Legs are the biggest muscle group. You must train them from multiple angles to ensure overall strength and muscle development. Step-ups are a staple in functional training routines. They help build your lower body and boost core strength, balance, and performance in daily activities like climbing stairs and running.
Adding step-up variations to your training regimen can boost muscle stimulation and take your gains to the next level. Lateral step-up is a popular step-up variation, and some lifters prefer it over the conventional movement.
This article dives deep into the lateral step-up, including how to perform the exercise, its benefits, muscles worked, common mistakes, and variations.
What is Lateral Step-Up?
The lateral step-up is a step-up variation that allows exercises to focus on their quads. It better mimics a squatting motion than the conventional step-up. In the lateral step-up, you step to your side instead of stepping ahead.
While performing a conventional step-up, most people bend forward, placing unnecessary stress on their lower back. Plus, stepping ahead is inconvenient as it makes you more prone to bump your knee or shins into the elevated platform, which can be painful if you work on a hard plyo box. Since maintaining an upright torso is a constant struggle on the conventional step-up, establishing a mind-muscle connection is tricky.
The lateral step-up fixes these issues by allowing you to zero in on your quads and glutes. This step-up variation requires you to move straight up and down. It lets you focus on your target muscles without worrying about bumping your knee into the platform.
Muscles Worked During Lateral Step-Up
The lateral step-up is a compound movement that works the following muscles:
- Quads: Your front upper legs are the primary target muscle group of the lateral step-ups. Keep an upright torso for optimal quad stimulation.
- Glutes: The lateral step-up mimics the squatting movement pattern, and since your quads go below parallel to the floor at the bottom of the movement, it results in gluteal engagement.
- Hamstrings: Your hams play a crucial role in the knee and hip flexion. Hamstrings work with the glutes to generate power for lower body movement.
- Calves: You’ll experience calf engagement while performing the lateral step-up. The kick-off and landing motion of the step-ups can feel like standing calf raises for the leg on the floor.
- Core: You must brace your core to maintain an upright torso while performing this exercise. Failing to engage your abs can result in using momentum by swinging your torso back and forth.
Benefits of Lateral Step-Up
Here are the benefits of including lateral step-ups in your training regimen:
Unilateral movements involve working one side of the body at a time. It helps build a better mind-muscle connection and is one of the most potent tools for fixing muscle and strength imbalances.
Builds Muscle Mass and Strength
Staying in the 8-12 rep range while doing lateral step-ups helps achieve hypertrophy. Conversely, doing 1-5 reps per side can set you up for strength gains. 
Build Explosive Strength
Stepping up on an elevated platform using one leg demands explosive strength. Your newfound power will carry over to other compound lifts like the squat, lunge, and leg press. Plus, it will improve your performance in plyometric exercises.
The lateral step-up engages your abs and core stabilizers. While performing this exercise, you must keep an upright torso to get the best bang for your buck.
Enhances Balance and Coordination
The lateral step-up involves balancing your body weight on one limb for most of the set. It improves hip stability, helping build balance and coordination. Although the traditional step-up is more popular, the lateral step-up is a more beginner-friendly exercise as it is easier to remain upright in this variation.
Reduced Joint Stress
While doing conventional step-ups, your feet are rarely under your body’s center of gravity, exposing them to a higher risk of injury. You notice it first hard while using weight on the conventional step-up. Although getting your feet onto the bench isn’t a big deal, returning your foot to the floor puts it in a delicate position since you’re stepping down behind your body.
While performing the orthodox step-up, a misstep can cause an ankle injury since your foot is way behind your body’s center of gravity at the bottom of the movement. On the flip side, your feet are under your body throughout the movement on the lateral step-up. Not only does it reduce your chances of injury, but it also makes the lift much kinder for your ankles and feet.
How To Do Lateral Step-Up
Below is how to perform the lateral step-up using the perfect form:
- Stand upright with your right side facing an elevated platform like a plyo box or flat bench.
- Lift your right foot off the floor by driving your knee toward the ceiling.
- Push your knee outward until your right foot is above the bench.
- Plant your right foot on the elevated platform while maintaining an upright torso.
- Brace your core and glutes and lift yourself off the floor by driving your right heel and mid-foot into the bench.
- Your feet should be at the same level at the top.
- Contract your glutes, hamstrings, and quads at the top.
- Slowly return to the starting position and land softly on the ball of your left foot.
- Repeat for recommended reps before switching sides.
- Avoid using too high of a box in the beginning. The box should ideally be lower than your knee height.
- The descent is as important as the ascent in this exercise.
- Avoid using momentum by rocking yourself forward to lift yourself.
- Dropping to the floor without controlling the descent can put unnecessary stress on your foot, ankle, knee, and lower back.
- Bending forward while performing this exercise will remove tension from your quads and put it on your lower back.
- Interlocking your fingers in front of your chest will help maintain an upright torso.
