest step-ups
A weighted vest is basically its name, a vest with weights attached to it. This piece of equipment is great for activities where you want to be able to move your arms and hold other things.
If you want to use this type of equipment for step-ups, you preferably want a good adjustable weighted vest that is on the heavier side. This allows you to start light and build up from there as you become stronger.
Weighted vests are a good option to do step-ups with weights. Your center of gravity is somewhat higher than other equipment options like dumbbells but it should still be low enough to do the exercise without a problem.
Additionally, you can move your arms freely if you do need to adjust your balance to some extent.
The main downside of this variation is that weighted vests do require an extra investment. That being said, they are not that expensive, especially if you consider how useful they can be in other workouts.
What are weighted step-ups good for?
Some people wonder why they would make step-ups even harder.
However, if you are more experienced with resistance training, you know that many of the benefits come from challenging your body enough (but not too much).
Some of the benefits of doing step-ups with extra weights include:
- More muscle growth and strength potential: To grow and strengthen muscles you have to challenge them enough. For the strong leg muscles worked in step-ups that often means using extra weights.
- Improve bone density: By putting your bones under safe amounts of extra pressure with weighted step-ups, you can make them stronger.
- Burn more calories: Moving more mass requires more energy from your body. Burning calories can help you keep your weight at a healthy level.
- Better cardiovascular health: Another effect of moving more mass is that your cardiovascular system has to work harder. By doing this in safe amounts you can strengthen these systems and get the benefits that result from this.
- Saves time: Working out longer is not necessarily better. By putting your muscles under more pressure you can finish your step-up workouts in a shorter amount of time.
Weighted step-up substitutes can also offer these benefits. However, these points do make it clear that doing step-ups with extra resistance is likely worth considering.