In only a few years, the evolution of the step-up radically improved, thanks to great minds in sports performance sharing their experiences. The step-up is still under-appreciated, as it’s not considered a main lift, but it’s obviously far more valuable than a nice-to-have exercise. In my previous article I made a case for including it or at least talking about it. A few years later I still believe in the merits of the exercise, but now I have more support from brilliant coaches such as Randy Huntington and others.Several experts are doing such great things in speed and power that not including the step-up seems almost foolish, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this article I add more evidence for why you should use step-ups more, and even include workouts and exercise variations to improve the application of the exercise. The step-up is a great option for coaches, and my only real regret is not using it more in the past. I use it more now, mainly because several experts are doing such great things in speed and power that not including the step-up seems almost foolish.
More Background You Need to Know
I don’t want to spend too much time on the history of the exercise, as most coaches want either sets and reps or new variations. On the other hand, just giving the dessert always fails in the long run, as purpose is necessary to program any exercise better. The goal of this section isn’t just to share the past popularity or evolution of the exercise, but to make sure we know that it has a history that we should recognize so we don’t reinvent the wheel. Step-ups are as old as formal exercise, as humans understood long ago that getting tall and walking up terrain matters in daily activities. I believe that walking up with a symmetrical load—carrying water or something similar—is the first time that loaded step-ups were employed.
Sometime in history, someone made the decision to use a single stair or bench for repeated stepping rather than a continual staircase. Perhaps then, in that moment, the step-up was born. A hundred years ago, when training became more structured and refined, whether for military or amateur sport, the step-up became more prescriptive and more purposeful.
I would say the 1950s were the first golden age of the step-up, as trainers in that period started to look at the cause and effect. Decades later, not much has changed, but we do have pockets of genius that deserve some recognition. From the 1960s until today, the step-up has always been in the back seat, but the expertise I have witnessed from world-class coaches collectively makes me think that we should move step-ups forward to riding shotgun from time to time. Fifty years later, the step-up is ready for a quantum leap ahead.
New Science That Decodes the Value of Step-Ups
In the last article I casually mentioned the small detail of flexion of the hip that is an option in technique. While it may look like an unimportant mechanical choice, it’s likely the most important discussion point of the article, as it could be the essential mechanism for getting the most out of the exercise. In no way will I be on record saying that driving the knee up with hip flexion will make athletes faster, but it does seem to improve the finish when coached correctly.
In my experience, the value of the knee lift is in assisting the follow-through of the movement. It feels natural and seems to be worth allowing, as it is so intuitive many athletes will naturally include the pattern on their own. Be warned, a knee lift during a slow strength exercise is slow enough to allow conscious effort, so it’s not a reflex. Loading reflexes requires a far different environment and time frame than strength exercises, as rapid motions are usually a combination of neural feedback below the neck and not the volitional effort of the athlete outside of mild steering.
Frans Bosch has spent a lot of time promoting the concept of weight room exercises overloading slightly known reflexes. The problem is that the load is so small, and the speed is so slow, it’s in no-man’s land: too slow to tap into neurological benefits and too light to create a progressive overload that shows up somewhere else. I also have a problem with teaching reflexes, as the very nature of the response organelles is that they are already there for us.
Good news Frans fans! The step-up may be an exercise that does satisfy the Bosch enthusiast while having enough evidence (research and outcomes) to keep going with that idea. The theoretical component of hip flexion in the step-up isn’t really about replicating locomotion by forcing sport specificity down our throats; it’s about being comfortable doing single leg training with sanity and confidence. In my mind, the step-up is an original founding member of the single leg exercise club, a movement that coaches were programming for decades before the hype of the early 2000s.The step-up is an original founding member of the single leg exercise club, a movement that coaches were programming for decades before the hype of the early 2000s, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Instead of avoiding or diluting exercises, or banning movements, let’s try resurrecting great options and evolving them. If you were to look at the step-up with a powerful knee drive and compare it to a squat variation, the eyeball test says the step-up looks more like it has a chance to transfer to sport. Don’t be deceived: Function again is how it helps, not how it looks similar to sport.
Video 1. A common point made by coaches is that a few reps using specific technique may not transfer to faster sprinting or better technique. This may be true, but better running coordination could improve the actual direct mechanics with an athlete who lifts with a better skill set.
I will give some explanation for potential mechanisms that show value to climbing motor skills and possible running connections, as coaches are very skeptical about sport-specific movements. They should be, as exercises off the pitch or track tend to be overhyped. What we do know is that, in the early to mid-1980s, Ralph Mann really took sprinting to a new level by showing how sprints recruit muscle groups spatiotemporally at very high speeds. Mann wrote:
“This paper demonstrates that as the speed of gait increases, the period of stance progressively diminishes. The most important muscle appears to be the iliacus, which brings about rapid hip flexion which is linked to the extension of the knee. The driving force of hip flexion and knee extension, along with the action of the arms, propels the body in the line of progression, rather than push-off from the stance limb per se.”
