The step-up is a basic exercise that sometimes gets pushed to the back of the repertoire, especially when a coach has accessibility to modern equipment and a state-of-the-art facility. Many minor league teams, however, do not have access to a lot of equipment or large training facilities at home or on the road. For many minor league strength and conditioning coaches, the step-up and its variations are effective exercises to help maintain in-season strength and stamina.
The step-up exercise is safe and relatively easy to perform. It’s also an excellent, lower body option for players who do not have the mobility to squat or deadlift. Research indicates that the major muscles involved in a step up (the gluteus maximus, semimembranosus, semitendinosus, bicep femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis and rectus femoris) are the same muscles targeted in a squat 1.
It is important to note that step-ups not only work the lower half of the body, they also engage the core, enhance coordination, improve balance and can stimulate increases in muscular endurance, power and grip strength. The key to using the step-up and its variations is the ability to utilize the available equipment and prescribe the appropriate exercise intensity, volume and rest intervals.
- The box should be 12 to 18 inches high or high enough to create a 900 angle at the knee joint when the foot is on the box. The higher the box, the more difficult the exercise becomes because of the greater vertical distance one has to move the body against gravity.
- The higher the box, the more the posterior chain (gluteus and hamstrings) is engaged. This is something to keep in mind when training catchers who may be quad-dominant from squatting from long periods of time.
- Step-up with one leg (the lead leg) and place the entire foot on top of the box.
- Keep the torso erect, do not lean forward.
- Forcefully extend the lead hip and knee to move the body to a standing position on top of the box.
- At the highest position, stand erect and pause before beginning the downward movement.
- Shift the body weight to the same lead leg and step off the box with the same trailing leg to keep tension on the lead leg.
- Place the trailing foot on the floor the same distance from the box as the starting position.
- When the trailing foot is in full contact with the floor, shift the body weight to the trailing leg and step off the box with the lead leg and bring the lead foot back to a position next to the trailing foot.
- Perform the next rep by leading with the opposite foot.
- Use dumbbell, kettlebells, vests, barbells or any other safe form of available equipment to provide external resistance.
- Maintain a straight upper half and avoid leaning forward by keeping the chest up and shoulders squared.
- Avoid pushing down on the box with only the ball of the foot. Use the entire foot so that the gluteus and the posterior chain are engaged.
- Avoid swaying and control the weight to help prevent injuries.
- Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.
- Progress from holding the weight on the side of the body to holding it against the chest and finally overhead. The higher the weight is above the center of gravity, the more difficult the exercise becomes, and greater the demand for core strength and stability.
- Perform 3×5 with 2 minutes rest between sets for strength, and 3×8-12 with 45 seconds or less of rest between sets for muscle hypertrophy2.
There are many step-up variations, each designed to target a different group of muscles and elicit a different effect. Step-ups require little equipment and yield positive benefits3. Videos of different types of step-ups can be found at on this website at http://baseballstrength.org/step-up-progression/
- Haff, G. Gregory and N. Travis Triplet (editors), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Fourth Edition, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2016.
- Rippetoe, Mark, Andy Baker, and Stef Bradford. Practical Programming for Strength Training. Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company, 2013.
Jose Salas, CSCS is a Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Philadelphia Phillies.