Step Up Your Leg Gains

This is what your glutes, quads, and hams have been missing.

When you think of step-ups, the first thing that comes to mind might be the aerobics DVD your mom used as a dust-collector back in the ‘90s. But don’t let the memory of neon tights fool you. The step-up is one of the most effective ways to build your legs’ strength and size.

Think it’s too easy to be effective? Check out these challenging variations:

1. High Eccentric Step-Up

This variation calls for a slow, controlled eccentric/lowering phase for optimal balance and stability. A common mistake is to focus solely on the concentric/lifting portion and completely neglect loading the movement’s eccentric phase.

Pay attention to my back leg. Instead of putting all my weight down on the floor and springing up with my rear foot, I keep my back leg locked and focus on pushing solely through my front leg.

This variation encourages dorsiflexion in the ankle and flexion in the hip when performed optimally. Doing it without shoes (or without assisted heel elevation) adds icing to the cake. After every session involving high step-up variations, I can feel my ankles and hips becoming more mobile.

Bonus: The added range of motion (with your knee above your hip) increases the total time under tension.

2. Lateral Step-Up

You’ll get a lot of glute medius engagement from this. Your glutes act as hip extensors and knee stabilizers. They’re one of the primary muscles responsible for supporting the spine. So yeah, they’re kinda important.

Most common exercises reside in the sagittal plane. It’s important to add exercises in various planes of movement (such as this lateral variation) to reduce your risk of injury and imbalances.

This will help with knee stability too. Knee cave (valgus collapse) is a common issue when doing squats. This variation trains your ability to stabilize the knee while moving laterally, which will help you keep a stable knee position during other lifts.

This step-up offers little-to-no assistance from the other leg. Notice how I keep my non-supporting leg locked and shift my weight into my pushing leg before stepping up. This allows you to focus solely on the pushing leg instead of using momentum and cheating your way through the movement.

3. Single-Leg Squat

Your working leg will go through an increased range of motion with this. It’s a great precursor to the pistol squat since the non-working leg can travel down to the side instead of being extended out in front.

Hold a plate or a couple of dumbbells in front of your chest and straighten your arms out as you squat down. Pushing the weight out in front of your body helps with counterbalance and adds an element of core stability.

What Step-Ups Will Do For You

  • Correct Imbalances: Bilateral (two-sided) movements like squats and deadlifts allow you to see your imbalances, while unilateral (one-sided) movements allow you to correct them. Strength and hypertrophy deficiencies between sides are common since most lifts are bilateral.

  • Increase Bilateral Strength: The stronger your limbs are individually, the stronger your bilateral lifts will be. So if you want to step up your squat game, start doing more single-leg work.

  • Minimal Loading on the Spine: You don’t need to load a barbell behind your neck to gain strength or size in your legs. While back squats can be highly effective, they tend to put high amounts of shear force on the spine. What’s more, lower-back strength is a limiting factor for squats. Step-ups allow you to bypass the spine and increase your legs’ total amount of loading.

  • Athletic Performance: Most athletic movements happen on one leg. So if you want to improve your athletic performance, include some single-leg work.

  • Core Strength: When you minimize your base of support (using one leg instead of two), you’re increasing the demand put on your core to stabilize your body.

The Biggest Mistakes

Although the benefits of step-ups are clear, they’re often performed incorrectly, negating any potential hypertrophy or strength benefits.

  • Going to Failure: Most people associate “hard” with “effective” and go to complete failure with these. To get the most out of step-ups, increase your loading and stop going to complete muscle failure.

  • Using Light Weights: Step-ups are not a cardio exercise. As with any lift, you need to load the movement and create tension in your muscles to get stronger and bigger. Step-ups are no different. Besides adding weight, you can increase the demand by slowing your tempo, increasing the range of motion, and including advanced variations.

  • Not Including Enough Variety: It’s more than just stepping up and down. Adding some variety will help keep things interesting and challenging.

  • Springing with the Back Foot: To make step-ups effective, minimize the amount of support from your back leg and emphasize the amount of effort in your pushing leg.

  • Not Emphasizing Tempo: Neglecting tempo is the equivalent of neglecting cooking times for recipes. How fast or slow you do an exercise will determine the impact to your muscles. Just like how long you cook your favorite dish will determine whether or not it’s edible.