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November 29, 2021 10 min read

There’s a very good chance you’ve already done this exercise today, even though you may not have thought about it. The step-up is just that—stepping up onto a higher platform.

Anytime you walk up a flight of stairs you’re performing mini step-ups that activate your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.

Not to mention the balance that’s needed to keep your body stable throughout the movement. You probably don’t think about it, but there’s a lot that goes into successfully climbing stairs.

Adding a barbell into the mix is a fantastic way to make this already beneficial exercise even more worthy of including into your workout routine. But to yield all of the benefits, we first have to learn to perform it correctly.

female doing box step ups at the gym

Benefits of Step Ups

The step-up is an extremely functional exercise—just imagine how many staircase steps you take in a day. However, even though it’s wrapped up in humble packaging, the step-up packs a big punch. Especially when it’s used to supplement your leg training around squats, the step-up can push you through plateaus and challenge your muscles in new and unique ways.

All About Leg Strength

While a bodyweight version can be performed, adding a barbell to the mix will dramatically increase the load on your muscles. This means that you can expect to garner significant strength gains along with muscle mass gains when implementing the step-up into your routine. It’s specifically going to be the quads, glutes, and hamstrings which are worked by this lift.

If you’re an athlete that runs a lot, quad exercises are going to be needed in your routine since the quads are underutilized in running and sprinting. If you want the step-up to emphasize the quads, change the height of the box to be on the short end. The minimum height of the box should have your thigh parallel to the floor, at the very least. You can also shorten the stride you take to get onto the box, which will also place a greater emphasis on the quads.

And if you’re looking to focus on the glutes, choose a higher platform to step up onto. You can also stand further away from the box to increase your stride and therefore put more of your attention on the gluteal muscles. This makes the step-up and amazingly versatile workout that can be modified to suit your individual needs and goals.

Addressing Strength Imbalances

The step-up is a unilateral leg exercise, meaning that each leg is going to be working independently of the other one. This is different than the squat, for example, where both legs work together to lift the weight. Whether we realize it or not, one of our sides is always going to be slightly stronger or weaker than the other side. This doesn’t affect us much if we keep it under control, but not addressing these weaknesses will lead to muscle imbalances—especially if you continue training normally. Muscle imbalances not only will get in the way of your aesthetic goals, but they could also lead to injuries down the road.

Advancing Proprioception

The step-up is a compound, full-body exercise that requires several different muscle groups and joints to work in sync with one another. Not only is this good for developing strength, but it’ll also develop our proprioceptive abilities. 

Proprioception is a mix of balance, coordination, and simply knowing where our body is at any one point. Performing the step-up normally already takes a significant amount of balance, but requiring a barbell will challenge us much more.

How To Step Up

 

Before you begin the exercise, you need to make sure that you’re set up properly. In terms of equipment, you’re going to need a box (or a bench can be used as an alternative), and a barbell with weight plates. The box should be around knee height to allow for your upper leg to rise to at least parallel to the floor—the minimum requirement for a step-up.

Leave enough space between yourself and the box to allow you to set up your feet a bit wider than hip-width apart. Your toes should remain pointing forward throughout the entire exercise.

If you’re using a heavier weight, do a warm-up before beginning the barbell step-up.

  1. Set up a bar in a power rack with your chosen weights. Using an overhand grip that’s wide, place the bar on the back of your shoulders and traps. Unrack the barbell and go over to where you’ll be stepping up. You’ll want to stand about 12 to 18 inches in front of the elevated platform, but this will also depend on your training goals).
  2. Ensure that you’re standing tall and your abdominals are engaged. You should maintain a neutral spine as well. This is going to be your starting position.  
  3. Raise one of your feet and place it on the elevated surface. Extend the knee and hip joints of the leading leg, bringing your back foot onto the platform. Mostly push through the heel to bring your back foot up. Exhale as you step upward.
  4. As your trailing leg comes up on the box and you’re firmly standing, don’t pause. Instead, immediately begin the eccentric motion.
  5. Flexing your leading hip and knee, reach the trailing leg backward and off the platform. Once the trailing leg is back firmly on the floor, step down with your leading leg. This counts as a single repetition.
  6. Ensure that your back is straight throughout this entire movement, driving through the leading leg every single time. Switch sides after every rep and repeat for your programmed number of reps and sets.

Programming the Step Up

The barbell step up is going to be all about conditioning and being able to use heavier weights than you otherwise would be able to. You should also be considering not only how high of a box to use, but also how far away you want to stand.Like we talked about before, this is going to depend on whether you want to emphasize the quads or the glutes more.

A higher step with a longer stride will engage the glutes more, while a shorter stride and a shorter step will emphasize the quads more. Beginners should aim for anywhere between 2 to 3 sets of around 6 to 10 reps. But if you’ve been stepping up for a while—and using a barbell—a good goal is 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps. However, if you’re using heavier weights, you’re going to want to decrease your rep count. The more reps you do, the more of a hypertrophy and conditioning exercise this is going to become.

If you’re looking more so for strength training, aim for overloading your muscles more while decreasing the number of repetitions you complete.The barbell step up should also be thought of as an assistance movement or the squat. On your leg days, include step-ups after your squatting so you’re not gassed out for your heaviest lift (the squat). Alternatively, if you’re doing a “light” leg day, then barbell step-ups can make up the bulk of the intensity during your gym session.

Perfecting the Step Up Exercise

At first glance, the barbell step up is an easy exercise to grasp. However, because of the overloaded barbell and the need to balance the weight, there’s a lot that can go wrong.A more perfected form will yield much better results, both in terms of muscular and strength development and in terms of injury prevention.

