We do a lot of step ups at the gym! The main reason being, they are one of those exercises that is simple to learn and suitable for all training ages and abilities.
Single leg strength is essential for both basic physical movement and athletic performance and it is a good idea to add some into you programming to balance out the strength and mobility on each side of the body. Leg strength imbalances are usually not as noticeable as with the upper body as we tend to be either right or left handed, however we tend to favor one leg more than the other as well. It could be something obvious like a soccer player who supports their body on one leg while kicking with the other, to something less noticeable like a person who shifts their weight and stands primarily on one side after an injury or out of unconscious habit.
When performed properly, the leg step up primarily trains hip extension, helping people move vertically for standing and jumping as well as horizontally to initiate walking or running.
Knee stabilization, essential for movement deceleration, is trained during the eccentric (downward) portion of the leg step up which is a safe way to learn how to land from a jump.
There are also numerous variations which are suitable for beginners as well as advanced trainees. I would say that 90% of most of my new athletes are performing step ups in their first program and we always come back to them over the months with either the same or new variation depending on the desired training outcome.
In a future article I plan to go over some of the variations we like to use, however, in this article and video we are going to cover the basic tips and techniques to get the most out of your single leg step up.
Choose the Correct Box Height
Box height matters and it’s better to err on the lower end than having the box too high. Having the box too high is not only impractical, as the need to step up or jump from something with a high knee is usually not done, it can also add a lot of pressure to the knee joint or even cause patellar tendonitis due to the high amount of knee flexion at the beginning of the movement.
I like to have the box where the thigh of the leg on the box is no higher than parallel to the floor.
As I stated earlier, I feel parallel is the safest highest height to obtain adequate range of motion for functional improvement along with keeping the joints free from pain. You can always have a lower box especially for people new to the movement, for a more advanced variation (like with a barbell on the back) or if someone experiences any type of joint discomfort with the higher height that can be eliminated with a smaller step.
Always Maintain Alignment
This should go for all movements, maintaining proper alignment is crucial to get the most out of the step up as well as minimizing risk of injury. There are two common types of misalignment I see during the step up both usually happen while the person is moving so they are not easily recognized.
Medial Knee Collapse is a biggie and needs to be addressed quickly as not to put the knee ligaments at risk by reinforcing that behavior which can lead to knee injuries. We want the knee to be aligned vertically with the foot for proper stability of the lower leg. During the eccentric (downward) motion of the step, it can be more common for the knee to collapse inward; correct this by slowing the movement down, dropping the weight or lowering the box height.
Postural alignment is also a biggie when it comes to proper step up form. One can set up properly aligned and once set in motion, the upper body can hitch downward, or a leg can sweep behind the other. These movements happen to counterbalance the body to maintain stability. Though not as potentially harmful as knee collapse, these issues should be addressed to maintain proper form using the suggestive corrections like the ones above.
Use the Correct Foot
When we perform step ups here at the gym, we like to focus on hip extension and knee stability; therefore, the foot that is on the box is our primary mover. We do not like to bend the rear knee and or use momentum (walk up approach) to perform our step ups. By keeping one leg on the box and using that leg to perform the movement we can focus on the primary reason why we are training it which results in more strength and stability in the working leg.
Get Full Leg Extension
By understanding we are using the leg on the box for movement we then focus on getting full hip extension (standing up straight) before the rear leg comes into contact with the box. I often see people initiate the movement and quickly pull up the rear leg and get it on the box to avoid losing balance and complete the repetition. This technique will prevent you from obtaining strong and stable legs. However, if your goal is strong and stable legs, think about driving the box through the floor with your lead leg and get complete hip extension before the rear leg touches the top of the box.
Get Full Leg Extension
Oh gravity; very easy to work with in one direction, however more difficult when it comes to certain strength training movements. To build strength and maintain proper alignment to prevent future injuries it is a good idea to lower your body with control, resisting gravity and building up some deceleration strength. Don’t flop back down to the floor; by controlling your body slowly towards the floor you increase the time that the muscle is under tension and, therefore, the muscles become stronger because of it.
There you have some key techniques and tips to get more out of your step ups. Check out the video below for more visual details: