Step Up Alternatives: 4 Best Substitutes

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 2, 2022

The step up is a basic bodyweight compound leg exercise performed for its ability to develop the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings muscle groups with a relatively low level of impact and intensity, as well as for its calorie burning potential.

Despite its simplicity, low intensity and general accessibility to exercisers of all levels, certain circumstances may require that a suitable alternative exercise be used as a substitute - especially in cases where the exerciser finds the step up to be of insufficient intensity or effectiveness.

Several exercises may act as excellent substitutes to the step up, though these are situational and their usage will depend on the exerciser’s needs and the original purpose of step ups within their training program, such as glute bridges taking the place of step ups within a glute workout or lunges for a quadriceps femoris workout.

What Characteristics Should a Step Up Alternative Have?

For the most part, any alternative exercise to the step up should place low to moderate training intensity upon the musculature of the lower body as well as feature a wide range of motion involving knee extension and hip adduction biomechanics.

step up muscles

In addition, though it is not entirely mandatory, the exercise should also seek to replicate the sort of training stimulus as the step up, requiring either a free weight or bodyweight source of resistance so as to activate synergistic muscle groups in a manner that other sources of resistance would not.

In certain instances, the exerciser may wish to simply replace the step up with an exercise that does not require the same equipment (in this case, a step up box), either because they do not have access to such equipment or find it to be ineffective and uncomfortable.

What Muscles Should be Worked by a Step Up Alternative?

As matching the muscle group activation of the step up is perhaps the most important aspect of any alternative exercise, it should be ensured that the substitute exercise targets the quadriceps femoris, the hamstring muscles and the glute muscles in a significant capacity.

dumbbell step up

While other muscle groups such as the calves, hip flexors and core muscles are also activated to a lesser extent by step ups, these are not the primary target of the exercise and as such they are not required in the substitute movement, though such activation would be a benefit.

How to Choose a Step Up Alternative

Choosing what particular exercise to use as an alternative to the step up will depend on not only the similarity of their characteristics, but also the suitability of the alternative in regards to the needs of the exerciser.

As such, what particular alternative exercise to use will vary on a case by case basis, with exercisers that find the step up to be insufficient in terms of posterior chain training stimulus being better served by the glute bridge as an alternative, for example.

This is also factored in with the original intended purpose of the step up within the training routine, requiring that the alternative exercise not only meet the needs of the lifter but also retain the function of the step up as an exercise.

Alternative Equipment for a Step Up Box

In the event that the exerciser wishes to use an alternative to the step up simply because they do not have access to a step up box, it is entirely possible for them to instead make use of a number of other fitness related equipment - avoiding all the trouble of programming and picking a substitute exercise.

Step ups may be performed with plyo boxes, sufficiently stable gym benches, gym tires or even box squat boxes - all of which present an elevated and stable surface on which the exerciser may step to and from, just like a step up box.

aerobics stepper

For individuals with access to it - there is also the stair climber machine, of which may also act as an alternative to a step up box alongside several other benefits.

1. For Injuries, Lower Intensity and Poor Mobility: The Step Down Exercise

The most similar alternative and what is essentially a counterpart to the step up exercise is that of the step down exercise; a similar compound plyometric movement that simply reverses the mechanics of the step up exercise, resulting in a similar muscle group activation despite its somewhat reduced level of intensity.

step down

Much like the step up, the step down involves the exerciser making use of knee extension and flexion to move to and from an elevated position, with the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings all being activated in succession as a part of the natural stair-climbing movement, though this movement is performed in reverse for the step down.

The step down exercise is more often seen in physical rehabilitation or warm up routines rather than athletic training programs (as is the case for the step up). This is because of its lower intensity relative to other leg exercises, as well as its relatively shorter range of motion and reduced need for high hip and knee mobility.

Advantages of the Step Down Exercise as a Step Up Alternative

The step down exercise presents several advantages over the step up when used in its place, namely; its significantly reduced impact on the connective and osseous tissues of the lower body, its capacity to reinforce the knee and any biomechanics related therein as well as the reduced need for high levels of hip and posterior chain mobility.

Who Should Use the Step Down Exercise as a Step Up Alternative?

The step down may be used as a step up alternative for individuals with poor lower body mobility, a history of injuries that reduce their range of motion in regards to the step up exercise, or for individuals that find the step up to be far too intense for their intended workout exertion.

2. For Posterior Chain Training: Glute Bridges

Considering the fact that step ups are usually intended to be a posterior chain training exercise, individuals that find the former exercise is no longer effective in developing their gluteal and hamstring muscle groups may wish to substitute it with a more intense and specific exercise instead.

