There are two exercises that have the lamest of lame connotations when I think of them. Maybe you too. The step-up and the clamshell. At least when I think of the clamshell, I think of the Eric Prydz Call On Me video:
But the step-up. Holy hell what a lame exercise, right? Invariably you see it demonstrated like this:
How many repetitions do you think our friend would have to complete to affect a stimulus? My guess is somewhere between 1500 and 15,000.
Almost any time you have an exercise that seems lame or ineffectual, you can find out if that’s true or not by making it heavier. When it doubt, go really heavy.
What happens when you go really, really heavy on a step-up? You get:
- Massive core stability demands due to the offset position and asymmetrical force transfer.
- Huge end range hip extension requirement.
- Less ankle dorsiflexion requirement than a comparable squat – can be good for people with poor ankle movement.
- Depending on the loading position & implement, upper back recruitment comparable to a similar squat or carry.
- Less lower back stress than a squat or a deadlift due to the more upright torso position.
You’ll find many people raving about heavy carries and for good reason. Ambulating with a heavy load is a fantastic way to build strength in a useful, usable range of motion. Heavy step-ups are like dialing carrying up to 11, and I think they’re an underrated strength exercise.
If you have access to one my favorite way to do heavy step-ups is with a safety squat bar. The next heaviest option is in a back squat position. Finally, if you want to work on your grip strength or you already have ferocious grip strength then very heavy kettlebells or dumbbells can be a good option as well.
It seems like a simple exercise, and it is, but there is a coaching point that I think is useful that I picked up from Nick Tumminello. In short, Nick teaches to lean forward onto the working leg, and then lift the heel on the non-working leg. This combined with driving through the heel of the working leg virtually eliminates the cheating, double-leg step-up you often see.
Here is a guideline I tell my gym members when it comes to the relationship between box height and weight:
If a tall box tests well, go lighter.
If a short box test well, go heavier.
Different heights have different benefits and are in many ways very different movements from each other. Do what tests the best.
Get it on with some heavy step-ups and let me know what it does for you.
Here’s a demo of a heavy-ish set: