Why the Step-Up Exercise Is the Biggest Enigma in Sports Training – SimpliFaster (2023)

In my experience, no other exercise has had so much success with adoption but so little useful research on its effectiveness and execution as the step-up exercise. Recently, the details on how to properly perform the movement in the weight room created a firestorm, likely because the exercise is very unassuming. After a few days of calling and looking around for solid information, I realized that not enough good resources are available to guide coaches and athletes on the necessary details needed to decide whether it’s a worthwhile investment or not.

In addition to appraising the value of the step-up exercise in training, I include coaching aspects from colleagues that I feel are important to consider.

The Step-Up Exercise on Trial: Is It Worth Including in a Program?

For some reason, the step-up is used in thousands of training programs worldwide, as it has a cult following, but the research on it is very weak for sports performance. Unlike squats, Olympic weight lifts, and plyometrics, the step-up gets a pass for having value without a lot of analysis on what it does well or uniquely. Several sources, some of which are close to fairy tales, are scattered around the early 1990s about what the Bulgarians were and were not doing in the decade earlier with step-ups.

Some coaches will refer to Anatoly Bondarchuk, another influence because of his success with the hammer, but many other coaches will focus on the variations of the step-up, thanks to the videos and articles from Charles Poliquin. The step-up exercise doesn’t have much discussion about injuries, but Michael Boyle has publicly positioned the exercise as not worth doing with knee pathologies. Another leading expert, Bob Alejo, found the step-up to be very valuable with athletes. To summarize, the step-up is a bit of a mystery as it’s popular enough to be included, but is rarely the celebrated exercise that other options are.

Too often, the step-up gets a pass for having value without analysis on what it does well. Click To Tweet

A decision on the value of an exercise doesn’t require rocket science, but it does need attention to detail. To fairly ask whether something is worth doing, the reward (benefit of the exercise) must be carefully compared to the risk (likelihood of injury or waste of resources) of implementation. Here are four criteria I use to make decisions on any exercises.

  1. Potential for Performance and Resilience: How well does the exercise improve performance, decrease injuries, and rehabilitate injuries if they do occur?
  2. Orthopedic and Operational Danger: Does the exercise inherently cause direct risk or does it have complications that can increase risk if something goes wrong?
  3. Equipment and Facility Demands: What specific investment is needed to perform the exercise effectively, including space and training tools?
  4. Instructional and Preparation Requirements: What development is needed by the athlete and how much coaching is required for proper technique and competence?

As you can see, it looks like the step-up has value and enough potential to merit inclusion into a program, but if it was the secret weapon of teams, we would see it now creating monsters like Frankenstein’s lab. The step-up is an exercise that shows value, but it has not been researched enough to fully understand what it does to be considered indispensable.

(Video) Applied Sports Science Podcast – Ep. 5 with Carl Valle, InsideTracker

How to Properly Perform the Step-Up: One Interpretation

To remove bias, I spent a long time looking for examples of proper step-up technique from different sources, and got a lot of vague summaries or incomplete instruction. I looked through my “NSCA Essentials: Strength & Conditioning” book from college to see the proper technique, but due to the age of the text, the exercise looked like it could be subject to some changes based on other coaches’ preferences and philosophies. I have seen several different styles, variations, and even machines that can replicate the step-up exercise.

My own belief is that the purpose of the step-up is to get single leg drive both vertically and horizontally. The height of the box and the goals of the lift can dramatically change the instruction and safety of the exercise. The best example of this is the Petersen Step-up promoted by Poliquin, as it looks like a concentric-driven exercise and is very knee dominant. Other options are still knee dominant, but they get slightly more hip action if the free leg allows forward knee drive.

Video 1. The use of a jerk box—customized, of course—allows for a more stable base of support than small plyometric boxes. This video shows the focus on typical loading with barbells and lower heights.

As the video clearly points out, most athletes will have some momentum in the lift, especially as the weight and/or height of the box increases. Some athletes step down on the box evenly, while plenty of coaches encourage flexion of the knee or punch up and forward. The thought, and logically so, is that as we walk up stairs or run, the alternating dissociation is happening, so why cut it from happening? Neurologically, its inclusion or exclusion isn’t going to change the game, but if it has some benefit for an athlete grasping the exercise, it should be plenty safe if everything else is properly set up.

Video 2. Dumbbells sometimes add a little forward momentum to the equation when performing step-ups. In addition to selecting different loading techniques, coaches sometimes add a rapid stomp down to perform the activity with a more aggressive manner. I currently don’t know if this helps scientifically, but does help some athletes perform the movement better.

Much of the safety issue comes from making the exercise not need a spotter, or having such skilled athletes they are not at risk because they are focused, coordinated, and properly supported by a coach or another athlete spotting. I will get more into safety later, but the main point here is that the exercise is simply a single leg movement with an elevated box for pushing down on to project the entire body load up.

