A more advanced variation of the popular aerobics class cardio activity, single leg step ups are the superior option for building muscle, strength, and athletic explosiveness. This movement replicates squat mechanics after a high step onto a raised platform such as a training bench, chair, or jump box and you can add weight or jumps to make it more challenging and goal focused (e.g., muscle growth, or athletic development).
In This Exercise:
- Target muscles: Glutes
- Type: Strength, hypertrophy, functional fitness
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Bodyweight, dumbbells
- Difficulty: Intermediate
How To Do Single Leg Step Ups
There are several ways to do single leg step ups depending on your goals or preferences but the below example is the most basic version. But we also included the different variations in this article.
Choosing a platform
When choosing a platform for step ups, the best options include a training bench, wood box, chair, steps/staircase, or any similar object that can hold your body weight. When you place your foot flat on top of the platform, your leg should be at a roughly 90-degree angle. However, a taller platform will engage more of the glutes and a shorter platform emphasizes more of the quads. Either will work just fine.
Step 1: Set up
Set up your platform on a level and stable surface where it won’t slide or move during step ups. If using a chair, place it on grippy, non slippery flooring or up against a wall.
Step 2: Mental and pre-rep preparation
Pre-rep preparation is an important step before you begin each and every exercise. This includes proper body positioning and engaging assisting muscle groups.
- Similar to setting up for a squat, tighten your core muscles and hinge slightly forward at the hips.
Step 3: Movement execution
Now is the part where you put everything together and perform the single leg step up.
- Step up onto the platform and drive your foot down into it until your leg is fully extended. Step down onto the floor with your other foot then step down with the bench foot. Repeat this sequence but starting with the opposite foot.
Find your footing
Before you begin, we recommend you do a few practice rounds to establish your balance and prepare for the movement to ensure every rep is effective and symmetrical on both sides.
Pro tip: Maintain a distance of roughly one foot or twelve inches between your toes and the bench for optimal balance and performance.
Watch the video below for a demonstration of single leg step ups.
Here are some reasons why you’d want to include single leg step ups in your workouts.
More knee friendly
A lot of people suffer from painful knees but that doesn’t have to stop training progress. Just remember to keep your shins vertical and try not to let your knees move too far forward over your feet. When done correctly, you should be able to accomplish this with single leg step ups.
Load em heavy for size and strength gains
The bodyweight single leg step up is more of a beginner to intermediate level exercise, but you can make it advanced by holding two medium to heavy dumbbells, wearing a weighted vest, or using any form of additional resistance that challenges you to struggle around the sixth rep or so.
Train athletically and explosively
Step ups are a versatile activity because you can use them for strength and hypertrophy (heavy weights, slower pace) or explosive athletic training (less weight, fast movement and triple extension of the joints). More advanced exercisers can combine both for the ultimate lower body movement.
Perfect home leg workout
If you have a stable platform at least 18 inches off the ground then you can do single leg step ups. If you don’t have a training bench you can use a chair, wood box, cement blocks, or anything similar that will work. Then if you want to add more resistance with limited gear, just grab a water jug, or any two objects of the same weight that will give you at least five to ten pounds of resistance in each arm.
Replace squats and lunges
We’re not saying you should replace squats and lunges but rather step ups are a very good alternative option. If you compared all three with bodyweight resistance only, steps ups may be the most challenging. When bodyweight squats and lunges become too easy, single leg step ups are a “step” up.
Great calorie burning cardio activity
Compared to a biceps curl or shoulder press, single leg step ups should burn several more calories. If you do them at a faster pace well, you have quite the exercise. When the whole body moves together to perform an action you’ll naturally use more energy. So if weight loss is one of your goals consider these types of exercises that combine resistance training and cardio.
What are some things that could be problematic when including single leg step ups in your training?
Need a stable platform on a level surface
Using a gym grade training bench will always give you a stable platform to train from no matter the exercise. But at home training usually consists of improvising with chairs or other objects and oftentimes on uneven surfaces like sloping house floors or bumpy outdoor terrain.
Requires decent level of physical ability
Really mostly anyone who has hip flexibility and decent lower body strength can benefit from single leg step ups. But you also need good balancing ability and core strength to do it with good form and to maximize its effectiveness. It’s a simple movement but far from the easiest exercise.
These variations are similar to single leg step ups and will therefore have the same benefits. However, you may prefer one over the other and it’s good to have a variety of options to prevent training boredom and consequently, stalled progress.
1. Walking up stairs
Staircases are one of the best leg workout tools because you can do so many different lower body variations. You also have the added benefit of the next step providing a stopping point for your foot for an extra level of safety.
Some exercises that you can do on a staircase include step ups, walking step ups, and Bulgarian split squats. You could even strap on a backpack filled with weighted items or grab a few weights for better gains.
2. Step up jumps
Step ups jumps are a four-in-one exercise that will help you to build muscle, strength, explosive power and cardio fitness all at the same time. This variation is especially beneficial for athletes because it involves triple extension of the joints (hips, knees and ankles), training the lower body for functional performance abilities to compete in sporting activities.
We recommend starting with your body weight but you can also do it weighted holding two dumbbells, or wearing a weighted vest to stimulate more strength and power gains.
To do it:
- Step up on a platform with either foot and powerfully extend your hips, knees and ankles while driving your feet down into the platform. Jump up as high as you can and land on the same foot.
