How to Do a Proper Step-Up
By Alli McKeeMarch 1, 2016

Step-Up Exercise

The step-up exercise is a simple, foundational movement that occurs frequently in daily life. This exercise helps develop strength and stability through the lower body and core. This movement requires controlling the movement of the hips and knees as you step up onto a step or box.

Equipment needed:

You will need a stable box, step, or bench to perform the step-up exercise. Add resistance with dumbbells or kettlebells. If one kettlebell is used, it's best to hold the kettlebell by the horns (the angled part of the handle) in goblet position, with the weight of the bell toward the floor. It is also common to hold one kettlebell in the rack position. If a woman is ready for more resistance, she may hold two kettlebells in the rack position to perform a step-up.

One or two dumbbells can also be used to perform a goblet squat. If a dumbbell is used, it's often most comfortable to hold one of the weighted ends with both hands. If two dumbbells are used to perform a step-up, hold the dumbbells near the shoulders in the rack position or with your arms straight down at your sides.

Ability level:


It is best for beginner weight lifters to perform the step-up box exercise by stepping onto a box using their own body weight. To start, the box should be slightly shorter than the lifter is capable of stepping onto.  An 8 to 12-inch box may be high enough to still be challenging for a beginner. Beginners should complete 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions with body weight or light weight. All repetitions should be performed on one leg first, and then the other.

The step-up exercise, like most lower body exercises, should be completed toward the beginning of the workout as they require quite a bit of energy to complete. Lifters should focus on technique first.

You should feel challenged with the weight you're using. "Light" weight is relative to the person. A beginner lifter should be challenged to complete each set of repetitions while still feeling like they could perform 3-4 additional reps with good form beyond the reps they are planning to complete. This ensures that the lifter focuses on technique of the movement first, before increasing the load.


Women who have mastered the body weight step-up may choose to simply increase the challenge by adding an additional kettlebell or dumbbell, by increasing the height of the box they are stepping onto, or both. Intermediate weight lifters should be able to safely and efficiently complete all desired repetitions, yet feel like they can complete an additional 1-2 repetitions. Intermediate weight lifters should complete 2-4 sets of 6-12 repetitions with moderate to heavy weight.


Women who are proficient with step-ups may perform multiple  (2-4+) sets of 3-6 reps to build strength. If an advanced lifter is using the step-up as an accessory movement on a deadlift day, she may perform 2-4+ sets of 6-15 reps.

If a woman is using step-ups as part of a conditioning circuit, she may perform multiple sets of 6-20 reps. All repetitions may be performed on one side and then the other, or alternating. In this instance, the focus becomes less about the number of repetitions completed and more about the work to rest ratio and the heart rate/cardiovascular intensity.

Benefits of Step-Ups:

The goal of the step-up exercise is highly dependent on the ability level of the person performing them, how much weight is being used, the set/rep scheme used, where it falls in the workout, what it's paired with, and what the rest periods are. In general step-ups can be used to do any or all of the following:

  • build lower body strength
  • build muscle
  • fat loss (if your diet is conducive to fat loss)
  • improve conditioning

These are the benefits of the step-up exercise.

How to perform a Step-Up: 

  • place a box or bench in front of you
  • place your entire foot up on the box, directly in front of your hip
  • start with a box that is lower than you think you are capable of stepping on to
  • brace your abs and think about keeping your ribs down toward your hips as you step up onto the box
  • drive through the heel of the foot on the box and pull yourself into standing position by contracting your glutes and quads 
  • make sure you are keeping your hip and knee stable as you step up (there should be no side to side movement)
  • keep the same foot on the box as you you lower your free leg back to the ground (during this phase, it’s okay to lean your torso forward just slightly, but remember to keep your abs braced, and pelvis tucked slightly)
  • throughout the movement of a Step-Up, try to keep your hips and shoulders level
  • if your goal is strength, repeat all reps on one leg and then switch and repeat all reps on the other leg

Video Transcription: 

This is a step-up. A step-up can seem like a really simple exercise but I have a couple of tricks to help make it more effective and it actually makes it a lot harder. You are going to start out with your whole foot on a block or bench - and always start a little bit lower than you think you should. You are going to drive through your heel and pull yourself up onto the step, using your glute and driving through your heel. Looks pretty easy but I am doing a couple of things. I am keeping my abs really, really tight and controlling my hip and not letting my hip kick out the side and controlling my knees as well. When a lot of people are doing a step-up they just step up, you see the hip sticking out the side, your knee can go all over the place. So what I want you to do is stay really braced, ribs down, drive through the heel and try to control the hip and the knee, then on my way back down same thing.

Don't be afraid to lean forward just a little bit, on my way back down. When you are stepping down (I got this tip from my good friend Eric Otter) think as if you had on suspenders, kind of pull your pelvis under a little bit, that's going to help keep everything tight and control the hip which is going to help control the knee. So as I step down I am not just letting this go and stepping off the step, I am going to control it, step down, drive through my heel to step back up, and step back down. I will show you from the side what that looks like.

From here I am driving through my heel so I am not using this leg at all, I am not hopping off that foot. I am just driving through the heel. I like to do all the reps on one leg then all on the other. If you alternate it kind of turns into step aerobics, it's less of a strength exercise. Drive through my heel, pull myself up and think about pulling my pelvis underneath me and staying really tight and come back down. Those are a couple little tricks that can help make your step-up more effective.


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About the author:  Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at

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