How to Do a Weighted Step-Up

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

A box step-up.
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Targets: Quadriceps, posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings)

Equipment Needed: Step

Level: Intermediate

The step-up is a great all-around exercise for the lower body. It 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, strength, or balance workout.

Benefits

The weighted step-up is excellent for building strength in the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh. Your quads get little use in level running or walking and so you may need to exercise them to keep them in balance if those are your main cardio activities. Step-ups also involve the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings). Building the quads helps protect the knee and step-ups, when performed correctly, create minimal stress on the knee. This exercise is functional as people climb stairs frequently in daily life.

Another bonus is that the weighted step-up exercise 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. This exercise 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.

Step-ups can be done almost anywhere since the only equipment needed is an adjustable step or bench and some weights. It is a great alternative to other low body exercises such as plyometric jumping or full squats because it is easier to do, requires minimal equipment, and is harder to mess up.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Stand in front of a step or box of the selected height (lower for beginners and increasing as you gain strength; see Modifications, below).

  1. Hold dumbbells in your hands or a barbell across your shoulders.
  2. Step up with the right foot, pressing through the heel to straighten your right leg.
  3. Bring the left foot to meet your right foot on top of the step.
  4. Bend your right knee and step down with the left foot.
  5. Bring the right foot down to meet the left foot on the ground.
  6. 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.

Common Mistakes

To get the most from this exercise, avoid these errors.

Knee Passing Toes

Protect the knee of your active leg by ensuring your knee is not pushing forward past your toes when you step up. This promotes the posterior chain muscles (glutes and hamstrings) to help contribute rather than just your quads, which puts more stress on your knees.

Pushing Up With Lower Leg

The work should come from the leading leg, bringing the trailing leg up as basically dead weight. Don't push up with the lower leg as this will reduce the load on the upper leg.

Rounding the Back

You may need to lean forward slightly to avoid stressing your knee joint. As you do, hold your torso as straight and upright as possible, keeping your chest up rather than rounding your back.

Knee Out of Alignment

The knee on your active leg should track over your second and third toes. Avoid letting it collapse in or out.

Modifications and Variations

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 is how these affect the exercise:

  • 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. Beginners should start with a very low step (6 to 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.
  • 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, eight to 12 per set. To build explosive power, or increase the cardiovascular fitness, carry less weight, go faster, and perform more repetitions such as 20 to 25 per set.
  • Speed: The speed of the step-up movement is largely dependent upon your goals and the type of training you are doing. 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).

Need a Modification?

Beginners should start with the unweighted step-up. This is done in the same way, but with only your body weight. It is often used in knee rehabilitation programs. Start with a lower step height of 6 to 8 inches.

Once you have developed enough strength and have been able to increase the height of the step so your thigh is parallel to the ground when stepping up, you can lower the step and start with holding dumbbells in each hand. As you build strength, you can increase either the weight or the height.

Another alternative is the reverse exercise: Step-downs. Stand with both feet on the step and step backwards off the step.

Up for a Challenge?

You can vary the step height, weight, and speed to keep challenging your muscles. There are a couple of ways to use step-ups to build power.

To do a dynamic, or explosive, step up:

  1. 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.
  2. Step down and alternate which foot you lead with for repetitions.

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. 

Safety and Precautions

Talk to your doctor or physical therapist if you have had an injury or condition involving your knees, ankle, or hips to see if this exercise is appropriate for you. You will feel your muscles working during this exercise, but stop if you feel any pain.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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