This is where glute bridges come into play, of which trade in the aerobic and dynamic characteristics of the step up for greater posterior chain muscle group activation - all the while retaining the bodyweight resistance and biomechanics as the step up exercise.

glute bridge

Advantages of Glute Bridges as a Step Up Alternative

Glute bridges present several distinct benefits when used as a substitute exercise for step ups, with their significantly more intense and targeted activation of the posterior chain muscle groups also combining with the practically zero-impact movement of the exercise in a manner that makes glute bridges superior for developing mass and strength in the glutes and hamstrings.

This is in combination with the fact that glute bridges do not require any sort of equipment make it not only a more intense and effective posterior chain exercise, but also a more convenient one as well.

Who Should Use Glute Bridges as a Step Up Alternative?

Though glute bridges are simplistic and low-impact enough to be performed by practically any healthy exerciser, they are most effective for individuals that wish to improve the rate and capacity to which their posterior chain develops, with the higher mechanical resistance of the glute bridge allowing for greater muscular hypertrophy to occur.

It may also be used as a suitable alternative for individuals without access to any sort of equipment or elevated that may be used for the step up exercise, allowing them to retain activation of their posterior chain musculature albeit without the benefits of a highly dynamic movement.

3. For Weight Loss and Caloric Expenditure: Mountain Climbers

Step ups are a mainstay of many aerobic fitness routines aimed at inducing significant caloric expenditure in the exerciser, usually for the purposes of fat loss or similar body composition changes..

As such, for individuals seeking to substitute step ups with a similar exercise that nonetheless also shares its fat burning capabilities, it is the mountain climbers exercise that best fits the bill.

mountain climbers

Mountain climbers are a highly dynamic bodyweight exercise that see frequent use in many functional fitness and weight loss routines due to their high metabolic demand in a relatively short span of time as well as their accessibility, requiring no equipment whatsoever and very little space to perform.

Advantages of Mountain Climbers as a Step Up Alternative

Mountain climbers retain - if not surpass - the intensity, tempo and fat burning potential of step ups due to the pace at which the exercise may be performed at, allowing individuals to perform more repetitions of the mountain climber movement within a shorter span of time.

In addition to this, mountain climbers also act as a superior core muscle exercise in comparison to the step up exercise, as the former is performed entirely with the exerciser in a plank position. 

Who Should Use Mountain Climbers as a Step Up Alternative?

Mountain climbers are the perfect alternative to the step up for exercisers wishing to up the amount of calories burned during their workout, for those who wish to combine the many benefits of the step up with improved core muscle engagement or even for individuals that simply do not have access to a step up box but nonetheless wish to still induce caloric expenditure.

One subset of exercisers that may find particular benefit from substituting step ups with mountain climbers are athletes that require significant cardio training, such as marathon runners or martial artists, wherein the explosive nature and aerobic endurance training stimulus of mountain climbers will greatly enhance their performance during said sports.

4. For Quads and Hips Training: Lunges

If the exerciser wishes to substitute the step up exercise with one that places a greater level of training stimulus on the quadriceps femoris and hip adductor muscle groups, lunges are the ideal choice due to several advantages native to its performance.

bodyweight lunge

The lunge exercise not only induces a greater level of muscular activation on the quads and the hip flexors, but also surpasses the step up in terms of range of motion and co-activation of the posterior chain, as the lunge requires a far wider step be taken than in the step up.

dumbbell lunges

This, in turn, also reduces the total impact and stress placed on the various joints of the lower body, creating a smoother exercise that is less damaging to the connective and osseous tissues of the legs.

Advantages of Lunges as a Step Up Alternative

Apart from the previously mentioned muscular activation benefits of the lunge, the larger dynamic stretch that the legs and hips experience from a wider range of motion will result in greater stability and mobility throughout the entire body, a benefit that is otherwise not present during the performance of the step up.

In addition to this, the positioning of the lunge allows for far easier additional resistance loading to occur than in the step up exercise, as the lifter may simply grip a pair of dumbbells or similar items in both hands without their balance or coordination being affected in any manner.

Who Should Use Lunges as a Step Up Alternative?

Lunges may be used as an alternative to the step up exercise by bodybuilders or powerlifters seeking greater activation of their quadriceps femoris, athletes wishing to improve their lower body range of mobility and stability, or ordinary exercisers that find the step up to be ineffective or inconvenient for their training needs.

References

1. Neto WK, Soares EG, Vieira TL, Aguiar R, Chola TA, Sampaio VL, Gama EF. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Feb 24;19(1):195-203. PMID: 32132843; PMCID: PMC7039033.

2. Beardsley C., Contreras B. (2014) The increasing role of the hip extensor musculature with heavier compound lower-body movements and more explosive sports actions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 36(2), 49-55.

3. De Ridder E.M., Van Oosterwijck J.O., Vleeming A., Vanderstraeten G.G., Danneels L.A. (2013) Posterior muscle chain activity during various extension exercises: an observational study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 9 (14), 204

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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