If you’re familiar with CrossFit, you probably crack a big smile when you see the word “step-up” written in a workout. Stepping up to a plyo box is usually much preferable to jumping up to it.
However, step-ups, especially weighted step-ups, can become a pretty challenging exercise.
If you’re looking to target certain body parts with one of the (numerous) step-up variations, you’ll get the dual experience of feeling pretty worked before experiencing some pretty serious growth.
Especially if you’re performing step ups for glutes.
Today, we’re going to dissect the step-up exercise, breaking down how to best perform them and focusing on where and what body parts they target. More specifically, we’ll discuss how you can perform step ups for glutes development in order to better grow some of your…posterior areas!
Table of Contents
What Are Step-Ups?
A step-up is common cardio and strength exercise, mainly focused on the lower body muscles. In its essence, it includes stepping up and down on a platform.
To perform the step-up, you need some kind of elevated platform. There are specially designed platforms for this exercise, but you can also use stairs, a plyo box, weight bench or even a chair or stool. However, specially designed, multi-height step platforms allow you to continuously progress by elevating the height of the platform.
If you are performing step-ups for the first time and you are using an adjustable step platform, start with the lowest height and slowly progress to higher levels. The technique is simple:
- You are stepping onto the platform by placing your foot almost entirely (if not entirely) on the step.
- Push yourself upwards through the leg onto the step and lift your other leg onto the platform.
- Keep your back straight and abs engaged while performing the movement. Move yourself in a controlled and smooth manner.
- Step down with the same leg that led the movement. Then, alternate your feet for the next repetition.
This is the basic technique. However, the step-up exercise has more than a few variations and each has a specific, preferred technique that we will discuss further in the article.
Step-ups primarily activate your lower body muscles. However, some variations can work a broader spectrum of muscles and engage much more of your body.
The primary muscles worked are:
- Glutes: including the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae muscles; located in the back of your hips (buttock); crucial for hip movements.
- Quadriceps: including rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius; located in the front of your thigh; responsible for knee extension and hip flexion.
- Hamstrings: including semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris; located in the back of your thigh; responsible for hip extension, knee flexion, and internal rotation of the lower leg.
Step-ups additionally work your:
- Calves: including the gastrocnemius, the soleus, and the plantaris runs; located in the back of your lower leg; responsible for foot and lower leg movements.
- Core: including abdominals; thoracolumbar; lumbar and lateral thoraco-lumbar muscles, hip flexors, extensors, abductors, adductors, and rotators; located in the central part of your body; responsible for balance and spine protection.
Some variations of step-ups include holding weights such as a barbell and a dumbbell. These variations will additionally work selected upper body muscles.
Step-ups have various benefits, both as a cardio exercise and as a strength exercise.
Increased lower body strength, mass, and endurance
The step-up is a great general lower-body conditioning exercise that helps you build muscles in your legs. It increases the endurance, mass, and overall strength of a multitude of lower body muscle groups, but mainly works the glutes, hamstrings, and quads, which are the three largest muscle groups in your legs. These muscles are crucial for various movements such as:
- flexing and pointing of your toes
- hip rotation and flexing
- thigh movements
- walking, running, and jumping
- knee movements
- standing straight and maintaining a good posture
Because of this, step-ups are great for strengthening and preparing your body for other exercises that require these movements.
Aerobic & Anaerobic
Step-ups are both an aerobic and an anaerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercises are cardio exercises that consist of sustained and rhythmic movement such as running and swimming. These movements increase your heart and respiratory rate which is beneficial for your cardiovascular health (hence the name cardio). This type of exercise also improves endurance and helps in burning calories.
Anaerobic exercise consists of shorter intervals of intense effort that serve to develop muscle strength and mass. Common anaerobic exercises are weightlifting, HIIT (segments), and calisthenics exercises. Some benefits of anaerobic exercises include bone and muscle strengthening, fat burning, and building muscle mass.
Step-ups increase flexibility in the lower body muscles and joints. Repeated bending and extending the knees and hips helps with improving the mobility of your lower body extremities over time. Dynamic stretching of your glutes, hamstrings, and quads increases the range of motion in the area which is beneficial by itself but also for other fitness activities. This also reduces the tightness and releases the tension in the lower muscles by promoting blood flow.
There are numerous variations of step-ups, but the most common ones include:
In the lateral step-up exercise, you step up and on to the platform sideways instead of forward. This variation engages the muscles on the sides of the buttocks, the glute medius (in addition to many of the same muscles as the “basic” step-up).
Goblet step-ups include stepping up on a platform while holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell in front of your upper body (as in a goblet squat). This variation adds more demand to the regular step-up exercise and therefore is even more effective for building hamstrings and glutes. Due to the static hold portion of the exercise, your arms and shoulders also get worked in this variation.
