Single Leg Progressions… Progressing the Step-up

The anomaly of the step up in is how much it’s used while there is so little research available on its transfer to sport. Other than scattered research from the early 90s involving what the Eastern Bloc countries are doing with the step-up, the research on the exercise is limited (2). This makes it a bit of an “ugly stepchild” to the split squat or s. leg squat. While some coaches such as Mike Boyle believe that it should be avoided for athletes with knee pathologies (1), there are many coaches that have had great success with the exercise in healthy athletes. I myself love them as we train a primarily baseball population.

So, with all these mixed signals being sent out (and all valid), today, we’re going to take a look at this controversial exercise,  its strengths, weaknesses as well as the “step-down” and the “one-leg squat” and their value as progressions and/or regressions that can be used based on different training situations. Many times, coaches will move right to a step-up without even understanding what it trains, and/or if using a progression or regression of the exercise may be a better alternative.

The Step-Up… Is it worth the bang you get for the buck?

As with any new exercise being added to an athletic program, we must first assess the “risk / reward”. A few questions to ask are, does the exercise:

    • Transfer to improvements in your athlete’s sport performance or rehab situation?
    • Require a higher level of physical development than your athlete currently has?

OK, let’s dive in.

1. The Conventional Step up

Step ups can be a great exercise to train explosiveness while focusing on s. leg drive, but only after a good baseline of strength has been attained with exercises such as squats and split squats. I also like the fact that they train a combination of the flexor/extensors of the working leg and the calf of the non-working leg (1). The only problem with them is that they are hard to do well and easy to do poorly. The height of the box can change efficiency in form as well as increase the risk of injury if the height is too high. I rarely go above 12-18”.

A step up begins with an almost pure concentric contraction of hip and knee extension with relatively no preceding eccentric contraction

(Step-up)

Dumbbell Step-up w/ Pulse can be added to help emulate more sport-specific mechanics. Starting with the stepping leg slightly off the box to helps to create more force production as well as deceleration at foot plant. This works well with our baseball population for helping to work on a better  “post up” as well as change-of-direction with our position players.

(DB Step-up w/ Pulse)

2. Step Downs

For athletes with knee problems, particularly patella-femoral issues, step-ups can be an uncomfortable exercise that can cause problems. Without the preceding eccentric component (starting in extension loaded by gravity) found in most squatting exercises the knee can experience some discomfort that could otherwise be avoided. Enter the Step-Down.

The key difference between a step down and a step-up is that the step down begins with an eccentric contraction. The other major difference is that although the toe or the heel may touch the floor the eccentric load is never lost.

(Step Down)

This makes it a great option for athletes with patella-femoral pain who experience pain with step-ups.

This is partially due to the preceding eccentric contraction allowing the patella to sit properly in the trochlear groove and is an excellent way to begin to develop both lower body strength and femoral control.

3. One-leg Squat

The one leg squat is the king of single leg exercises not only from a performance aspect but for rehab as well. In a one leg squat the body is now unsupported and the range can be as large as tolerated. Ideallyathletes can single leg squat to a position where the femur is parallel to the floor. Unlike the step down, in the one leg squat the free leg is carried in front and never touches the floor. I like to keep the leg within 12” from the ground in order to help prevent excess lumbar flexion.

(1-Leg Squat)

Summary

While all three exercises have similar movement patterns, I believe that they all have different useful applications when using (or not using) for performance gains or in rehab situations.

Step Up – Use with healthy athletes that have already created a good base of single-leg strength with split squats.

Step Down – Great as a rehab progression or a regression for healthy athletes into a One Leg Squat.

1-Leg Squat – The king of s. leg strength but the most challenging if done correctly. Box height becomes a major player to increase/decrease intensity but be cognizant of any excess lumbar flexion that may be occurring.

See ya, in the gym…

By Nunzio Signore (BA, CSCS, CPT, NASM, FMS)

Studies:

    1. Mike Boyle- “Step ups step downs” -Strength Coach.com June 3,2010
    2. Carl Valle- “The biggest enigma in sports”- Simplifaster, Feb 6, 2018

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