- Step down from the platform and then repeat with the other leg.
See how it’s done via the following video demonstration.
3. Fast alternating step up jumps
Speed up your reaction time and improve total body coordination and core stability with a faster paced variation – alternating step up jumps.
To do it:
Note: The set up will be exactly the same as single leg step ups.
- Place your dominant-side foot on the bench, dip your hips down, swing your arms back then explode through that leg into a full jump.
- Place the opposite foot on the bench mid-air and touch the dominant-side foot down to the ground.
- Explode through the non-dominant leg into a jump then step the dominant foot back on the bench and repeat steps 1-3, alternating left and right jumps until you’ve completed the desired number of repetitions.
Watch the video example below to see this step up variation in action.
4. Box jumps
If you want to focus solely on athleticism, box jumps are the best variation out of the one listed. Jumping step ups work on several components of fitness as an all-around lower body exercise whereas the box jump is a test of vertical leaping power. Although, it’ll still give you an effective leg workout.
5. Forward leaning step ups
Single leg steps up are closer to an upright squat, emphasizing more of the quads. The forward leaning version shifts more focus onto the posterior chain muscles like the glutes, hamstring and back muscles. Although, both variations work all of the same muscles.
If you’re more advanced, this is probably a better strength and muscle building variation because leaning forward at the hips forces your thighs to push harder to get out of the bottom and middle portion of each repetition.
Related exercise article: The 12 Best Step Exercises
These alternatives are entirely different movements and more suitable to strength-focused training.
1. Romanian deadlift
When it comes to posterior chain exercises, the Romanian deadlift (RDL) stands above the rest. It’s not as taxing on the body compared to conventional deadlifts, and consequently tends to be a preferred exercise. RDLs use a shorter range of motion stopping the bar mid-shin before.
Single leg glute bridges are a fantastic exercise but lunge variations are more versatile and likely just as effective. It’s also easier to tack on more weight to lunge movements because you can use heavy dumbbells.
3. Bulgarian split squat
It’s like a lunge on steroids… Bulgarian split squats are, in our opinion, a superior mass and strength building exercise because it more resembles a upright single leg squat, whereas lunges occur in a forward and backward movement. They’re also always lower impact, especially if you perform lunges by lifting and planting your feet.
There are also a few variations of Bulgarians including the forward leaning version which we really like because it involves more hip hinge to activate more of the posterior chain overall.
So what are some common mistakes that people make when doing single leg steps up and its variations?
Going too fast – Step ups require balance and proper foot placement to ensure you’re training each leg with equal force. Same with lunges, you need to have control over each repetition or you’ll be stepping unevenly, completely butchering the movement.
The exception is doing more explosive alternating step ups where you you’re jumping from leg to leg.
Short reps – While they’re called step ups, you also need to stand up on the bench to fully engage and activate all of the muscles involved. If it’s just for cardio purposes, then short reps are fine but not if you want to maximize the strength, hypertrophy and explosive potential of this exercise.
Dropping too quickly – Many people who do this exercise will step up and drop down quickly onto their back foot. Why shouldn’t you do this? It places a lot of stress on the joints, can cause injuries and you’re not maximizing the eccentric or negative portion of the movement which may be just as important.
Sets and Reps
For bodyweight-only step ups, we recommend 2-4 sets and a rep range of 10-30 per side. If you can complete more than thirty repetitions, you should consider a more advanced variation.
The following rep ranges are better suited for weighted single leg step ups where you have more control of over the resistance. Aim for low reps to build strength, moderate reps for muscle growth and high reps for hypertrophy and muscle endurance/cardio fitness.
- Strength: 4-6 reps
- Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps
- Hypertrophy and muscle endurance: 15-30 reps
Below we’ve included a brief section on the anatomy of muscles involved in Step ups.
- Gluteus Maximus – Maximus is the bigger of the three main butt muscles but better yet it’s the largest muscles anywhere on your body. What does it do besided look good in tight pants? It extends and externally rotates the thighs while also helping us to maintain an upright posture.
- Quadriceps – The quadriceps is what we aim to build during any compound lower body exercise. When developed it’s visually impressive and contains four heads to accomplish this – rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis. They flex the hips and extend the knees, support the gait cycle, contribute to posture and more.
- Hamstrings – While the quads are on the anterior thigh, the hamstrings are directly opposite on the posterior upper leg between the hips and knees. It’s a three headed muscle consisting of a semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris that cross the hip and knee (short head of the biceps femoris only crosses the knee).
- Adductor magnus – The thigh has several adductor muscles that pull the thigh inward and adductor magnus is the largest of them all. Additionally, it’s other roles include hip extension and medial rotation. Its fibers go from the front to the back of the thigh meaning it has actions on both sides.
- Calves – Athletic muscles in the lower leg calves while a unique muscle has two heads – gastrocnemius and soleus. If you flex the calves the toes will naturally point down toward the floor and that’s their main function.
Squats and lunges are usually the go-to bodyweight leg exercises, especially for at home workouts. But thinking outside the box will make your workouts more enjoyable, giving you other options to look forward to on leg day. Single leg step ups are an awesome alternative exercise that you can do with just your bodyweight or additional resistance for more advanced exercisers.
Start incorporating them in your workouts and thank us later!