A Step Up In The Right Direction
Anterior Step Ups
Most of the lower extremity training in the gym occurs with both legs working at the same time. Leg press, leg extensions, squats, and deadlifts all train both lower extremities simultaneously. In life, we almost always function in a single leg, or predominantly single leg manner. All athletic activity requires a high degree of single leg control to be proficient and remain free of injury. Your fitness training should include activities that improve balance, proprioception, core stability, and strength while on one leg. One of the best single leg exercises to add to your training program is step ups.
Connecting Your Lateral Subsytem
When you stand on one leg, the team of muscles that keep you upright and tall are collectively called the lateral subsystem. They consist of the groin muscles (muscle on the inside of the thigh), the gluteus medius (outside of the hip), and quadratus lumborum (side of the spine). These muscles must work in a coordinated fashion to keep you straight and stable. A step up exercise places a strong demand on the lateral subsytem. Seated machine based exercises have no effect on this essential neuromuscular interaction.
Keeping You Safe
When I start clients on step ups, the most glaring deficit is almost always single leg stance balance. Many of these people run, bike, and regularly attend group exercise classes, yet they have very limited control when they stand on one leg. I do not care how much weight you use on the knee extension machine or how flexible your hamstrings have become; if your balance is poor, you are at a far greater risk for a fall and/or injury. Anterior step ups will help improve single leg stance balance.
Deadlifts, squats, and leg press all create spinal compression. The anterior step up exercise creates much less in the way of compressive force on the lumbar spine. Fitness clients and athletes with a history of lower back pain can strengthen the legs with less spinal stress.
Real Life Carry Over
There is specificity to training. The exercises you perform in the gym must look and feel like the activities you must perform in real life. Your performance on a step up is far more likely to carry over to real life than your performance on a leg press or leg curl machine.
Anterior Step Ups
If you perform this at home, make sure you use a stable step up box—I would not use a padded lifting bench, milk crate, or old air conditioner. A mirror can be very useful in monitoring your performance. Most people can start with an eight inch household step.
Stand facing the box with one foot completely on the box–from heel to toes. When you perform a step up, use your gluteals and hamstrings to push through the foot and drive up into single leg stance. Do not jump up on to the step by leaning over and “popping up” with the rear leg. Bring the rear leg up to 90 degrees hip flexion, and hold a single leg stance for two counts. Try to abolish any wobble in your single leg stance position. Lower back down using the stance leg to control the descent. Perform all of the repetitions on one leg and then repeat on the other leg. If you find one leg is significantly weaker, then start with that limb first. Perform two or three sets of eight to ten repetitions.
Master your bodyweight on the eight inch step first and only then move to a higher box. A good goal is to move up a box height that places the top of the thigh just below parallel when the leg is placed on the box.
You can load the anterior step up many ways. I like using a medicine ball held at chest level as the first progression of loading and then progress to using an Iron Grip plate. For athletes the Barbell Step Up is a great functional exercise. It is best to perform this exercise in a power rack in case you lose control of the weight.
Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., O.C.S., C.S.C.S.