Barbell step-ups are done with a loaded barbell positioned across your traps. Apart from lower body muscles, barbell step-ups work your shoulders, traps, and upper back muscles.
By slowly increasing the weight of the barbell you can engage in progressive overload, increasing your capacity by adding weight to the barbell over time.
Preventing Common Mistakes
To reap the most benefits from step-ups and to avoid common mistakes and possible injuries you should keep these items in mind:
- Keep your knees behind the toes to avoid placing too much stress on your knee joints.
- Keep upright by engaging your core and keeping your neck and head in the same line as your spine.
- Drive your body up through the leading leg, not the leg that’s still on the floor.
- Point your feet forward or slightly outward during the exercise, and refrain from turning your knees inward in order to keep balance.
How To Do Step Ups For Glutes?
Step-ups by nature work your glutes….like…a lot In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Science & Medicine, “The step-up exercise and its variations present the highest levels of GMax activation.” This shouldn’t be a surprise since, as a mighty extendor of the hip joint, the gluteus maximus is the main muscle in limb movements such as stepping onto a step, climbing, and running.
Next, we have the lateral aspect of the upper buttock or the gluteus medius which is the prime mover of abduction at the hip joint. It assists in hip flexion, extension, and rotation. The gluteus medius plays an important role in single-leg weight-bearing, preventing the opposite side of the pelvis from dropping. As such, its activation during step-ups is clear.
Finally, we have the smallest of the glutes – the gluteus minimus. The gluteus minimus is a hip stabilizer and abductor. This muscle helps the gluteus medius in hip stabilization while standing on one limb. As the gluteus medius, the gluteus minimus is also engaged on the supporting leg, allowing the pelvis to stay level during the swing phase of gait.
Now, although any kind of step-up will work your glutes to an extent, there are ways to perform more “focused” step ups for glutes.
Increase the Height of the Step Platform
With a higher platform, your gluteal muscles will work more to extend your hip when stepping up onto it. You can increase the glute activation like this for any variation of the step-up.
Increase the Distance From the Platform
Stepping close to the platform will focus on your quads. However, if you increase the distance you will be emphasizing your gluteus maximus muscle in a more, step ups for glutes manner.
You can increase glute activation in any variation of step-ups by leaning slightly forward with your back leg aligned with the upper part at the bottom of the movement. Basically, your body drives upwards and downwards diagonally, almost like you are in a starting sprint position.
You can increase the tension on the glutes at the top by keeping your toe up on the back leg and not fully planting the back foot. This variation can be performed with or without weights.
Glute Focused Cable Step-ups
You will need a cable machine and a step platform to perform this step ups for glutes variation.
Step 1: Place the platform next to the cable machine. Stand in front of the platform so the cable is on the side of your working leg (the leg that goes on the platform first). Grasp the handle of the cable machine with the arm on the same side as the working leg. Another variation is placing the platform in front of the machine so you are grasping the handle forward instead of sideways. Both work fine for your glutes.
Step 2: Place the working feet on the platform so the entire foot is flat on it. Position yourself towards the platform by hinging at your hips, and leaning your torso slightly forward while bracing the core. The back leg should be slightly behind you so you are diagonal. Your head should be aligned with your spine and your back should be straight.
Step 3: Drive through the working leg and lift your body upward. Refrain from using your back leg. The glutes of your working leg should be doing the majority of the work.
Step 4: Lift up the back leg onto the platform. Another variation is not touching the platform with your back leg but just lifting it up until your working knee fully extends, immediately driving it down, touching the ground with your toes lightly, and then going back up. This variation is suitable if you are grasping the handle from the front.
Step 5: Continue with your repetitions, alternating the sides. You can increase the platform height and/or the weights of the cable machine for progression.
Step-ups with Medicine Ball Twists
You start by holding a medicine ball by your hip in the starting position. You perform the step-up (following all the rules we mentioned earlier) and twist the medicine ball toward your shoulder (opposite of the working leg). Then, you step back down and return the ball to the hip.
When I was freshman at the University of Georgia, I lived in Russell Hall dormitory. Just up a decently-incined hill from my building was Brumby Hall which, at the time, was an all-female facility.
Due to the incline, the women living in Brumby were continuously performing step ups and over the course of over the span of a ~9-month school year, they developed what was widely referred to around the campus as the “Brumby butt”.
They weren’t even performing dedicated step ups for glutes and the results were…good (at least, of course, this is what other people have told me!)
By incorporating the step-up variations we’ve discussed today into your training, you too can experience similar results in a short period of time. So, go ahead and start steppin’ and start…gluetin’!
Want to take your glute development to the next level? Check out our article on how you can use the leg press for glutes development!