While step-ups don’t have a neuromuscular pathway that can specifically identify the neurological circuit of the hip flexors and hip extensors, my guess is that the central pattern generators of the body fire nearly blindly so that a human can run at 12 m/s. While it’s impressive to list an athlete running that fast, it’s better to understand they are within 80 milliseconds, firing muscles so quickly that a “symphony” of contractions has been made nearly five times in less than a second. I don’t see EMG or force data showing strong value in driving the knee, but better athletes in both exercise and speed show some statistical benefit in using a knee drive with heavier loads. I can’t say if this is just a long-term improvement in the skill of the exercise or explaining a mechanism.
Biofeedback with Sports Transfer
Before rolling your eyes and getting annoyed with the “measure what matters,” I am actually making a case for reducing the need to be too obsessed with data collection. When exercises become too lab-like, training enjoyment drops, and you slowly kill the vibe of the weight room. I do think though that quantification of key aspects of the exercise is worth doing and is an easy way to know the work being done is worth mentioning.
Today I am under the impression that the addition of feedback with power or movement velocity should be done sparingly. My rule with weight room tracking is that a barbell usually demands measurement, but because the 1080 Motion and Keiser family of equipment are popular, it’s hard not to capture. Still, my favorite feedback is a combination of coaching and real-time visual assistance. This could be as simple as a mirror or as advanced as a streaming Dartfish video system.
Video 2. With a VBT device, a coach can get more than just power or speed—they can get bar path and other ways to demonstrate technical proficiency. Using barbell tracking is like having a second coach, and it is especially useful for large groups of athletes.
I could argue that the more important requirement is the need to see task performance improvement of other sporting actions. Usually we see poor correlations of weight room exercises to athletic performance, but don’t fret. All sports training is brutally limited, as you will constantly put in more than you get back in all modalities, period. As the saying goes, you put in a pound to get an ounce.Based on early experimental findings, the first three steps in acceleration have shown improvement after a commitment to adding step-ups to a program, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
To make step-ups more effective, you should see some improvements in early acceleration and maybe bound tests. Other than that, I am unaware of strong task carryover, as transfer from weight room exercises is more about balancing specific and general than one magic bullet. Based on early experimental findings, the first three steps in acceleration have shown improvement after a commitment to adding step-ups to a program. I will go into more sport science within each exercise later, but the main driver is to see how personalizing exercises can make a difference with each athlete.
The Classic Step-Up
The analogous stem cell to step-ups is the classic dumbbell or barbell option with moderate load and moderate height. Currently, there is no specific “setup for the step-up,” but most coaches will conclude that the step-up height is usually higher than a single stair. Many coaches use a padded weight bench, and I am opposed to the soft and unstable surface but do think the height is about right. Good habits such as following through and tucking the foot are important to instill so nobody trips.
You can use solid boxes or an elevated platform, but whatever you do, have a clear explanation of what is necessary for the non-support leg to prevent tripping up. Also, coaches will need to decide how much they believe in the knee push of the trail leg, as some programs don’t actively include cues to drive the free leg up and forward. I prefer teaching to punch up the knee, and some exercises drive all the way up to the toes and even laterally extend the pelvis further.
Video 3. The classic step-up can keep the foot on the box or involve a true step. I prefer lifting the leg up before pushing down, but it’s up to the coach and preference of the athlete.
In my opinion, the exercise should be flat-footed most of the time. Many coaches see the toe-off of sprinters in slow motion and don’t know that the motion is followed through, not an active contribution to speed. The summation of forces visually (kinematically) doesn’t match active contraction patterns, so don’t replicate motions in the weight room unless you know the actual recruitment. Getting on the toes may help some athletes with lower extremity strengthening, but you need to ensure they have the right foot structure.
The last point I will make is the horizontal travel of the exercise before and after planting. Some athletes use step-ups and drive forward so that they follow through to the point they have to decide to step up again or require a wall to stop the momentum. This is a detail that is highly individualized, but I don’t currently use weighted step-ups much and prefer a padded wall.
Explosive Step-Up Jump
A favorite exercise, due to the accessibility and pure joy of executing it, has to be the bench-style step-up with a jump. Some texts have athletes jump off the bench from front to back, almost like vaulting or long jumping off, but repeated jumps require a switch of the feet mid-air and a rear leg pogo action. The movement reminds me of a Springbok pronking. You don’t need much weight, due to the rapid contraction of both legs, and many times body weight is perfect.I think all coaches should incorporate explosive step-ups in their program, as they are fun and really spark athletes to think about pushing with coordination, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I think all coaches should incorporate explosive step-ups in their program, as they are fun and really spark athletes to think about pushing with coordination. It will not make freaks, but it will encourage an athlete to really lift with speed—far better than barbells. This is not an attack on conventional strength training, but I think when ballistic training starts resembling powerlifting with speed, it has less possible transfer. Again, that is my opinion.