From Rehabilitation to Performance: The Scientific Evidence

Much of the research on sports performance is purely anecdotal, as I have not seen a meta-analysis of how the step-up exercise in isolation is showing a significant impact on athletic performance. We see a lot of research that addresses surface EMG on how the exercise works, not how well the exercise works in sport. Additionally, the research is usually rehabilitation information because the action of stepping up mimics stairs, a cardinal sign of health for the elderly and post-surgical patient. Most of the research usually relies on the typical, shallow step-up height and is unloaded, with very little information on heavy and high step-ups. While a research finding alluded to an article demonstrating value in performance, the information was not an actual study and further clouds the unknown effectiveness of the exercise.

As of today, nothing in the research has indicated that the exercise is a leading option in sports performance and sports medicine for the reduction of injury rates. Rehabilitation is more difficult to demonstrate outcomes in because the criteria for success are highly subjective, with indications of self-reported and qualitative data from (usually untrained) senior populations, so it’s not really known if the movement is a game changer or not. In order to make a case for the step-up, proxy exercises can be compared and adjustments to the common approach to its execution may be necessary.

Much of the single leg exercise support is being reinforced with a comparison study of conventional versus split squats. Heavy but common loads used by rugby players show that using the exercises for short periods of time is nearly interchangeable with a squat. What it doesn’t show is the best solution in the long run for maximal performance, since both study groups remained at the same level of ability and didn’t show signs of huge change. Regardless, if the split squat is as effective as the squat, why isn’t a step-up—a motion with plenty of similarities—not a replaceable alternative for coaches and athletes? My hunch is the ego component of load has made the exercise into a momentum game with athletes and coaches, allowing a strict exercise to become more and more a rolling squat up, reducing the true load and transfer of the movement. Also, very little options exist besides directional variables, and we don’t see many coaching systems that push programming with this exercise because it’s humbling to do it right.

As of now, the step-up exercise is relegated to the “accessory” level of priority in most training programs. I agree with many of the critics of the exercise, but believe the points are not valid if small adjustments are made in execution. The most important argument to the limitations of step-ups is the eccentric component of the exercise, and it’s the reason many coaches avoid using the modality.

Are Step-Ups Risky or an Anatomically Faulty Movement?

The most controversial part of step-ups is that the eccentric component of the exercise is either eliminated or not taken advantage of. Single leg exercise proponent, Michael Boyle, has claimed that, due to the starting point of the step-up being concentric in nature, it is not a wise choice for those with patellofemoral issues. Empirically, I agree: For some reason my own knee does find the exercise uncomfortable, and symptoms of knee overuse syndrome are often linked to walking up stairs. Yet this argument holds little water now as many coaches lower the box height and start with a decent eccentric drop before concentrically contracting up. Even if the first half of the first rep is concentric in nature, resetting during the top extended portion of the exercise will allow the repetitions afterwards to start with an eccentric action.

A controversial part of step-ups is the elimination of the eccentric component. Click To Tweet

Boyle is correct about the stereotype of cheating in the exercise, or the excessive use of momentum. He has a very elegant summary of the exercise as hard to do well and easy to do poorly, but that has more to do with the coaching side, variation choice, and equipment. Still, real odds against the exercise are worth mentioning and there is some navigation required to work around the situation.

Video 3. The eccentric component of step-ups is very demanding and will often lower the load used in training drastically, thus bruising athlete egos. Focus on technique by not worrying about any load and treat it like a balance exercise so athletes don’t get lured into number chasing.

The knee and lumbar spine are the first two areas to investigate, as it’s fair to argue those regions are most at risk, due to the strain at the knee and potential spine injury from having load at the shoulders with a bar or even with dumbbells at the side. According to some arguments regarding spinal injuries in weight training, while total load is often the culprit, asymmetrical loading with higher coordinated demands and dynamic changes in support do pose risks as well. Single leg exercises are not risk-free exercises; they are usually selected by risk-aware coaches trying to give their athletes the best chance to get better with the least risk necessary.

Video 4. A technique of driving the knee up to help finish the movement is common with the step-up exercise. I don’t have any confidence that the benefits are high enough to make this motion necessary or that adding a knee punch will add more risk.

The punching or hip flexion motion usually done to complete the exercise can create some posterior tilting of the pelvis while the other support leg is locked, something that may be a problem for those really restricted in the hip joint and who have a history of real pathology. Unless a conspiracy exists, the medical reporting for acute disc injury from step-ups doesn’t point to an outbreak or serious hazard, by any stretch of the imagination. How the crossed-extensor reflex is involved in improving the execution of the movement is unknown and just a conjecture, but lifting the knee up does increase the support mechanism of the other leg.

Several programs have adopted the Frans Bosch style of stepping up stairs rapidly, and I think this is imprudent and a poor investment in both time and energy. After a decade of its use, I would hope that some sort of evidence of transfer or injury reduction was a closed case, but it’s a fad that is not dying fast enough.

Using a lateral version with a lower box and a descent can help prevent the toe trip that many athletes worry about. Stepping up and having the toe drag over the lip of a box or bench is the reason many coaches are hesitant to load the exercise heavy, as they feel an athlete is more likely to tumble down due to the footing not being secure. The step-up doesn’t seem to be a big risk based upon the known information.

What Equipment and Space Is Required for a Solid Step-Up?

