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Weighted Step Up Exercise

A great way for beginners and elite athletes to build leg strength and power

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Updated May 19, 2014

Close-up of the legs of a woman working out on a stepper
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The weighted step up exercise is a simple and effective way to build leg strength and power without placing excessive stress on the joints of the knees, hips or back. Step ups are a great exercise for both beginners and elite athletes because you can gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise by increasing the step height, the weight lifted, and even the speed of the movement during the exercise.

You can use the step up as a handy alternative to plyometric jumping, because you gain the benefit of the explosive upward movement without the impact of the landing.

Steps ups are also an alternative to the full squat exercise. For a novice exerciser, the step up is far easier to do correctly, and there is a lower risk of injury than when learning the full squat technique. For advanced exercisers, the squat will still be a big part of your weight workouts, but the weighted step ups can allow a less stressful alternative.

Another bonus to the weighted step up exercise is that it strengthens each leg individually, rather than as a unit. Similar to the weighted lunge exercise, this helps ensure that you are building strength equally on each side, and not favoring one leg over the other. Because you are stepping up with one leg at a time, this exercises also help improve balance and proprioception because you are required to control the weight as you move both up and down, and forward and backward.

The only equipment needed is an adjustable step, or bench, and some weights. If you are resourceful, you can even use a sturdy chair at home, and fill a backpack with water jugs to get a similar workout.

Why Do the Weighted Step Up

The numerous benefits of this exercise can be summarized as follows:
  • Specifically targets the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).
  • Excellent for building quadriceps strength.
  • Low risk of injury / easy to do correctly.
  • Creates minimal stress on the knee.
  • Easy to modify the basic exercise to create a high level of difficulty.
  • Novice exercisers can advance quickly.
  • Engages proprioceptors; requires balance and stabilization.
  • Specifically targets one leg at a time for balanced leg strength.

How to Do Weighted Step Ups

There are three variables to consider when setting up your weighted step up workout:
  1. The Step Height
    The height of the step is the first variable to consider. The lower the step, the more the quadriceps are worked. The higher the step, the more the hamstrings and glutes of the posterior chain are worked. A beginner will start with a very low step of maybe 6-8 inches, until the movement is perfected. A gradual increase of the step height to the level at which the the thigh is parallel to the ground with your foot on the step, is the next goal. After you can master this movement, you may choose to raise the step a bit beyond this, and really work the hamstrings and glutes.
  2. The Weight Lifted
    Start with no weight and gradually add dumbbells or a barbell if you like. Using a barbell allows you to lift more, but holding dummbells is a decent option. If your goal is to gain strength, lift more weight, go slower and perform fewer reps (8-12 per set). To build explosive power, or increase the cardiovascualr aspect of the exercise, carry less weight, go faster, and perform more repetitions (20-25 per set).
  3. The Speed of the Movement
    As mentioned above, you can get a great cardio workout by doing step ups with no weight (or light weights), moving faster and performing many reps per set. As you add weight, you will probably slow down the movement (due to both safety and difficulty). The speed of the step up movement is largely dependent upon your goals and the type of training you are doing. If you are a jumper, explosive power may be your goal; if you are a cyclist, it may be improving your endurance. You may also perform both types of routines at alternate workouts to get a well-rounded mix of strength and power.

Modifications to the Weighted Step Up

There are many ways to modify this exercise to make it easy or more difficult. Here are some of the most common variations.
  1. The Unweighted Step Up
    Begin with the simple step up. Step up with one foot and step down with the other and repeat the movement for a specific number of repetitions. Then switch the lead foot and repeat the same number of repetitions. A beginner may opt to do this for a set amount of time (one minute, for example), instead of a set number of reps.
  2. The Basic Weighted Step Up
    This is the same movement as above, only you are either holding dumbbells in your hands or a barbell across your shoulders as you step up and down. Again, you can go for time or repetitions depending upon your goals.
  3. The Dynamic Step Up
    To do a dynamic, or explosive, step up, start with one foot on the step and as you move your weight to this foot (and step up) push down into the step with a powerful movement so that as your other foot comes up, you'll jump up with both feet off the step and then land softly with both feet on the step. (Check out this video by Lauren for an example).
  4. The Weighted Dynamic Step Up
    As you increase your strength and improve your technique, you can begin adding weight to the dynamic step up. Be sure to use smaller steps, lower jumps and always land softly. (Check out this video by Lauren for an example).
The step up is a great all-round exercise that is perfect for novice exercisers but can be modified to create a killer workout for the most advanced athletes. It has a low risk of injury, with a few adjustments, offers a good cardio workout, strength workout or balance workout.
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