Sports Training

The Best Step Up Alternative

We love how the step up has gone from a variation move to a mainstay for strong legs. From wholesome leg muscle development to recruiting more stabilizer muscles, the perks are many.

Regardless of whether you do bodyweight step ups or haul a log while stepping on to a box, it’s an amazing exercise.

But a lot of people find it a tough nut to crack. They lack balance. The stability is not there. Some are limited by injuries. Others just don’t have a box/step to climb up on to. Then there’s the lack of scientific reasoning, which underlines the whole hype surrounding step ups.

What are your options if you cannot perform step ups? That’s what we are going to explore today. Having used step ups extensively for functional strength and hypertrophy, we have tried, tested and researched the alternatives.

So much so, that we know exactly what works & what doesn’t. What are the benefits and the pitfalls? We are going to share it all with you. So stay tuned.


What Is the Step up Exercise?

What is the step up exercise?

The Step up is a wholesome lower body workout. It’s great for cardio, balance and strength. Think of it like climbing up a step. Only in this case, the step can be as high as 30-inches or more. Some boxes are even taller than that.

You can perform it at home, in the gym, in the park or even in the bathroom. In the early days, Step ups were primarily used in Plyometric training as a form of HIIT.

But over the years, studies have unraveled some amazing benefits of step ups for strength and muscle recruitment. For one, it offers the maximum activation of the Gluteus Maximus muscle. Even more than Lunges or Squats.

Then the Bulgarians came along with their alternative training methods and new lifting records, etching the step-up into bodybuilding folklore forever. But most of the theories being pushed by proponents are based on anecdotal instances or rehabilitation information.

More recently, renowned strength coach Michael Boyle has warned against abandoning the squat in favor of the step up, especially if you have knee pathologies. This theory that gained a lot of traction with Anatoly Bondarchuk’s research.

What’s the takeaway? Unfortunately, there’s none. The verdict for this is still out there.


Equipment Required to Perform Step up Exercise

Equipment required to perform step up exercise

In its basic variation, the step up is an equipment-free workout. All you need to perform step ups are two legs, some weight (optional) and a stable surface that can sustain the weight.

It can be a chair, a platform, an actual step or a bench. Basically anything works. If you are looking for more specialized options, there’s the step up box.

Step Up Boxes

Step Up Boxes

Step Up boxes are small stepping surfaces specially designed for step ups. These can be made of wood, metal, foam or a blend of all these. The height can range from 10” to 30” on an average and the surface generally features some sort of absorbent material to reduce the impact on your joints. Step Up boxes can also be used for other plyometric exercises by the way.

Here are some options in case you are interested.

Yes4All
Yes4All Adjustable step up box

16” x 16” – Height adjustable, Supports up to 275 pounds and made of tough polyethylene

Yes4All Multifunctional Aerobic Deck
Yes4All Multifunctional Aerobic Deck

Height & Angle adjustable. Can double up as a bench and a flat surface for aerobic training.

The Step Home Gym
The Step Home Gym

4 – 6” tall, supports up to 400 lbs. and budget priced.

Stair Stepper

Stair Stepper

The Stair Stepper or stair climber, depending on what you call it is a great choice if you want to add some automation to step ups. The basic premise remains the same, with one key difference. You get an angle-adjustable step up surface with the option to add up hills. Also, these generally feature LCD monitors that track your performance.

SportsRoyals Stair Stepper
Sportsroyals Stair Stepper

330 lbs. weight capacity, high quality steel construction and LED display

Sunny Health Mini Stepper
Sunny Health & Fitness Mini Stepper with Resistance Bands

13” tall, slip-resistant pedals. Budget pricing.


What Muscles Does a Step up Work?

The Step Up is touted to be most well-rounded lower body exercises that recruits almost all primary muscles of the legs, and a whole bunch of stabilizers. Also, you can switch the variants to alternate between the primary muscles.

For instance, reducing the height of the step will involve the quadriceps more, while increasing it will recruit more glute. Here’s a look at all the muscle groups recruited in the step up.

If you mix this exercises with an exercise the overhead cable curl or shrugs(dumbbell or barbell shrugs), you would be able to work both your lower body and your upper body in one workout session, this would be handy for those who are busy and don't have time but want a full-body workout.


