Back in college, I thought the stepup was a stupid exercise. They were a part of my strength and conditioning program when I played football at Amherst College.
Every guy on the team trained together, and we tended to use the same weight to keep things moving. And when it comes to the male ego, using a bare barbell for any exercise is just unacceptable.
So when it came to the stepup, we put at least a 45-pound plate on each side. Most of us couldn’t even do one good stepup with our bodyweight, but somehow we thought things would improve when we put 135 pounds on our back.
Not so much.
I found stepups, at least the way I used to do them, to be painful and awkward to do. Out of control, I’d step up and just collapse down from the box.
It jarred my joints and I couldn’t feel any sort of muscle work from it. So I just moved away from the exercise entirely.
After all, just do squats, right? Man, was I wrong.
Five years later, I came back to the stepup—but with a completely different approach. I had these three objectives in mind:
1. I would start with nothing but my bodyweight no matter how much I wanted to load it up to look more like a man.
2. I would control the eccentric—or lowering portion—of the movement, taking at least 3 to 5 seconds to lower from the top. Plopping down was unacceptable!
3. I would choose an appropriate box/step height that allowed me to feel my muscles work and progressively increase the height in small, manageable increments over time.
I did 3 sets of 5 eccentric reps on each side. And for the next 5 days my ass felt like an atomic bomb went off inside. I had never experienced this level of glute soreness and it didn’t bother my knees either.
I knew right then and there that there was more than meets the eye to this movement and that I had to stay the course and dig deeper.
I believe that the true joy in your fitness journey comes from exploring all of the amazing movement possibilities available to the human body. It means you need to be willing to dig deeper into every exercise and not just overlook it because it's "basic" or it doesn’t film or photograph well for your next Instagram post.
On that note, here are my top 7 stepup training tips that I’ve learned along the way. And watch the video above for 54 ways you can do them for endless variety.
Plus, I’ve programmed a 6-week stepup program for you at the end of the article that will bulletproof your knees and build wheels of steel.
The Gold Standard
When it comes to any exercise, there’s an ideal way to do it. But then there’s the way you need to do it based on your own limb length, body proportions, fitness level, injury history, and goals. Take this advice, but don’t become overly self-conscious about it if you have a way of doing stepups that works best for you.
Before I share what I consider to be the gold standard for stepups, let me first emphasize that the stepup is a hip-dominant exercise that should preferentially recruit the glutes and hamstrings. The lunge, on the other hand, is a knee-dominant exercise that should target your quads more.
Both the stepup and lunge work your entire lower body, but it’s important to know which muscles you should “feel” working more for each move.
A perfect stepup should:
1. Create 3 approximate 90-degree angles at the ankles, knees, and hips
2. Place a majority of the your weight on the mid-foot to heel of your support leg
3. Have an active hinge at the hip to pre-load the glutes and hamstrings
Your goal should be to do stepups as close to this “textbook” way as possible for the majority of your training sessions. You should experience the most soreness in your glutes post-workout.
Start by mastering the eccentric portion of the exercise, taking at least 3 to 5 seconds to lower from the top to the bottom of the exercise.
As you lower, focus on tracking your knee directly over your ankle/foot. Fight to prevent any sort of plopping at the bottom of the exercise when your glutes needs to kick in the most.
Use this 3-week cycle for as long as you find a benefit from it, doing it at least once per week and up to 3 times per week:
Week 1: Do 3 sets of 3 reps per side with a 5-second lowering
Week 2: Do 4 sets of 4 reps per side with a 5-second lowering
Week 3: Do 5 sets of 5 reps per side with a 5-second lowering
Now repeat this cycle, but use either a higher box or step, or increase the load.
Use Multiple Ranges of Motion and Foot Placements
You can train them from a lower step or box and keep the weight on your mid to fore foot to target your quads and calves more.
It's also very specific to the range of motion demands of climbing staircases throughout the day so it's very functional in that regard. Plus, the smaller range of motion allows you to go faster and get a bigger cardio response.
Doing stepups from a high box with the weight shifted to the heel is going to target your hamstrings and glutes more. The increase range of motion slows you down and provides more strength and stability benefits.
Yes, it's harder to stepup from a taller box but it doesn't mean you should overlook lower box variations. You are never truly past a movement.
One of my favourite stepup workouts is where I alternate legs for 30 minutes straight. But I move to a different box height every 10 minutes for a more complete workout: low, medium, and high.
As you change the height of the box or step, you can change up your tempo and foot strike for a different challenge. Give this a shot and find out where you are weakest. You may be surprised.
The bodyweight stepup is great, but you can only keep raising the box or step height so far before you need to add some weight to your body to keep making a change.
I’d recommend loading yourself in the following order, from easiest to hardest: weight vest, dumbbells (or kettlebells), barbells.
