From the archives : The Step-up - A Real Squat Alternative?

Definitely time to give it a go.

Barbell Step-upBack in September 2006 I took a look at an exercise which doesn't seem to attract the attention it deserves - the barbell step-up. If you haven't tried it, it's definitely time to give it a go.

One further point before the article itself : despite the title, I perform both step-ups and squats (as do many Olympic weightlifters). In my opinion, they both deserve to be widely known.

The Step-up - a real squat alternative?

In the 1920s - particularly in the US - weight training began gaining favour with the public at large, and the Step-up began finding itself in various books and magazines. However, the back squat gradually started to dominate (largely due to the efforts of the German Henry 'Milo' Steinborn and Joseph Curtis Hise) and the Step-up was all but forgotten.

The Step-up seems to have been largely overlooked as a weight-bearing exercise for the thighs - primarily due to the dominance of the back squat. This article may just make you reconsider its use.

What is it?

The Step-up - as the name implies - is nothing more complex than stepping up onto an object, then stepping back down from it. Although it is an incredibly simple exercise, there are a few things to be aware of.

Factors to consider

Perhaps the most important of these is the height of the step. The basic exercise works the hips and thighs, and the step height adjusts things in favour of the quadriceps or hamstrings. A higher step works the hamstrings harder, a lower step targets the quads (1).

According to Anatoly Bondarchuk, the 'normal' or ideal step height (for those with perfectly balanced quad and hamstring strength) is such that when the leading leg has the foot flat on the step, and the corresponding thigh parallel to the ground, the trailing leg has the toes just touching the ground (but the heel elevated) (1). This will naturally vary from person to person, and the use of a weight plate is common to bridge small gaps (it's unlikely that your training partner will have exactly the same requirements as you).

In addition to the step height, speed and number of reps both play crucial roles in determining the effectiveness of this exercise (for your personal goals). The usual rules apply - in general the reps will be lower and the breaks longer when training for maximum strength, and the reps higher/breaks shorter for hypertrophy goals.

The starting/finishing distance of the feet from the step also makes a difference, with a larger gap emphasising the Gluteus Maximus and a smaller gap emphasizing quadriceps (2).

Muscles used

The target muscle group is usually the quadriceps, though the weighting of this can be adjusted by altering the step height and gap as indicated above. Other muscle groups involved are (2) :


* Gluteus Maximus
* Adductor Magnus
* Soleus
* Gastrocnemius (Second Leg)

Dynamic Stabilizers

* Hamstrings
* Gastrocnemius (First Leg)


* Erector Spinae
* Trapezius, Upper
* Trapezius, Middle
* Levator Scapulae
* Gluteus Medius
* Gluteus Minimus

Antagonist Stabilizers

* Rectus Abdominis
* Obliques

As you can see, this is well and truly a compound exercise, and targets similar muscle groups to the squat.


Bodyweight step-up
The simplest form is a bodyweight-only step-up onto anything of a reasonable height (usually something below knee height). The speed, number of reps and step height will all play roles in the effectiveness of this exercise for your goals. Because of this flexibility the step-up can be used as a warmup, conditioning or strength training exercise.

Dumbbell step-up
As per the bodyweight step-up, performed whilst holding a dumbbell in each hand.

Barbell step-up
As per the bodyweight step-up, performed whilst holding a barbell across the shoulders in the same manner as for a back squat.

Step-ups wearing a weight vest
As per the bodyweight step-up, performed whilst wearing a weight-vest (such as the V-Max).

Sri ChinmoyFormer East Bengalese marathon runner Sri Chinmoy (pictured) switched to weight-lifting in the mid 1980s (when he was in his 50s); setting a personal record for Step-ups done whilst wearing a 50lb weight vest by regularly performing 100 in 1996 (aged 65). Once again, the usual rules of rep ranges and breaks apply.

Inspired by Chinmoy's effort, the slightly more spritely Ashrita Furman (6) completed 2,574 step-ups (bodyweight only) onto a 15" bench in one hour, later that same year.

Performing the step-up

Although almost any form of step is suitable for bodyweight step-ups, a large flat surface will be increasingly necessary as the weight lifted climbs up. One solution - which enables a quick changing of height - is a Step-Up Bench Accessory, such as this one from Gill Athletics.

For bodyweight-only or dumbbell step-ups, the pins (of a power-rack) themselves are a quick and often handy step.

When using a weighted bar, begin with the same stance and bar position as for a back squat. As you step up onto the box/bench/step, keep the torso as erect as possible (try to keep the shoulders roughly over the hips throughout the movement). On descent, slightly bend the leg you're coming down on to (it'll reduce the shock and increase safety).

Comparisons to Squatting

I realise that powerlifters are not going to suddenly stop squatting in favour of performing weighted step-ups. However, there are a couple of benefits to the step-up which might favour their inclusion in your routines :

Working them in

Perhaps the most obvious way to incorporate them in your routines is to simply replace squats with step-ups. Realistically, though, there are a couple of things to consider :


Step-ups can be used in many ways, and are a great alternative to (not necessarily a replacement for) the back squat. Give them a try.


1. Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets
By Angel Spassov, Ph.D., D.Sc. and Terry Todd, Ph.D.

2. ExRx
Barbell Step-up

3. Sri Chinmoy

4. Ashrita Furman

You Might Also Like...

NB : For a complete list of everything we use and recommend, swing by the reviews and reading areas. And of course the Straight to the Bar Store. It's all in there.

To learn how to put it to work, swing by the Guides area.

Scott Andrew Bird

Scott Andrew Bird is a writer, photographer and a guy who just loves this stuff. He's been at home in front of a computer for more years than he cares to remember (OK, 35) and is now making amends for years of many mistakes noted in the De-constructing Computer Guy articles (part 2) on T-Nation.

Find out what he's up to via Twitter, Facebook, the Daily 'Paper'; and of course his online home. Enjoy.

Like this? Check out :

The Step-up : a Real Squat Alternative?.

A possible addition to your leg training arsenal.

3 Things You MUST Know About Sandbag Training.The Ultimate SandbagThese 3 'rules' (guidelines really) outline the importance of a serious, progressive strategy for your sandbag work; as well as describing how to achieve exactly that. Good stuff.
Setting Up A Home Gym.

Ready to get started? Great.

Interview with Personal Trainer Jason Kirby.

An incredibly inventive trainer.

Evolution of Sandbag Training Part 2.

Ready for some new ways to put the sandbag to work?

Of course, if you enjoyed these, I'd highly recommend grabbing the Strength & Fitness Newsletter. Delivered weekly, and absolutely free.

(there's also a Daily Update, if you're looking for an even larger dose of training-related goodness.)

NB : If you'd like to write a guest post for Straight to the Bar, or if you'd like to join the team of Moderators here (I love hearing about everyone's training approaches) - get in touch. And if you've got a fitness competition or seminar coming up, add it to the calendar.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Over to you. Leave a comment below, or send us a tweet :

blog comments powered by Disqus
Straight to the Bar Strength Kit

Are You as Strong as You Could Be?

Grab the Straight to the Bar Strength Kit.

Training Guides, eBooks and of course the Strength & Fitness Newsletter. Absolutely free.