Doing an exercise incorrectly is a one-way ticket to getting injured and effectively kneecapping your gains. Here are some of the most important things to consider when first implementing the barbell step-up into your training program.

Putting the Right Foot Forward

All of the moving should be happening with the leading leg. All too often, people cheat by using the back leg to push off of the floor.The power that gets you up onto the platform should come from the leg that leads. Doing this for every repetition will ensure that each leg is getting its time in the spotlight, instead of relying on the trailing leg.

If you’re having trouble with this, try pulling up your toes on the back foot. What this does is take a lot of the weight off the ball of your foot and onto the heel, making it much more difficult to drive off with the ball. And on the other hand (or foot), you should be driving through the heel of the leading foot—not the ball. This will allow for the most efficient transfer of energy through your legs and will better activate the muscles that need to be activated.

Your knees should also stay in line with your feet. Don’t let them cave in or out, and don’t allow them to come in front of the foot when stepping up onto the platform. They should also be pointing straight forward throughout, instead of being turned outward or inward. This also has a lot to do with not allowing yourself to lean or hunch forward.

Leaning and Hunching Forward

Although some leaning forward is allowed, try to keep your torso as upright as possible when stepping up onto the platform. Your hips should be supporting your torso by being directly underneath them and maintaining a square shape. If your butt is out or you’re arching your back, that’s a sign you’re leaning forward too much.

It’s also important to not hunch forward or rock forward to initiate the movement. As we said, the power should come from the leading leg. Your abdominals need to be properly engaged to avoid hunching and to keep your spine neutrally aligned throughout the entire lift.

Starting Slow

Finally, it’s important to start slow with the barbell step-up. The barbell step-up should be thought of as an intermediate to advanced lift because of the high degree of proprioception needed to keep a heavy bar balanced while you’re stepping up, down, forward, and backward.

It’s always good to start with an empty bar, but for beginners or intermediates, a better exercise might instead involve holding kettlebells or dumbbells to either side. This won’t necessitate nearly as much balance needs, but the trade-off is that you won’t be able to overload your muscles as much as with a barbell.This is a good time to introduce the variations and alternatives to the step-up.

Step Up Variations

The step-up is a versatile exercise. Like we discussed, just by changing the height and the length of the stride you can already be emphasizing different muscle groups. There’s a lot to unpack with the step-up, especially when considering that it’s a relatively simple movement pattern.But the barbell step-up is a more advanced variation, and so it might be a good idea to alter it by either doing bodyweight step-ups or dumbbell variations.

The bodyweight step-up will work the same muscles, but with nowhere near the muscle overloading possible with weights. Holding onto a couple of dumbbells is also an option that gives you a method of resistance training, but the dumbbell step-up isn’t going to challenge your ability to balance as much as having a barbell on your upper back.These are some minor variations, but you can also change the pattern of the movement itself.

Lateral Step-Ups

The lateral step-up requires lifters to place a platform to one of their sides instead of in front of them. Mechanically speaking, this makes the lateral step-up a better method of replicating the movement in a conventional squat.The regular step-up is more similar to a lunge since it doesn’t recruit as many inner thigh muscles as the squat (or the lateral step-up).

You’re going to be performing the exercise in the exact same way, with the one difference being that you won’t be able to switch the leading foot between reps. Like with the regular step-up, you can also add resistance with dumbbells or a barbell.

Plyometric Step Ups

The explosive version of the step-up is a great way to develop explosive power in your lower body. If you’re looking to train your vertical, then this is a good exercise to include in your training program. This is also a great variation for emphasizing the glute muscles and can provide a great cardio workout.

While you can use dumbbells in this variation, you should probably avoid the barbell.

Since you’ll be explosively driving upward, the bar will be almost impossible to safely balance. Instead of placing the trailing leg on the platform, you’re going to want to drive the knee upward towards your chest. Do this with enough power and you’ll be able to go straight up into a jump with your leading leg leaving the platform.

On the descent, land with your leading leg on the platform and immediately step down without resting your trailing foot. Keep in mind that you’re going to want a more stable platform than a bench for this exercise since you’re going to be pushing against the platform relatively hard—especially if you’re using weights.

Alternatives to the Step Up

However, if you’re looking to spread your wings outside of the world of step-ups, there are plenty of other exercises out there that challenge your muscles in similar ways.

 

The Bulgarian split squat is a fantastic alternative, for example. It’s performed with one leg resting on a bench behind you, and so you’re forced to squat only with the leading leg. This allows for a unilateral development that addresses muscle imbalances much like the step-up.

Lunges are another great bodyweight alternative to step-ups.

They’re also a unilateral movement, but they require less balance. This means that your stabilizers are going to get a bit of a break, at least when compared to step-ups. That results in an exercise where you can place more of your focus on the leg movements themselves, rather than keeping your body stable enough to step up.

Finally, the single-leg leg press is a good way to supplement your squatting routine. It will provide the unilateral benefits of the other exercises which also being extremely versatile depending on where you place your feet on the machine.

Step Up Your Game

Your legs are the root of your strength, balance, and mobility. Developing this area of your body has cascading effects on every other aspect of your training, so it makes sense to give it its proper attention. The step-up is one of the best ways to supplement your leg training, and so including it in your routine should be a no-brainer.

But with all of the small variations in the step-up, it’s important to have clear and achievable goals to strive towards.

Having a set of strong goals is one of the best ways of ensuring that you achieve something, and it will help you out in the mental game of training. Training is a marathon, not a sprint—your mindset and your approach to your body should reflect that.