The Step-Up Article

Once upon a time, I stopped using step-ups. I was under the impression that they weren’t a great exercise choice because most people cheated when they did them. The cheat was usually a combination of pushing off the down leg too much and adding a big forward lean. Then one day I pulled out my ski training ebook and remembered I had included crossover step-ups and lateral step-ups. Huh. If they’re in this awesome book, they couldn’t be that bad. So I did a few sets to help me re-assess my feelings about them. As it turns out, I liked them very much.

I still don’t love regular step-ups for the reason noted above, but I find the lateral position for the start and finish fixes that. Given the right cueing and feedback, it’s difficult to cheat a lateral step-up. It also trains/requires hip stability, which as Martha Stewart would say, “it’s a good thing“. In fact I think the hip stability element of the lateral step-up is a big benefit over other exercises like split squats and even rear-foot elevated (RFE) split squats that are typically classified as single leg. Don’t misread that: I love both split squats and RFE split squats. In fact if you randomly walked into my gym you’d see at least one person doing them. But I think there is a need for leg strengthening that involves a greater frontal component to the force vector (fancy talk for you need to use your muscles to keep the hips from moving sideways and diagonally).

Once someone is able to control the lateral step-up, I love to progress them to the high box step-up. I got the idea for the high box step-up from a video of someone I know sharing that version many years ago and instantly thought it looked interesting. Unfortunately I don’t remember who it was, so I can’t give credit. Instead I’ll just hope it was someone named Rob and say “Thanks Rob, for introducing me to this great exercise.” I tried it shortly after seeing it and loved it. To be more precise, I mean I love it for my clients as a way to provide a training effect through a full range of motion in a squat pattern, with minimal opportunity to cheat, while also really hitting the glutes nicely. Win-win!

Note that the high box version should be considered an advanced exercise. If you have proven yourself strong in weighted split squats (including rear foot elevated), can stabilize your hips when subjected to rotary forces (mastery of side planks, chops and lifts, and shoulder taps), and possess reasonable ankle mobility, then give these a try. Note that the video above shows an 18″ box. Depending on a client’s height, we use 18 to 24 inches as the height for a high box step-up.

Since re-introducing lateral step-ups into the Custom Strength Exercise Library, there are two other specific scenarios where I use them:

  1. For clients with knee pain who don’t tolerate other squat movements well (yet). Because we get a lot of referrals from manual therapists, we probably train more people with knee issues than do most trainers. Often (not always) squats and even split squats don’t feel great for them. In this case we find that lateral step-ups to a 12 inch box provides a pain-free alternative. Once they get stronger in this movement, we progress by increasing the height, adding weight, or both (note we never increase both at the same time). In some cases, after doing these for a while (in addition to some variety of deadlift and some core exercises), they are able to return to split squats and/or squats without pain and continue to get strong with them.
  2. To help progress clients to single leg squats. Previously we went from split squat, to RFE split squat, to TRX RFE to progress, to single leg squats. Unfortunately I didn’t always like the form I saw when they started the single leg squat. Often one knee would wobble all over the place, or the hip would jut out to the side. Not what I considered ideal, but it was a good lesson for me that the progression I was using was inadequately preparing my clients for the demands of the single leg squat. I was able to coach them through it by temporarily reducing the range of motion until they were stable, and then building it back up, and in some cases using a band to help. Since adding the high box lateral step-up to the progression, I have seen an improvement in single leg squat-ability.

Give lateral step-ups a try and I suspect you’ll agree it’s a great exercise.


Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who respects and practices the art of proper regressions and progressions in exercise.

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