Video 4. The most complicated step-up uses the rear contribution of the leg but emphasizes the front leg for added velocity to the jump. It takes a few sessions to really get the hang of the lift, but it’s a great exercise for nearly all athletes.
Matt Delancey has used the exercise for the last 17 years, and I have added it back into my program because of his success. Explosive step-ups are gold, and you can use them with nearly any athlete. I prefer keeping them in the higher rep ranges, since they are not designed for much external loading as they are similar to jump squats. I would make a case to go very light simply because they are nearly plyometric and could be elastic if done athletically with a coordinated bounce.
Heavy Quarter Step-Ups
Now for the controversy. I don’t know if there will ever be the ability to fully study this, but heavy step-ups, usually with a 20-centimeter height (8 inches), work very well provided the intent is to piston the foot through the box. The height above the box before pushing down varies, but typically I find the knee needs to be below the hip in order to push through. It’s hard to evaluate the true force profile without a 3D force plate, as the body shifts forward and up through the movement. In addition to difficulty having a force plate fixed properly (dare I recommend mounted?), the use of peak power or velocity is also limited.
Regardless, I do like the idea of using Keiser and other resistance options in addition to a heavy barbell, as it smooths out the contraction and quantifies the assisted power. Again, the use of a cable resistance solution requires that the additional load have a near vertical vector, parallel to the shank. Unlike the cable step-down that sometimes has a horizontal component, heavy quarter step-ups need to have a near perfectly vertical push.
Video 5. I took this exercise from Joseph Coyne and Randy Huntington, as their videos inspired me to push the envelope more. Randy is a big Keiser user, and bands are also another option to create higher force levels.
Loads can’t be for the faint of heart either, as 2-3 times body weight should not be intimidating to an athlete. This is perhaps the most advanced option, as the overload must be brutal for it to work. With athletes nearing 10 years of training experience, the results show up in those precious few steps if performed properly, but mainly for rugby and football. I have not seen changes in track and field, but I believe it could be effective at the high school or college level.
The use of an asymmetrical load scared me last year, but I had to try it. What did it feel like? It felt like something was wrong psychologically, but in reality, even a healthy athlete is likely to have some asymmetries, so the fear was unwarranted. The question is how much asymmetry was necessary and even more important, what was the purpose?
Due to the exercise being embryonic in adoption, my educated guess is to keep the load just slightly off so you can feel the difference but not risk the bar teetering off. For me, this can range from 10-25%, as the bar has a much different axis of rotation racking than it does on the shoulders of an athlete. What looks safe on a squat rack, even properly mounted, is much different on an athlete during an exercise. Still, we need to build asymmetry slowly, as again, step-ups have more moving parts, and we can’t risk any type of injury or balance issue. In fact, the exercise should not feel like it’s challenging the balance of the stance leg; it should feel like it’s just changing the contribution of the hip and trunk slightly.
Video 6. One of the few exercises I have yet to fully solve, the phantom step-up could be a way to take an advanced athlete and maintain their interest in training without unnecessary overload. We need more research and experimentation, but the exercise was something I was glad to learn about from the SimpliFaster blog.
One challenge is you need to rack the weight more to ensure the opposite leg and offset load are rotated within the reps. To me, this is not a team-friendly exercise, and it is a very advanced idea that should be carefully utilized. The exercise is not something that needs a lot of exposure—I find it useful for those who need to keep tight in the upper body—but the reported hip recruitment is promising. My personal belief is that, due to the asymmetrical loading done already, this is just a comfort or mental conditioning exercise rather than a major influence on muscle balance. I don’t think phantom step-ups are rehabilitation exercises, just a way to bring great novelty into a program.
Cable Eccentric Step-Downs
One clever set-up option is the eccentric step-down using mechanized or pneumatic resistance. I mentioned earlier the value of Keiser for low height step-ups, but you can use flywheel and motorized equipment to create a spine-friendly step-up with various eccentric loading and vectors. Isokinetic step-ups are optional as well, but I want to make sure the eccentric component of the exercise is exploited, as most coaches see step-ups as mainly concentric options.I want to make sure the eccentric component of the exercise is exploited, as most coaches see step-ups as mainly concentric options, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
You can use customized boxes and various angles, but make sure you have a safe setup so the athlete can bail or fail naturally without risk of injury. The most important rule of training is to do no harm, but some risk is needed to create overload. No matter what you decide to do, leverage the modern resistance cable machines to their maximum, as they offer novel loading strategies for conventional exercises such as the step-up.