I have never had an injury with step-ups in training, but the contact hours and loads have always been on the lighter side. From my own experience, as well as the experience of other coaches, the facility layout and equipment used make a real difference. A solid step-up is nearly risk-free, organized, and easy to implement when time is at a premium.

Floor Space and Power Racks: I like racks or platforms regardless whether athletes are cleaning or squatting heavy, as they tend to focus more when they are on stage. Remove the athlete from the main training area and energy seems to drop and distractions tend to rise. I have not used squat racks for step-ups, but have seen safety options that utilize jerk boxes with some creative flair and smart thinking. If racks are not available, clear areas should be set aside so athletes are free from possible interaction with balls or similar, mainly because vision is so limited when performing step-ups.

Bench or Box: The laziest part of the exercise comes from setting up the right surface or box to step-up onto. Many programs use fitness benches, and this not much different than using a balance pad. Even plyometric boxes tend to be risky, not just from their lack of a base, but their metal frame is also just not a good idea. The firmness needs to be enough for stable footing, but the edges can’t be maiming the athlete if something goes wrong. The height of the box should be closer to 1 foot or less than 2 feet. It’s easy to drop a knee for a bigger split distance than to risk height that has not shown to create value anywhere. Joint angles are variables that may show up in performance research, but for the most part, full-range motions are easier to implement because they are more repeatable.

External Loading Options: Coaches can use vests, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and even cable machines as possible interventions. I love vests and single carry options as they feel more balanced to an athlete, but anything is possible as long as great care is used. Loading percentages are a bit of a guessing game, but I like going lighter than loads used with exercises done on more “terrestrial” surfaces. Eighty to 120% of body weight is widespread enough that it’s a safe bet that loading is not overzealous. Going heavier than those loads is beyond my experience.

Not much is needed to get a good step-up workout completed, but a lot can go wrong when the respect for the training is lost. Every lift has a risk, and some more than others. For the most part, however, danger can be severely mitigated by athletes respecting the training process and being cautious at all times. It’s not a culture of fear that is needed during training, just an adherence to following directions every minute during the session.

When Is an Athlete Ready for Step-Ups in Their Program?

Progressions are all the rage, as it feels good to have a small evolutionary approach to exercise development with athletes. Unfortunately, coaches like getting comfortable with what to do before, after, and in place of common exercises. Generally, I consider the step-up to be one of the most advanced exercises for single leg strength training because athletes are not on solid ground and they are usually compromised with holding a barbell or dumbbells. The difficulty of the exercise is tied mainly to the coaching program and, of course, the coaches themselves. Athletes can be talented, but some athletes are not deserving of the title and are not the most coordinated. Since many personal trainers use step-ups, nobody is going to say doing them is an accomplishment, but doing them perfectly is a responsibility.

Trainees should be fluent in all ground-based exercises like lunges, squats, and similar patterns before doing step-ups. It’s not that walking up stairs requires special skills, it’s that many new athletes will start doing barbell work too early with step-ups without being experienced in bilateral squatting. Very few people use racks to step-up in, and most are just done in open areas. This is the reason I believe it’s important to be a better squatter early and step up heavy later. By keeping the loads lighter and doing them after the more accepted primary lifts, most athletes will thrive without trying to “learn and load” at the same time.

After an athlete has demonstrated that they can handle the technique demands from single leg squats, I believe it makes sense to add step-ups. It’s not a perfect progression to go from ground-based exercises and barbell squatting to step-ups, but it’s sufficient enough that it makes sense for most coaches wanting a logical progression. Coaches sometimes like weight vests and dumbbells, but some coaches like barbells because they force athletes to concentrate more because the load is more precarious. To me, spotting is a mixed bag, as a dropped bar or set of dumbbells only seems to place risk on both parties, but I have yet to see a YouTube video of a step-up gone bad.

Video 5. Bob Alejo, a proponent of the step-up over the last few decades, is teaching an athlete the exercise with a medium box and medium load. Different variations of lifts matter, but starting out doing the basics and polishing is necessary before jumping to other movement patterns.

Once an athlete can do a front or forward step-up, some coaches like going with lateral and even cross-over styles. I like lateral and front methods only, as complicated movements and load are usually not a great combination. Stepping-down variations are not my cup of tea unless they’re completing the step-up or creating an eccentric start to the conventional exercise. Jumping off steps and switching feet mid-air with bleachers is popular, but for developing explosive power jumping step-ups are not reactive enough or places maximal strength high in value. Explosive step-ups should be seen as a misnomer and perhaps be left to general preparation training as a way to ramp up strain and work capacity.

Experiment With the Step-Up and Decide for Yourself

I personally have used step-ups and found them to be fine for the general preparation phase from time to time, but I simply don’t see a difference between their inclusion and their elimination altogether. As a preference, I only use them for an assistance exercise and never challenged them with my own athletes, namely because I don’t like the combination of elevation and instability—it’s an environment that does not encourage going heavy and has no clear way to bail out of trouble. I may be missing something, but after witnessing plenty of world records from programs not using the step-up, I feel it’s an option that is nice to include but doesn’t drive my core needs. I encourage you to experiment with the different options and loading patterns and see if you find something I am missing, as I will always try anything that has a good argument for its inclusion.

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