Track Coach

Using the Step-Up for the Track & Field Athletes

Carl Valle has coached track & field at all levels, high school and above, since 1997. He is currently lthe lead sport technologist for

By Carl Valle

The step-up is one of the most versatile exercises and underappreciated movements in the weight room. Seen primarily as an assistance exercise, it strangely doesn’t get the same respect as other exercises such as squats and lunges. All athletes in track & field—not just sprinters & field event athletes—can benefit from this timeless exercise. If you are a track & field coach looking to improve leg strength or a sports medicine professional trying to help an athlete get back to competition, the step-up is one of the best single-leg exercises an athlete can use in training. With countless variations and numerous ways to load and manage it, the step-up is one of the crown jewels of movement in strength training.

What Is the Step-Up Precisely?

The step-up exercise is exactly what it sounds like: a unilateral exercise that literally projects an athlete up and sometimes forward using a box or platform. While a step-up is basically a single-leg exercise, it can be difficult to discern how much the rear leg contributes without careful observation. To be transparent, the number one drawback to using step-ups is the challenge of managing the exercise’s difficulty so it doesn’t dissolve into a movement that involves cheating. Unlike single-leg squats where the rear leg is sometimes involved to help the athlete self-spot, the rear leg in step-ups is sometimes part of the movement when transitioning between repetitions. Thus, the step-up can be rendered a liability when the exercise is not coached with a high standard.

It can be argued that the step-up is a variation of the single-leg squat on a box, with the only difference being the step-up movement is initiated with a primarily concentric action rather than an eccentric muscular contraction. Over the years, step-ups have slowly migrated from a concentric-only exercise to a more balanced way to raise and lower an athlete on a box or other elevation. Currently, many coaches prescribe eccentric-only “step-downs” to elicit neuromuscular changes that help with either deceleration abilities or rehabilitation needs, and for reinforcing technique. Loading is fairly simple: The exercise adds either external load or range of motion, with a higher box creating more difficulty and a higher load increasing the demand of the exercise. External loading in the form of barbells, dumbbells, weighted vests, and even sandbags are common with coaches.

While the step-up has many variations, including small modifications to improve special training qualities, the biggest similarity between them all is that the athlete starts on the ground and pushes down and through a box or bench-style equipment. The height of the box can vary from a shallow platform, merely inches up from the ground, all the way up to a point that maximally challenges an athlete’s hip flexibility. Athletes can emphasize the eccentric motion as a way to ensure the contraction is balanced, but most focus on accelerating the femur down until the hip is vertical and stacked over the foot.

Some coaches actually encourage a jumping action using a bench, but nearly everyone, regardless of the load, attempts to push in a manner that accelerates the entire body in a similar way to running out of the blocks. Although technically a vertical single-leg exercise, many high-level coaches believe the exercise is specific to early acceleration in sprinting.

New Science and Practice

The current body of evidence for the step-up is sparse, but extensive enough to support the value of the exercise as a fine contributor to lower body strength. Most of the research performed on the step-up attempts to appraise the exercise by using electromyography to infer the contribution of muscle groups to the joint motion of the exercise. Very few have studied the effect of the exercise on training over time. From the sum of the research, however, it’s safe to say the exercise is a well-rounded option for training the lower body.

Small differences have been seen between lateral (stepping up to the side) and frontal (traditional), but for the most part the exercise challenges the gluteals, hamstrings, quads, and adductors. Nothing in the research reveals anything startling about the exercise, but in general, the exercise seems to have a lot of interest beyond sport, such as for seniors and those in independent living. Without extrapolating the research too much, it’s my opinion that the exercise is important for locomotive climbing, an asset in acceleration and cross country. As for general running, the step-up is likely just a Swiss Army knife of exercises that can be added to any program.

As I mentioned in another article dedicated to the step-up, perhaps the use of the free leg punching up through hip and knee flexion has merit in vertical ground forces. While I don’t know the true contribution, the faster the motion, the more likely the body can exploit the cross-extensor reflex in the exercise to put more force down vertically. This additional motion, swinging the knee up, is more of a choice or option, in my opinion, but we need more research to truly know.