Quads

Quads are worked by the step up exercise

The quads do the bulk of the lifting in all step up variants.


Glutes

Glutes are worked by the step up exercise

As indicated in the clinical study we shared above, the step up is a terrific exercise for a perky bottom.


Adductors & Hip Flexors

Adductors & Hip Flexors are worked by the step up exercise

One of the reasons why the step up is considered a great strength building exercise is because of the adductors and hip flexor muscles it recruits.


Core

core musles are worked by the step up exercise

Last but not the least, the step up is a great core workout that can improve balance and stability.


Pros and Cons of the Step-Up Exercise

Pros and Cons of the Step-Up Exercise

Let’s talk about some of the advantages and possible disadvantages of doing the step up.


Pros

  • Wholesome lower body workout
  • Convenient
  • Multiple variations
  • Reasonably easy to perform
  • Low risk of injury
  • Excellent for cardiovascular strength as well

Cons

  • Very few published studies to back up the claims with
  • Maybe more beneficial in rehabilitative plan rather than a muscle building one
  • Tends to be deceptive, in terms of the strength and balance it takes to perform this

While we can live with the second and the third, it’s the first one that makes the step up seem like a panacea, with no proven benefits. The studies are limited. Most of them feature talk about the advantages for people with limited lower body strength.

For this reason, you too may want to consider a few alternatives to step ups.


Best Step Up Exercise Alternatives

If you have been guilty of neglecting other proven leg workouts in favor of the step ups, maybe you’d want to mix things up a little more.

Either way, here are some of the best options.


Alternate #1 - Walking Lunges – My Personal Favorite

Walking Lunges are a great alternative to step ups

These will kill you, in a good way. As if standing lunges weren’t bad-ass enough, these have you walking (or trying to) with weights on your shoulders or hanging by your sides. They will recruit the quads, the glute, the hamstrings, calves, adductors and hip flexors.

Do It the Right Way 

  • Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Now take a step forward with your right leg as if you are performing a static lunge. Slowly lower your hips, bending your knees at 90-degrees. The front knee will be facing forward while the back one will be close to the ground (not touching it). That’s one rep.
  • Now push into the ground with your right heel and use it to push off the left foot lunging forward with it. That’s two reps for you.
  • Now do as many as you want to, to complete your set.
  • Add resistance with dumbbells or a barbell.

Here is a video of how to do walking lunges


Alternate #2 – Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian Split Squats can be a great alternative to step ups

The Bulgarian Split squat is an advanced variation of the single-legged squat. It is performed by placing your back leg on an elevated surface, which places a much greater emphasis on your quads and the core muscles. This exercise is probably as tough as the step up. In fact, it may be tougher for a lot of people since you balance the entire body on one leg. If you add resistance to it, then we recommend that you go slow because it’s not easy to find the right foot placement and balance.

Do It the Right Way

  • Stand upright, at a distance of 1-2 feet from a chair or bench that will serve as the stable platform to rest your rear leg on.
  • Lift your right foot and place it on the chair behind you. You can either place the top of your foot on the chair, or you can place the ball and the toes on it. Like we said earlier, it may take some trial and error. Try both and go with what works for you.
  • Work on finding the ideal width to separate the two legs with. About hip-distance works fine for most people. If the width is too narrow, then you will find it very difficult to balance yourself when you lunge forward.
  • Now bend your left knee forward, maintaining a stable core, shoulders back and eyes forward. Your back knee and ankle should bend naturally allowing you to complete the movement. The purpose of this foot is to provide balance and stability while your left knee bears the entire weight.
  • As you bend the left knee, ensure that it is aligned with the ankle at all times. Protruding forward is bad form, just as bowing backwards is. Stay controlled through the full range of motion.
  • Press and move back to standing position. This is one rep. Complete as many reps as you want for one foot and then step your right foot off the chair. Perform an even number of reps for the other foot to complete one set.

Here is a video of how to do Bulgarian split squats


Alternate #3 - Glute Bridges

Glute Bridges are a great alternative to step ups

If you sit all day, you have weak glute muscles. Period. We are not even getting into the hamstrings and other muscle groups which are also probably weakened. The Glute Bridge is one of the easiest (not literally) exercise to fire up the gluteal muscles. With time and persistence, you should gain flexibility, regain mobility and improve the aesthetics.