Video 7. Using cable resistance, an athlete can employ isoinertial training or supramaximal overload depending on their technology. I am confident that flywheel training and Keiser resistance will help make step-ups more eccentric-driven in the future.
The most difficult part of the exercise is obviously the equipment. Eccentric overload, be it the resistance or time, demands a near-surgical assignment of equipment and access to the right technology. The addition of eccentric step-downs for specific modifications to an impulse deficit in an athlete’s leg power profile demands force plate testing.
Prowler Inertia Step-Ups
I don’t have anything against prowlers, I just use them for a specific purpose. Due to the simplicity and safety of prowlers, I tend to see very little prescription, but some recent research on them looks promising. If I use them, I prefer to focus on maximal ankle stiffness thresholds rather than the velocity of the sled.I’m always amazed at how many people avoid step-ups because of the minimal eccentric contribution but spend hours toiling away on sled pushing thinking it’s a whole different ball of wax. Click To Tweet
Unlike sprinting with resistance, pushing a sled such as a prowler requires a purposeful pause between steps so that acceleration of each step is uniform and doesn’t rely on the momentum of the previous slide. I am always amazed at how many people avoid step-ups because of the minimal eccentric contribution but spend hours toiling away on sled pushing thinking it’s a whole different ball of wax. You can use sled pushes for conventional work provided you evaluate the other components of the program, such as resources for actual sprinting, and you are not overly redundant with your strength program.
Insert Video 8. I have said for years that if you are not a fan of step-ups but do prowler sled pushes, you are just doing step-ups horizontally. In this movement it’s key to treat each step as a repetition instead of keeping the momentum continuous.
You can use heavy sleds and resistance options, including elastic cables, provided each stride starts over. I don’t like using inertia work unless I don’t have access to the right equipment, but the exercises are great for groups and heavy loads. You should do no more than 12-16 steps total, and what is great is that usually the load is not silly or egotistical.
One warning: You should use a Moxy Monitor to ensure the repetitions are done so they don’t encourage a metabolic response, as some athletes tend to add muscle more than strength. The goal is to turn a football conditioning tool into a pure strength exercise. By reducing the density of contractions and incorporating a dead start, you will see a lot of athletes improving their force-velocity profile horizontally (but leveling off soon after). The goal, again, is to get stronger without adding mass, so be careful to keep the exercise more about power and peak force, rather than going for a burn.
Stadium Lunge Series
The last exercise may be the first one used in a training period, and that is the old standby: stadium runs or lunges. I prefer lunges, as most stadiums are built for spectators not workouts. True, you can walk up with heavy loads instead of going far with longer strides, but I think the idea of having athletes doing stadium climbing in a strength form is timeless psychologically. Looking down after the climb is rewarding, and doing a little dirty work is perfectly fine from time to time. Don’t be afraid to work hard outside of sprinting and lifting maximally. You can only stay in fifth gear so long without burning out the transmission.
Insert Video 9. The old HSI training videos are gold, and much of the work of John Smith can be seen with athletes training today. Using stadiums enables athletes to improve both the mental and physical qualities that raise their performance.
Options can be weighted vests and wearable resistance, carrying implements and bars, and manipulating stride and speed of the ascent. Most athletes walk or jog down; I prefer whatever looks safe. Larger athletes need to be careful, as running up stairs is sometimes demanding on the Achilles. As long as you prepare don’t worry too much, but make sure you evaluate who is and isn’t a good candidate.
Stadiums should not be a primary conditioning tool. Not that I think fiber shifts will ruin an athlete—I have found the glycolytic bombs to be the worst workouts for talented athletes, and they are even worse for the athlete who isn’t blessed for speed. A strong athlete should add a few stadium lunge workouts, as a handful of sessions don’t shift fibers permanently, but don’t think an athlete will get unholy strength from stadiums if they are not well-versed with a barbell.
Respect the Step-Up
Don’t feel pressured to include step-ups in your program because they are trending. I have been a mild fan of the exercise for years and used them very sparingly, and we still made progress. After years of seeing others share their results, I started adding them and felt, based on our testing, that they certainly were not hurting anything in our training.If you want a great single support exercise, I recommend adding step-ups. They won’t transform an athlete into a champion, but they are used with many winners in sport, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The great thing about strength training is that we have choices, so if you are looking for a great single support exercise, I recommend adding step-ups. They won’t transform an athlete into a champion, but they are used with many winners in sport. I suggest looking at the evidence for the value of step-ups, and then trying them in your program to see if they are worth investing time in. I was surprised by my own findings, and athletes seem to like replacing a conventional exercise with step-ups, especially when they feel fast and explosive.
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