This simple, go-anywhere running drill dials in strength and stability.
by Chris Johnson
Mention the “step up” to an athlete and it will invariably conjure up images from the 1980s of step aerobics, leotards, and mullets. While mullets are a rarity in running, we can’t deny the fact that we often train and race in clothing that’s the modern-day equivalent of a leotard. Taking it one “step” further, be careful in knocking step aerobics when considering the foundation of this exercise movement and the many benefits of the step up exercise.
As a physical therapist and coach, the step up has become one of my favorite exercises for athletes. In fact, it finds its way into nearly every training program I develop for athletes at some point. Not only is the step up a simple and targeted drill for running, it also requires minimal equipment and can be done anywhere—making it ideal for athletes who travel a lot.
By looking at this drill’s specific benefits, it’s obviously why you should make it a staple in your strength and conditioning routine. First off, in order to complete it you must have great single-leg balance. The step up also demands adequate ankle motion (dorsiflexion) in order to progress the leg over the foot. Hip and knee strength is also used, and you’ll also have to focus on synchronizing the opposite arm and leg while maintaining your torso in an upright manner without wobbling—a motion that is very similar to running. (Watch a video demonstration.)
While the step up seems simple, there are several common errors that athletes commit when performing this exercise. The most common mistake is for athletes to rely on momentum in stepping onto the platform. This will shortchange strength gains that may otherwise occur. Secondly, athletes tend to drop to the ground on the down phase rather than lowering themselves slowly and with control, which demands greater eccentric quadriceps strength and balance.
Lastly, try not to grip with the toes in an effort to try and balance during the single leg portion of this exercise.
So go ahead, try my version of the step up and reap its many benefits.
Exercise: Toe Off to Step Up
Objective: Start with one leg on the step/platform while slowly shifting your body weight forward as you just approach toe off. Without using momentum, use the foot/leg positioned on the platform to raise the body, while drawing your back leg so that the thigh comes to a 90-degree angle. Maintain the leg and foot in a relaxed and vertical position at the top of the motion before slowly returning to the start position.
Equipment: 4-8″ platform or equivalent (stepper, cinder block, stair, etc.)
Success: Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions in a slow and controlled manner.
Mastery: Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 3-5lb ankle weights secured around the ankle while holding 3-5lb dumbbells in each hand.
Chris Johnson is the owner and founder of Zeren PT, a physical therapy and performance based facility, located in Seattle WA. Zeren PT specializes in physical therapy and performance coaching for all athletes. You can also access his extensive video library on his YouTube page.