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Step-Ups: Are They A Good Exercise? Learn The Muscles Worked & Best Variations

Your Complete Guide On Step-Ups

By: Zack Mathews, NASM - CPT, CES, & PES, PN-L1


Step-ups: Muscles Worked and best variations

I have a love/hate relationship with step-ups.  This relationship stems from the fact that step-ups are an amazing, joint friendly exercise for your lower body but they are hard and challenging.

At some point in your training calendar, the benefits of step-ups will play a positive role in your overall physique and they should not be skipped.

Let’s dig in.

Are Step-Ups A Good Exercise?

Yes, step-ups are a good exercise for multiple reasons including:

  • They are joint friendly so they put less stress on your body than other big lifts like barbell squats.
  • This exercise is considered a unilateral movement, meaning you are working one leg at a time.  This helps improve balance and core strength.
  • Improvements in strength can lead to healthier knees and better performance on squats, deadlifts, and other single leg exercises.
  • You'll be improving your heart health from increasing your heart rate during your set.
  • The learning curve is low so most beginners can jump right into performing them.

How To Do Step-Ups

  • Start with a box that keeps your knee even with your hip when you have your foot on the box.  If you are a beginner, you can start with a smaller box where your knee stays below your hip.


  • If this is your first time doing step-ups, start with bodyweight only.  Once you feel comfortable, add dumbbells in each hand.


  • The foot on the box is your working leg so you want to push your foot into the box as your raise your other foot up.


  • Tap the opposite foot on the box, and then slowly reach your foot back down to the ground.


  • From here, there are two variations.  You can either go into your next rep or take your other foot off the box and place it on the ground.  I prefer to keep one foot on the box but there is no wrong way to do it!

Muscles Worked During Step-Ups

When performed correctly, step-ups will work:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Adductors (inner thigh)
  • Core
  • Calves
are step-ups a good exercise

The 4 Best Step-Up Variations

Toes Elevated Step-Ups

As I mentioned in the how to section, the working leg is the foot that is on the box.

I’ve noticed many clients push heavily onto their back foot to drive the leg up onto the box which will take away from the working leg.

To minimize that, if you elevate your toes on the non working leg, you are forced to push only from the leg on the box.

It’s a more advanced movement but if you can get it down, it makes step-ups a good, challenging exercise.

Lateral Step-Ups

Since most exercises are performed in the same plane of motion, it’s beneficial to your body to work in other planes, and in this case, the frontal plane.

Instead of starting behind the box, you’ll start from the side.

Raising your foot up from this position will recruit more muscles from your inner thighs, making it a tougher movement.

Crossover Step-Ups

To really emphasize your glutes during this movement, you can perform the crossover technique. 

Instead of stepping straight back on the way down, reach out as far as you can on one side.

On your next rep, reach as far as you can going onto the other side.

This will really open up your hips and target your glutes.

The main cue I tell my clients is to watch the working knee.  Don’t let it sway too far on one side or the other.

Explosive Step-Ups

Lastly, explosive variations are an awesome alternative to step-ups with weights if you want to make the exercise more of a power movement.

As you can see in the video, the goal is to get to the top of the box as quickly as possible.

Normally we are always trying to control the weight, but for power movements, you are trying to get from point A to point B as quick as possible.

Explode up, tap your toe, and control yourself back down.


Should I Use Weights While Doing Step-Ups?

Yes, once you can perform bodyweight step-ups with perfect form, add a light pair of dumbbells.  Like any exercise, you want to create progressive overload to improve your strength and add muscle.

Adding weights will help recruit more muscle fibers which will result in more muscle gain.

Never sacrifice form for more weight. 

If your balance starts to get throw off, go back down in weight and make your form perfect.

How Many Sets & Reps For Step-Ups?

For beginners, do 2 - 3 sets of 6 - 10 reps on each side.

For more advanced lifters, perform 3 - 4 sets of 5 - 12 reps on each side using heavier dumbbells.

Always pick weights that will challenge you!  If you do 10 reps and it was easy, go up for the next set.

Rest 2 minutes between sets.


You’ve learned everything you need to know about step-ups!  Give them a try and see how they feel.

If you don’t experience any pain or discomfort, add them to your routine and start increasing the weight as you get stronger and more confident.