Performed correctly, the step-up is a great exercise to develop leg strength and muscle definition in the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. Because the exercise requires one leg at a time, the step up improves balance. It can also act as an identifier of weakness. Even advanced athletes favor one side in exercises like deadlifts and squats. Since step-ups are unilateral (one leg at a time), you will quickly see which side is the stronger and focus on balancing it out in other workouts.
The step-up is one of the easiest exercises to learn and also one of the easiest to screw up. I’d rate it as one of the top corrections I consistently make of new Accelerate clients in the gym.
Mistake #1: Using momentum.
The Step-up is not intended to be a cardio move. When I see marching or several steps leading up to the step, I stop the exercise immediately. When you use momentum, you de-activate the hamstring and glute and use body weight to propel you up and down the step.
Mistake #2: Improper foot placement
A very common mistake is sloppy foot placement. Make sure to always place your entire foot on the bench. If your heel is hanging off the side, it makes the Step-up almost useless. Pressing through your heel is important because it activates your glute and hamstring. Without firm placement for your heel, it’s impossible to tighten those muscle groups. Place your foot squarely in the center of the bench and press through your heel, not the ball of your foot or toes.
Mistake #3: Pushing off from your back foot
The key to a Step-up is using as little momentum as possible. That means not pushing off the foot on the ground. Your toe should barely touch the floor and all of your body weight should remain in the working heel (the one on the bench). If you use your back foot to push off, the momentum shifts to the back leg and takes the pressure off the hamstring and glute. This mistake is very common and often is made by advanced athletes. Every Step-up should be a slow, controlled and focused movement. In the video below, Jessica has almost perfect form. It takes an experienced eye to notice that she has too much weight on her back foot as she steps up.
Mistake #4: Not engaging your glutes.
Engaging your glutes is the most important part of the Step-up. To get there, try mentally shifting energy to your glutes, engage them and then drive through your heel as you step up.
Try the exercise a few times with body weight and notice the difference once you’ve focused on fixing the top 4 mistakes. Once you’ve mastered slow, controlled movements, add a little bit of weight. The best way to slowly add weight without compromising form is to hold one dumbbell between your hands. Start with a weight lighter than usual and focus on form and control.
The next form clinic will focus on the top 3 push up errors. Can anyone guess what they are? Tell us in the comments.