Why the Weighted Step Up Is the Best Lower Body Exercise

A great way to build leg strength and power

Team of women having step aerobics in a health club.. Credit: BraunS

The step up is a great all-round exercise that is perfect for all exercisers since it can be modified to create a killer workout for anyone, whether you have just started exercise or have been training for years. It has a low risk of injury and, with a few adjustments, offers a good cardio workout, strength workout or balance workout.

Why Do the Weighted Step Up

This exercise can be done almost anywhere since 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.

Because of its versatility, it is a great alternative to numerous exercises, such as plyometric jumping — because you gain the benefit of the explosive upward movement without the impact of the landing; and the full squat exercise — because it is far easier to do correctly, and there is a lower risk of injury. 

Another bonus to the weighted step up exercise is that it strengthens each leg individually, rather than as a unit. 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 improves balance, stabilization, and proprioception because you are required to control the weight as you move both up and down, and forward and backward.

Other benefits of this exercise include:

  • Specifically targets the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).
  • Excellent for building quadriceps strength.
  • Creates minimal stress on the knee.
  • Easy to modify the basic exercise to create a high level of difficulty.

Setting Up Your Weighted Step Ups

There are three variables to consider when planning your weighted step up workout:

  1. 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 are worked. A beginner will start with a very low step of maybe 6-8 inches, until the movement is perfected. The next goal is to gradually increase the step height until it is at the level where your thigh is parallel to the ground when your foot on the step. After you can master this movement at this level, you may choose to raise the step a bit beyond this, and really work the hamstrings and glutes.
  2. Weight Amount
    Start with no weight and gradually add dumbbells or a barbell if you like. Using a barbell allows you to lift more, but holding dumbbells 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 cardiovascular fitness, carry less weight, go faster, and perform more repetitions — 20-25 per set.
  1. Speed 
    The speed of the step up movement is largely dependent upon your goals and the type of training you are doing. As mentioned above, you can get a great cardio workout by doing step ups with no 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). 

4 Ways to Do the Weighted Step Up

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. Here are some of the most common variations listed from easiest to most difficult.

  1. The Unweighted Step Up
    Begin with the simple step up. Step up with right foot, bring the left foot to meet it on top of the step, then step down with the left. Repeat this for a specific number of repetitions, then lead with the left 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 step up, propel yourself straight up off the step, and then land softly with both feet on the step. (Check out this video by Lauren for an example). Step down and alternate which foot you lead with for repetitions.
  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).

Continue Reading