- Target Muscle Group: Quads
- Secondary Muscles: Hamstrings, Glutes, Core, Calves
- Type: Strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Bodyweight
- Difficulty: Beginner
- Best Rep Range:
- Hypertrophy: 8-12
- Strength: 1-5
Common Mistakes While Performing Lateral Step-Up
The lateral step-up is a unilateral compound exercise, meaning a lot can go wrong. Here are some of the most frequent lateral step-up lapses:
Most folks bend forward during the eccentric (downward) and concentric (upward) part of the lift. This puts unnecessary stress on your lower back and removes tension from your quads and glutes.
Using the Wrong Leg For Kick Off
It’s common for lifters to use their extended leg to boost off the floor. It can lead to instability and ankle stress. You must use your elevated leg to perform the exercise. It helps engage your core and keep tension in your target muscles.
Step-up involves returning to the starting position using a slow and controlled eccentric motion. Dropping down disengages your target muscles and can strain your ankles, knees, and lower back.
Variations and Alternatives of Lateral Step-Up
There are multiple ways of adding variations to the lateral step-up. You could use elevated platforms of different heights to target your lower body differently. Here are a few other exercises to add variety to your training regimen:
Dumbbell Lateral Step-Up
Dumbbell lateral step-up is an advanced lateral step-up variation. It involves performing the exercise while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Beginners could do this lift by using one dumbbell at a time.
Pro Tip: Avoid bending to one side while using only one dumbbell, as it can lead to instability and loss of balance.
The traditional step-up is a great exercise to build explosive strength and fix muscle and strength imbalances.
- Stand in front of an elevated platform with a shoulder-wide stance.
- Interlock your fingers in front of your chest. Alternatively, you could extend your arms in front of you, parallel to the floor.
- Initiate the movement by stepping onto the platform with your right foot.
- Brace your core and glutes, drive your right heel into the platform, and extend your right knee to stand up.
- Your feet should be at a level at the top.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat for desired reps before switching sides.
Pro Tip: Keep your extended leg as close to the elevated platform as possible. Placing it far behind removes it from your body’s center of gravity and puts your lower back under undue stress.
The step-up is an advanced lunge variation. Beginners should master the lunge before attempting the step-up.
- Stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance. Grab a dumbbell in each hand using a neutral (palms facing each other) grip and extend your arms at your sides.
- Step forward with your right leg to get into a staggered position.
- Slowly lower your body by bending your knees until your back knee is a few inches off the floor.
- Maintain an upright torso throughout the exercise.
- Explode back to the starting position while maintaining your balance.
- Repeat for desired reps before switching sides.
Pro Tip: Take a big step forward and ensure that your front knee doesn’t track over your toes at the bottom of the lift.
Reverse Deficit Lunge
The reverse deficit lunge will help you get better at maintaining balance during the step-up descent. It will prepare your joints and muscles for stepping back and down.
- Stand upright on an elevated platform like an aerobic step. Alternatively, you could use weight plates after stacking them.
- Brace your core and hips, pull your shoulders back and down, take a step back, and place the ball of your foot on the floor.
- Lower yourself by bending your knees until your rear knee almost touches the floor.
- Extend your knees to return to the start position.
- Repeat for recommended reps before switching sides.
Pro Tip: Avoid rounding your back while performing the reverse deficit lunge. Keep an upright torso throughout the exercise.
Besides working your glutes, hams, and quads, the side lunge also works your adductors and abductors, which can improve your lateral step-up performance.
- Stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance.
- Place your hands in front of your chest for stability. Alternatively, you could place your hands on your hips.
- Maintaining an upright torso, take a big step to your right side.
- Slowly shift your weight over your right leg and simultaneously lower yourself by bending your right knee and pushing your hips back and down.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the left side.
- Alternate between sides for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: Most untrained individuals have weak adductors. Spend 5-10 minutes warming up before each workout to minimize the risk of injury during training.
The box jump is a plyometric exercise that helps build explosive strength and endurance. Add this lift to your exercise arsenal to get better at the step-up.
- Stand facing a plyo box.
- Get into an athletic position with your knees slightly bent and your arms at your sides.
- Squat until your upper legs are parallel to the floor, swing your arms back, and jump toward the box.
- Land on the balls and heels of both feet in a semi-squat.
- Stand up.
- Jump back to the starting position.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: Beginners should perform this exercise on a soft plyo box. Move to hard boxes after gaining experience.
Are lateral step-ups better than conventional step-ups?
The lateral step-ups deliver better quad and glute stimulation than conventional step-ups. You should incorporate both these exercises into your training regimen as they work your lower body from different angles.
What are the target muscle groups in lateral step-ups?
Quads are the primary target muscle group in lateral step-ups, and glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core are the secondary muscle groups.
What should be the optimal height of the elevated platform while performing the step-up?
The optimal height of the elevated platform will vary depending on the exerciser’s height. You should start the exercise with an aerobic step. Using an elevated platform higher than 24 inches can put your lower back under undue stress.
The lateral step-up is a unilateral compound movement that can take your lower body gains to the next level. Although this step-up variation might look easy, it will leave you with a sick leg pump at the end of each set.
Start with your body weight and add weights as you get better at the lift. Use the variations and alternatives listed in this article to keep your workouts interesting. We hope this exercise helps unleash your inner quadzilla. Best of luck!
- Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897. PMID: 31817252; PMCID: PMC6950543.