What’s amazing is that glute bridges are a no equipment workout, exactly like step ups are. At least the basic version is.

Do It the Right Way

  • Lie on the ground on a workout mat with a flat back and your eyes pointed towards the ceiling. Your knees should be bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Slowly lift up your hip (glutes) until it aligns in a straight line with the knees and the shoulders. Be careful to not hyperextend the hip. Everything must be in a straight line.
  • Squeeze your glute at this point. Hold for a couple of seconds and lower to the starting position.

Here is a video of how to do glute bridges

There are many variations of the Glute Bridge. The single-legged glute bridge for instance, is an excellent step up alternative for people with existing knee problems. It recruits almost all the muscles except for the quads and the knees.

Similarly, if you are looking to add resistance, there’s the hip-thruster, a superior exercise for recruiting the hip extensor muscles.


FAQs About Step up Exercise

A lot of first timers are skeptical about step ups. But they don’t know where to begin their research from. Here are some common questions answered.

A lot of first timers are skeptical about step ups. But they don’t know where to begin their research from. Here are some common questions answered.


Is Performing Step up Exercises Risky?

The argument that’s pitted against the step up is that it may aggravate any existing knee problems that athletes may have. A lot of athletes have undiagnosed knee issues, which may get compounded with it. To sum it up, if you are a spring chicken, then it may not be risky. But if you have the occasional complaint or two about your knee, then it may not be the best choice of exercise for you.


What Can I Use at Home for Step Ups?

Anything that’s stable, even and can sustain your weight (plus the weight you are lifting) should be good to go. It can be a step stool, some plates stacked one above the other, a chair or your bench, if you have one.


Is There Any Dumbbell Step up Alternative?

You can perform the walking lunge, the reverse lunge, the Bulgarian split squat or the deadlift, with dumbbells instead of the barbell. All of these are equally challenging exercises for your legs.


Are Step Ups Better than Lunges?

Anecdotally, yes they are. But research is scarce, barring the Bulgarian hype of course. Given that the lunges are a proven exercise with tons of evidence pointing towards the benefits, we would vouch for over step ups.


Are Step Ups Bad for Your Knees?

The starting point for step ups is a pure concentric contraction, which lacks the eccentric component that takes the force off your knees. This makes it potentially problematic for athletes with preexisting knee problems, such as patella-femoral pain. The keyword here is ‘potentially’. Like everything in fitness, things are rarely binary. So unless we have more data, we can leave it here.


Can I Do Step Ups Every Day?

That depends on your fitness goals and the intended purpose. Some people use it has an HIIT exercise for cardiovascular strength. Others add resistance and height, using it for muscular development and strength. Since it involves all the major muscle groups of your legs, we would recommend that you do it only two to three times a week with 24-hours of rest between each session.


What Is a Good Height for Step Ups?

16” is considered the average height for men, while 13” is considered good for females. That said, this is not set in stone, nor backed by science. The only study that measures motor firing during step up variants, has a maximum height of 11”.


Are Step Ups Better than Squats?

There are coaches and athletes who seem to believe that it is a superior choice. There are two theories that are commonly presented by them. One is that step up is generally performed with a much lighter load, which may be beneficial for your lower back. Secondly, some athletes bounce at the lowest part of the squat, which places unhealthy stress on their spinal column. This can be avoided with step ups. But that’s not conclusive enough to shun the squat altogether. With a lot more data supporting it, the squat is definitely a superior choice provided that you have the right form, and no injuries limiting your range of motion.

Related Readings:

Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039033/
  2. http://www.jospt.org/doi/full/10.2519/jospt.2011.3408
  3. https://www.strengthcoach.com/public/2118.cfm
  4. http://www.overspeedtraining.com/legsart.htm
  5. https://exrx.net/WeightExercises/Quadriceps/BBStepUp
  6. https://www.jospt.org/doi/pdfplus/10.2519/jospt.1992.15.3.151
  7. https://www.thieme-connect.de/products/ejournals/abstract/10.1055/s-0034-1382016
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6544005/
  9. http://www.indmedica.com/journals.php?journalid=10&issueid=127&articleid=1691&action=article

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