The back squat is considered the king of exercises, but there are many other valuable leg training exercises that work many of the same muscles as squats. These exercises can be used as a temporary replacement for squats to add variety and keep your training fresh. One of these exercises is the step-up.
Gin Miller is credited with creating step training in 1989, a choreographed aerobic training program that incorporates the use of low step platforms. Step training became so popular that now the exercise is often associated with aerobic fitness and so-called muscle toning. The truth is that the step-up, and its many variations, is a versatile lower-body exercise that can be used for rehabilitation, structural balance, body composition training and high-performance athletic fitness.
Step-ups are particularly valuable for the purpose of cross-training. Cross-training refers to the concept that because individual sports each focus on certain muscles more than on others, athletes can achieve balanced muscle development and thereby help avoid injuries, especially overuse injuries, by varying the sports they play. As such, a distance runner could swim in the off-season to develop their upper body, and a golfer might play tennis to balance out the muscles in their back and abdominals. However, regardless of the sports played, the lower body muscles generally do not receive a lot of work throughout a full range of motion, and this creates muscle imbalances. Consequently, at Poliquin Group, step-ups have always been a part of our structural balance programs.
Structural balance refers to the major muscles of the body being in balance with each other. This means balance between opposing muscle pairs (such as the biceps and triceps for the arms, and quadriceps and hamstrings for the legs) and also between the limbs (such as the right leg and the left leg). So it’s not enough just to have the proper strength ratio between the hamstrings and quadriceps, for example; the strength of the quadriceps and hamstrings on the right leg should be equal to the strength of those muscles on the left leg.
The consequences of structural imbalance are evident throughout the sporting world; for example, the increasing number of knee injuries among female athletes. The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reports that each year more than 20,000 high school female athletes suffer serious knee injuries, usually involving the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Developing structural balance in all the muscles that affect the knee is one important step to dealing with this problem. However, the concept of structural balance extends beyond injury prevention; it can also help with knee rehabilitation.
One common injury in sports that require a lot of jumping, such as volleyball, is patellar tendonitis. Also known as jumper’s knee, this is a chronic swelling of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the lower-leg bone. This type of injury is often caused by a relative weakness in the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), a quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee joint and thus is an important muscle for maintaining knee stability. If the VMO is weaker than the muscles on the other side of the leg, particularly the vastus lateralis (which pulls the knee in the opposite direction as the VMO), this imbalance can cause an unnatural tracking of the kneecap. When you see an athlete’s knees collapse inward when running or when landing a jump, this is often a case of weak VMOs. Trying to correct this problem initially with full squats may not be wise, as the altered biomechanics of the knee could worsen the condition.
One approach that can be used to restore structural balance in athletes susceptible to patellar tendonitis is to prescribe a program that includes a specific type of step-up called the Petersen step-up. This type of step-up emphasizes the VMO because it begins with the heel elevated (plantar flexion), performed at progressively higher elevations. Athletes might then progress to conventional step-ups, split squats, lunges, and finally full squats. This progression would best be applied at the end of a sports season, when structural imbalances are usually at their worst. Details of this progression are taught in the PICP Level 2 class.
The progression of implements you might use to add resistance to step-ups should be dumbbell, barbell on back, and then barbell on front. Step-ups with weights have been heavily promoted by Angel Spassov, who was a strength coach in Bulgaria. However, former Bulgarian national team head coach Ivan Abadjiev says that this exercise was not used by any member of the national teams he coached.
It was reported that Russian weightlifter Leonid Taranenko, who still holds the record for the all-time best clean and jerk with a lift of 266 kilos (586.4 pounds), performed high step-ups when he felt his lower back was excessively fatigued from squats. This makes sense. Compared to the body position in squats, during step-ups the torso is more perpendicular to the floor, requiring less work from the erector spinae muscles that help extend the spine. Performing step-ups with a barbell on his shoulders, Taranenko reportedly lifted as much as 180 kilos (396 pounds).
Anyone who performs this exercise with heavy weights should have at least one rear spotter (but preferably one rear spotter and two side spotters). What spotters must know is that lateral stability is compromised on this exercise, so they must be aware of tilting. And for maximum safety, trainees should perform heavy step-ups inside a power rack, with the safety rods set at an appropriate height so that in case of a miss, the barbell doesn’t drop more than a few inches.
Regarding teaching tips, the important point is that the top leg does all the work. Next, the rear leg must be kept straight (of course, it will be flexed slightly when landing), and the toes of the bottom leg will lift (dorsi flex) to help prevent the trainee from pushing off. The top leg is turned out five degrees, which is anatomically more in line with how the upper thigh bone inserts into the pelvis.
For most elite athletes, one leg is often significantly stronger than the other. In this situation, starting them with a cycle of single-leg exercises will result in greater long-term progress in the squat compared to performing only squats. One variety of step-ups valuable for many athletes is the side step-up. The start position of this exercise is with the body sideways to the platform, with the leg closest to the platform resting on the platform. Again, the athlete steps up until the working leg is straight. The side step-up places more emphasis on the vastus lateralis and also on the inner thigh muscle groups known collectively as the adductors, which are important for athletes, as they help stabilize the leg during movement.
There are many other useful varieties of step-ups. Additionally, there are adjustable step-up platforms that help the user perform these exercises conveniently and safely. But be aware not all platforms are equal in terms of safety: Several years ago a lawsuit was filed against a D1 college when a female athlete suffered a serious injury as she performed barbell step-ups on a technique platform attached to a power rack. This platform had a V-shape that did not provide optimal support for the foot, and in fact this platform was not designed for this purpose.
Again, the squat remains the king of all exercises, but the versatility of the step-up makes it a key exercise in any physical and athletic fitness training program.