Unless you are fanatical about taking the lift and standing stock still on escalators, all of us do some form of step-ups every day when climbing stairs. However, that doesn’t mean you should neglect doing the exercise in your workouts. On the contrary, it just shows how useful a move it is because it trains your body to tackle the movements it needs to perform every day – which is the central tenet of functional fitness.
Step-ups hit all the major muscle groups in your lower body. The quads bear the brunt of the action but the move works your glutes, hamstrings and calves too. That means that as well as improving your stair-climbing game, step-ups will improve your strength and resilience for sports like running and cycling.
How To Do Step-Ups
There’s not a whole lot of subtlety to this exercise – you just need a bench or platform. Make sure it isn’t too high; just under knee height is about right. Stand tall facing the bench with your arms by your sides. Put the whole of your right foot on the bench, then drive up through your right leg and stand on the bench with both feet. Lead with your left leg as you step back down and return to the starting position. We suggest alternating the leg you lead with if doing reps for time, or you can opt to do all the reps on one leg and then switch if you’re doing sets.
This is the most common step-up variation and one that even beginners will be able to progress to very quickly. Adding weight increases the difficulty and the benefits of the exercise, and the easiest way to do that is by holding dumbbells by your sides while you perform step-ups.
Approach the move from a whole new angle – and elist your inner thigh muscles as well – by stepping up from the side. Stand side-on to your bench, either with or without dumbbells, and place the nearer foot on the bench, leaving enough space on the bench for your other foot. Drive up and stand with both feet on the bench, then step down to the same side you came up from. Do all the reps on this side, then turn around and lead with the opposite leg.
Step-up and drive
Once again, you can do this variation with or without dumbbells, but we’d recommend trying it without weights the first time at least. Stand facing the bench and step up but, instead of planting the trailing leg, drive your knee up towards your chest, and then step straight back down. This more explosive version of the exercise builds power in your glutes and is especially useful for those using step-ups to train for sports. You can even go straight into a jump with your step-ups to maximise the plyometric benefits, but ideally not on a bench – you need a bigger platform to land on safely.
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Add a twist to your step-up to improve the strength and mobility of your hips, something that will benefit you in all manner of sports. Stand side-on to your box, holding dumbbells. Lift the foot nearest the box and as you bring it up, rotate it 90° towards the box so when you place it down it is perpendicular to your body. Then twist your body as you bring the other foot up so it lands facing in the same direction as the first foot. Reverse the motion to step down. Do all the reps on one side, then switch.
More advanced stepper-uppers can increase the challenge by holding a barbell on the back of their shoulders while performing the move. Aside from the barbell, the form is the same, but having the weight on the back of your shoulders makes it far harder to drive up on the front leg.
This is an advanced weighted variation of the step-up and involves holding either a weight plate or a barbell overhead while doing the exercise. Hold the weight with your arms fully extended above you, then step up onto the box or bench as normal. Your core will have to work harder to keep you stable with the weight overhead and this variation also enlists your shoulder stabilisers. Needless to say it’s one for confident gym-goers who have mastered other weighted variations of the step-up, because if you’re not strong enough for the overhead step-up you can end up toppling off the box.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.