Pictured here is the eccentric version of the step-up using a tall set of boxes and a light kettlebell. The most common differences between exercises are the load, box height, rear leg contribution, and speed of the movement.

Options in Training

The step-up’s strongest asset is the numerous modifications that can be made to individualize it to both the athlete and the phase of training. Perhaps the most important quality of the step-up movement is how plastic it is with solving the specific needs of the training or rehabilitation session. Therapists can use it for post-surgery, strength coaches can use it with beginners, and scholastic coaches can use it to help with transfer in the throws, jumps, and sprints. Overall, coaches can modify the load, step height, contraction style, and speed of the exercise. The exercise can be used in different parts of the year, ranging from general preparation movements to maximal strength and power for the championship season.

For sports medicine purposes, the step-up is a great indicator of readiness due to the obvious fact that the right and left legs can be compared and contrasted for asymmetry deficits. While an asymmetry isn’t a guarantee of injury risk or cause of poor performance, the current body of evidence does hint that a significant asymmetry is a sign of possible risk or that the rehabilitation program is incomplete. The popularity of eccentric training for rehabilitation in sport is well documented, and jumper’s knee and other patella tendon pathologies respond well to the eccentric step-up (step down) if managed properly. In addition to the knee, the step-up is also suited for foot, ankle, hip, and spinal rehabilitation.

Most proponents of the step-up see the exercise as a general strength movement, ranging from work capacity type circuits to max strength sessions. Usually, the greater the load, the slower and lower the movement is performed, utilizing small boxes with loads larger than body weight. Provided the exercise is done with skill and appropriate loads, it can be used as a primary movement, similar to barbell squatting and Olympic lifts. Regardless of the load, the exercise must accelerate through the concentric phase of the motion. Lowering safely and under control is recommended with all strength-style options.

Higher speed motions or jumping variants, usually without external load and done with benches that are safe and sturdy, are seen as assistance exercises. Due to the rear leg acting as a pogo stick, the exercise moves from a single-leg emphasis exercise to a double-leg jump with unique power development characteristics. Heavy vests and hand weights such as dumbbells and kettlebells are fine as long as the movement is crisp and the repetitions are uniform. Additional sensors such as velocity-based training tools are welcome ways to ensure the intention of the exercise is executed in training. Testing the exercise for power development is too embryonic for guidelines, but eventually we will see more data-driven field assessments with this type of exercise, as a one rep maximum test is inappropriate and too risky.

Last but not least are the true jumping options, where an athlete jumps up but doesn’t run up a box or platform. While not a pure step-up, any exercise where the athlete lands higher than the previous takeoff point has step-up-like qualities, as accelerating the body up and forward is technically a comparable exercise. Finally, while single-leg step-ups tend to be the mode of choice with most variations, the use of a bilateral double-leg jump up specialized stairs or stacked boxes is effective for rate of force development, provided the athlete projects far and fast enough.

It is up to the coach to select the type of step-up, where to place it during the season, and how to load the body during the session. Removing the step-up entirely is certainly possible, as no exercise in the weight room or outside the track complex is indispensable when so many other options in training exist. Still, due to the benefits of the exercise, it warrants some type of inclusion, as the practitioner can mold and shape it according to specific needs.

Take Step-Ups to the Next Level

In parting, the step-up exercise is gold for improving athlete strength and providing the ability to accelerate the body in a meaningful way. While functional training has had its literal ups and downs with the step-up, today a fully integrated approach to using this classic movement should be fairly easy to adopt in any environment. It doesn’t matter if you work with a large team of cross country athletes or one-on-one with an athlete rehabbing an injury, the step-up provides countless ways to challenge an athlete and is only limited by a coach’s creativity and experience.

Due to its safety and flexibility, all professionals should include the exercise in a well-planned training program without hesitation. I have benefitted from the step-up for years and know that a vast array of track and field professionals can leverage this fantastic exercise.


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