One of the basic exercises I use as a screening test with all of my 40-plus-year-old clients is the step up. But that’s not the only time I use the exercise—it shows up in many actual training sessions with clients, and I do it myself to develop quad and glute power.
The step up does more than test power, balance and mobility, too; the exercise also has many practical applications. As you’re doing the step up, visions of climbing stairs, hiking or getting up from the floor after playing with the kids may come to mind. The movement can be surprisingly intense, too, so it can help to give clients some extra added incentive to get stronger, since driving your body upward takes a lot of energy. I’ve been doing the step up consistently for years and my knees and quads can’t live without it.
To set up, find a box or platform about 12 to 18 inches high, or about knee height (if you’re just starting out, especially if you’re older or have issue with your balance, it’s okay to also have something to hold on to to stay steady). Place your left foot on it and point it straight ahead. The focus of the exercise is on that foot, so that’s where you should feel most of your weight, not on your back foot. Disengage that rear leg as much as possible.
Drive your body upward using your front leg as if you’re climbing stairs, without pushing off at all with the grounded leg. At the top of the step up your left leg should be fully extended. Make sure you don’t ground your right foot on the box at the top of the step up. Squeeze your glutes and core and the top as you balance on your left foot. By standing straight up, you should reach full hip extension and hold that position for a few seconds.
The eccentric part of the exercise (coming back down to the ground) is where I see lots of people have problems—and it’s just as important as the first part of the exercise, so it should be a major focus. When lowering back down to the floor with your back leg, remember that the front leg is still working. The tendency is to let gravity take over and completely lose tension in the front leg as you descend. That may cause you to come down too fast and pound your back foot on the floor, which does not feel great on the joints. Instead, come down slowly and purposefully, with a two count, and gently place your right foot on the floor. This will help to further strengthen the quad and glute of the front leg and improve your balance.
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