What I love about the weight vest is that it allows your arms to move freely and in a reciprocal opposite arm-leg fashion that mimics running. In this regard, I feel there is a very high functional carryover.
You can either use a traditional weight vest (I like the Hypervest from Hyperwear) or you can use a Ruck Sack.
Dumbbells are next because you can start with very light weights and slowly build up from there. You can also use progressive level changes to increase the difficulty with the same weights by moving from holding them at hip level to chest level and then to overhead.
Plus, you can mix in some asymmetrical work by either holding two different weights in your hand or holding a single weight in one hand. This greatly increases the training effect on your hips and core.
The main limitation of dumbbell work is that your grip strength and endurance tends to limit how many reps and sets you can do.
You can mix in kettlebells too. One of my favorite stepup variations is the single-arm bottoms-up kettlebell stepup. It will smoke your arms and shoulders and the stability demands are off the charts. If you tend to do stepups too fast, these will really slow you down, in a good way.
Barbells allow for the most possible loading to be put through your system and thus the strength benefits cannot be denied. But holding a heavy weight on the front or back of your shoulders has an inherently greater stability demands than the previous two options.
That’s why you should start with the bar and build from there. And overhead barbell stepups are an unreal way to sculpt your shoulders and glutes, so don’t overlook doing these with a light weight from time to time.
I’d also recommend mixing in some sandbag work, too. This provides some odd object lifting that will stimulate more muscles and joint stabilizers and create a larger neurological and metabolic demand on your system. You have so many different holding positions to choose from for endless variety.
I like to train stepup strength for 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps per side. Do 1 set every 2 minutes. Either alternate legs each rep or do all your reps on one side before switching. Both ways work so mix between them from time to time.
Before you do something fast, you want to be able to do it slow and under control. Once you’ve established a base of strength and stability from the previous tips, it’s time to start adding some primal power to those wheels.
Do 10 stepup jumps EMOM (every minute on the minute) and rest the remainder of each minute. Do this for 10 to 20 straight minutes based on your fitness level and what else you have scheduled in that given workout.
If your goal is max power, do this first thing in your training session when you’re fresh. If you’re looking for some more MetCon (metabolic conditioning), do this at the end of your session as a nice little finisher.
Most people should just stick to using their bodyweight for these. If you do want to load them up, do it safely with a medicine ball held at chest level or by wearing a weight vest.
It’s funny the reaction I get when I tell people to do stepups for 10 minutes or more at a time. I mean, how many people have no problem going 60-plus minutes on the treadmill or elliptical without thinking twice about it?
Long-duration stepups are just like using the stepmill—except you can increase or vary the range of motion and it requires more stabilisation because you’re in free space.
I can get my heart rate to 160bpm or higher and you won’t believe how good your ass will start looking in those pants if you do this with regularity.
There’s no better way to master the stepup than to commit to finishing your leg days with 10 minutes of non-stop alternating stepups.
Or you can replace one of your weekly cardio sessions with 30 to 60 minutes of stepups at the appropriate box or step height. You’ll burn so many good reps into your brain. Just line up a good playlist or podcast and go the distance.
These routines will transform your legs and hips and lean you out fast. If you love to hike or take the stairs a lot during the day, this is truly right up your alley.
It will also make your more athletic than the machine version, though there’s nothing wrong with using cardio machines too. Just make sure you don’t rely on them alone.
Mix It Up
Just like with any exercise, you need to apply the principle of variations to your training every 3 to 6 weeks to prevent plateaus. You can either mix it up within the same training session or from session to session. Both options work.
I have provided my favorite 54 stepups for you to mix between in the video above.
Want to take your stepup game to the next level? Use the customized 6-week program I put together for you below:
The 6-Week Supersized Stepup Workout
How to do it: Do this workout at least once to three times per week. After 6 weeks, move on to something else or swap in different variations within the same training template.
Do 10 alternating stepups jumps EMOM (every minute on the minute). Rest the remainder of each one-minute block. Repeat for 10 straight minutes.
Do 10 weighted stepups every 2 minutes. Rest the remainder of each 2-minute block. Repeat for 10 straight minutes. Bump up the load in small 2.5- to 5-pound increments each week.
Hold a single weight in one hand. Do 6 reps of alternating stepups (3 per side) while holding the weight in your left hand. Switch sides and repeat. That’s 1 round. Do max rounds for time in 10 minutes.
Progress by slowly bumping up the load each week. Or you canhold the weight at chest level and then overhead to make it harder with the same weight.
Do 10-30 minutes of continuous alternating stepups. Focus on exploding up to the top and then controlling the lowering portion of the exercise on each rep. For more variety, you can mix up the speed of movement or box/step height every 10 minutes.