19 Step-Up Variations for Strength & Performance

There are a lot of important exercises that can be found in most gym-goers’ programs.  The Big 3 (bench, squat, deadlift) are commonly found in programs.  This is due to the fact that they work.

I have noted about 10-15 exercises which are commonly found in most programs.  These are possibly then combined with the occasional split-stance exercise (usually in the form of lunges) and in rare occurances, some form of single-leg exercises.  Usually those single-leg movements consist of either single-leg RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts) or single-leg squats.  They are great movements and deserve a place in many programs, but very rarely do I see other single-leg movements in the mix.

It saddens me to see one of my favorite lower body exercise(s) are rarely included; Step-Ups.

While typically both legs are used, when Step-Ups are done properly only one leg is actually doing the strength portion of the movement.   The other leg is simply being used to make sure that you stay upright, providing very minimal, if any, assistance through the movement…as you will soon see.


How To Set-Up For Step-Ups:

Set-Up Instructions:

This is where a lot of people go wrong.  One error is allowing for an excessive amount of assistance to come from the second leg.  This should be avoided as it ruins the effectiveness of the exercise.  In the video below, I go over the specifics that make or break this exercise.

#1: What to Step-Up onto?

Ideally, I’d love for you to step-up onto a plyometric box due to the hardness and control that the platform allows during the movements.  If you do not have access to a plymetric box at your gym, you can do these exercises from a bench.  Try to find a bench that is sturdy and doesn’t have too much cushion.  I’m not looking for this exercise to challenge your stability of your ankle, as our goal is to get stronger.

#2: What Height Box/Bench Do I Use?

This is a difficult question because I know many people like to just assume that bigger is better.  While that may be the case in some situations in life, I’d like for you to start with a smaller box/bench if available (one where the angle is greater than 90 degrees).  Roughly 115-145 degrees works out well for most people to learn the concepts of the movement.  Once you progress through the movement and gain control you can begin to move closer to 90 degrees. Less than 90 degrees is available, but I have yet to meet many people who can properly handle anything under 90 degrees due to the shifting of mechanics, but it is possible.


115-145 degrees —-> Around 90 degrees —-> Less Than 90 Degrees

#3: When Should I Add Load to the Movement?

A very simple concept – add load when the current movement is a piece of cake.  If you’re still struggling on the current movement is it wise to move onto a new variation?  No. Exactly.


Time to jump into the reason you clicked on this blog to begin with, seeing the different step-up variations that are going to help you progress in the weight room.

#4: What Are The Benefits of Step-Ups?

  • Ability to work one leg at a time, enabling you to correct any side-to-side imbalances.
  • A great way to hit glute activation from a few different angles.
  • Challenge the body’s control in different positions than most typical exercises allow.
  • Very effective way to train the eccentric phase of the lower body.
  • Teaches lower body awareness.
  • Teaches ability to create single-leg stiffness, which is an important trait in most sports.

#5: Should I Add Step-Ups to My Program?:

Unless you have some sort of lower body injury, I honestly have yet to meet many individuals that wouldn’t benefit in one way or another from adding in step-ups to their program.  They are a great addition, with plenty of benefits and a very limited risk to reward ratio.  You can’t go wrong!  This simple, yet technical exercise can help work on increasing control of the lower limbs, especially with the benefit that you can focus on one side at a time.

19 Step-Up Variations You Need To Use In Your Programs:

These exercises are listed in a progressive manner.  If I feel that an exercise needs a cue or tip, I’ll provide it below the exercise video.

Regular Step-Up Variations:

Bodyweight Step-Up:

Cues and Tips:

  • As discussed, try to only use the elevated leg.  If needed you can create more tension and avoid bouncing off that back leg by squeezing the down leg’s quad as hard as possible.  This will lock out the knee and make it even harder to be able to bounce off that leg.
  • The goal is to control the downward motion as much as possible.  I don’t want you to just fall back down to the start position.  Take as much time as you can (within reason).


Dumbbell Goblet Step-Up:

Cues and Tips:

  • Focus on keeping your elbows as tight to your ribs as possible.  This will keep the dumbbell right where we want it.


Two-Handed Dumbbell Step-Up:

Cues and Tips:

  • Try to keep the dumbbells by your side and limit swaying of the arms.  Limit as much momentum as possible.


Off-Set Dumbbell Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • Hand position matters.  Make sure it is the opposite hand from the leg currently up.


Barbell Back-Loaded Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • Place a focus on creating tension with the hands.  Squeeze the bar as hard as possible.  Also focus on driving the bar towards the floor, this should position your elbows pointing directly towards the ground.


Barbell Front-Loaded Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • Focus on the elbows placing directly ahead.  Don’t let your elbows drop from this position.


Lateral Step-Up Variations:

Bodyweight Lateral Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • It’s very important to make sure that you place the pressure through the elevated leg, really placing focus on driving through the hips on the way up while maintaining balance, since you won’t have your bottom leg to balance off from at the top.


Dumbbell Goblet Lateral Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • This position should allow for you to have a little more control with the movement by loading up the front side of the body due to placement of the dumbell.


Two-Handed Dumbbell Lateral Step-Up:


Off-Set Dumbbell Lateral Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • This variation is deceptively difficult.  Make sure you remain upright.
  • Also focus on placing the dumbbell in the correct hand.


Barbell Back-Loaded Lateral Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • Focus on using the same tension concepts that were discussed earlier.


Cross-Over Step-Up Variations:

 Bodyweight Cross-Over Step-Up:

Cue and Tips:

  • You should feel this movement in the outer hip.  Place the focus on that muscle group being the prime mover.


Dumbbell Goblet Cross-Over Step-Up:

Two-Handed Dumbbell Cross-Over Step-Up:

Off-Set Dumbbell Cross-Over Step-Up:

Barbell Back-Loaded Cross-Over Step-Up:

1.5 Step-Up Variations

This variation is difficult for most to master, but if you want to add load, just follow the similar schemes that were demonstrated above.

1.5 Bodyweight Step-Up:

1.5 Bodyweight Lateral Step-Up:

1.5 Bodyweight Cross-Over Step-Up:

Programming Considerations: Sets, Reps, Frequency

Now that you know how to properly do a step-up with the cues and tricks to properly accomplish many different step-up variations, it’s time to discuss the important part.  How do we add these into our programming?

Sets and Frequency:

This all depends on how many workouts you do a week.  For every day that includes lower body movement, add 3 sets of one of the variations above.  Don’t go above and beyond what you can handle as far as efficient technique goes.


This is a tricky situation, as obviously you can go heavy, but going below 10 reps generally leads to some sort of cheat or another unless very proficient with the movement.  I program 12-15 reps for my clients and see a lot of success with this movement.


Want More Exercises for Strength, Fat Loss, & Performance?

The above exercises are incredibly useful to allow you to successfully become stronger, but are not the only exercises, techniques, schemes, etc… that can be used to get you to where you want to be in and out of the gym.

This is when being a member of LaVack Fitness Insider Community comes in handy, I send over a lot more useful information to my VIPs on how to keep getting better.  You’ll want to check it out.  Can’t wait to see you 🙂


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