Step-ups strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, hip flexors, and core muscles in a functional movement pattern, as we have to climb stairs or step up onto curbs all the time in daily life.
As much as step-ups are great for functional training and can be used in strength training workouts for seniors to maintain functional independence, step-ups are also excellent for building power, strength, and muscle mass in the lower body for advanced athletes.
When planning your strength training workouts you may wonder, how many step-ups should I do to build muscle? How many step-ups should I do to increase strength?
In this exercise guide, we will discuss how to do step-ups for leg workouts, modifications that you can implement based on your fitness level and training goal, and ultimately answer your question, how many step-ups should I do in my gym workouts?
Let’s get started!
How Do You Do Step-Ups?
Before we discuss how many step-ups you should do per day or per workout depending on your fitness goals and fitness level, let’s review how to perform the step-up exercise.
Note that you can perform step-ups as a bodyweight exercise, meaning that you will just be stepping up and down without holding any additional weights.
Bodyweight step-ups are a good starting place for beginners, but if you are trying to build muscle or increase strength in your lower body and you have been working out, you should use additional resistance such as dumbbells or kettlebells, or wear a weighted vest.
Here are the instructions for how to perform step-ups:
How To Perform Step-Ups
- Stand facing a plyometric box that is roughly knee height or slightly lower, depending on your fitness level and your primary goal with step-ups in your strength training workouts. Hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand with your arms down at your sides.
- Keep your chest up, back straight, core and glutes tight, and shoulders down and relaxed away from your ears. Your feet should be hip-width apart with your toes pointing forward towards the box.
- Engage your core and glutes while you step your right foot up onto the box, pressing through your right heel to step all the way up, straightening your right knee fully, and allowing your left leg to lift off of the ground. Focus on really driving your leg into full extension as you step up onto the box to activate your glutes. Try to keep your torso upright and stay equally balanced with your pelvis.
- Step your left leg up onto the box to follow.
- Keep facing forward as you step back down backward with your right foot first, and then follow with your left foot.
- Continue leading with the right foot for all of your desired reps and then switch sides.
There are a few different ways that you can modify step-ups.
Step-ups for beginners involve decreasing the intensity of the exercise while advanced step-ups for fit athletes will incorporate more resistance or power, depending on the goal.
Here are some modifications for beginner step-ups that will make the exercise easier at first:
#1: Start With Bodyweight
As mentioned, you do not have to hold dumbbells or other weights when you are performing step-ups.If you are a beginner, rehabbing an injury in the lower body, or carrying excess body weight, simply doing bodyweight step-ups can be challenging in and of itself and a more appropriate starting place than doing weighted step-ups.
Once you can do 10 to 15 step-ups per leg without any additional weights, you are ready to progress to weighted step-ups with dumbbells or another form of resistance.
Increase the weight gradually, beginning with just 5-8 pound dumbbells in each hand.
Again, once you can do about 10 to 15 step-ups per leg for 2-3 sets with the weight that you have chosen, you can increase the weight.
Just make sure that you are able to maintain proper form and are not leaning or slouching with your posture, tilting to one side as you step up, or struggling to complete all of the step-up reps in the set before you increase the weight.
You always want to prioritize proper form and technique over increasing the number of reps or weights that you are using.
#2: Use a Lower Step
Beginner-friendly step-ups start with using a lower step or plyo box.
Rather than choosing a plyometric box that is approximately knee height, you can begin with an aerobic step, which is usually just 4 to 6 inches high, or a regular stair at your home if you are doing at-home strength training workouts.
Or, find the lowest plyometric box that your gym has when you first start your step-up workouts.
Once you can comfortably do 2 to 3 sets of step-ups with your desired number of reps with the step height that you are using, you can find a progressively higher plyo box or step to use.
For advanced athletes, there are a couple of different ways to progress step-ups. The best advanced step-up exercise modification will depend on your primary training goal.
Here are a few suggestions for more challenging step-ups:
#3: Use More Weight
As with any strength training exercise, using more weight will make step-ups more difficult.
If your primary training goal is to increase strength, continue to increase the weights that you are using each week of training, as long as you can complete your desired number of reps and sets of step-ups with proper form and technique.
#4: Use a Higher Box
Increasing the height of the box will also make step-ups more difficult.
This is a good way to advance step-ups if you are trying to build power and strength in the glutes, quads, calves, hip flexors, and hamstrings.
Just make sure that you have an adequate range of motion in your glutes and hamstrings so that you are not straining, tilting backward, or hyperextending your back to lift your foot high enough to get it on top of the box.
#5: Do Box Jumps
If you want to do step-ups to increase power and explosive strength, you can turn the low-impact step-up exercise into a high-intensity, high-impact plyometric exercise by doing box jumps.
Jumping up onto a plyo box and then powering up into a completely upright position is an excellent exercise to build explosive leg strength for better power for uphill running and vertical jump ability.
It can also help you with powerlifting exercises like cleans.
Here are the steps to perform this plyometric step-up workout progression:
How To Perform A Box Jump
- Stand facing a plyo box with your toes about two feet from the box.
- Drop down into a bodyweight squat by bending your knees and hips, simultaneously driving your arms behind you.
- In one smooth movement, thrust your arms forward as you squat and jump up onto the plyo box using the momentum from your arms.
- Cushion your landing by allowing a natural bend in your knees and allow your arms to slowly trail back behind your body but seamlessly press through your heels when you land on the box with both feet to stand up straight.
- Hop down or step down off of the box and repeat for as many reps as you can or you intend to perform.
How Many Step-Ups Should I Do Based On My Fitness Goals?
The number of step-ups you should do depends on your fitness level and training goals.1Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Van Every, D. W., & Plotkin, D. L. (2021). Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports, 9(2), 32. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9020032
How Many Step-Ups Should I Do As A Beginner?
A good starting place for beginners is two sets of 10 reps per leg.
Build up to three sets. Once you can do 10 to 12 reps per leg without stopping, you can increase the weight.2Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
How Many Step-Ups Should I Do To Increase Strength?
If your goal is to increase strength with step-ups, use a weight that corresponds to at least 85% of your 1RM, or a weight that you could manage for just 3 to 6 step-ups per leg with proper form.
Aim for 4 to 6 sets with at least 90 seconds of rest in between sets.3de Salles, B. F., Simão, R., Miranda, F., Novaes, J. da S., Lemos, A., & Willardson, J. M. (2009). Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 39(9), 765–777.
How Many Step-Ups Should I Do To Build Muscle?
If you are doing step-ups to build muscle, the guidelines for hypertrophy are to strive for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. 4Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 51(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764
Use enough weight that you can manage all of your reps but that you feel fatigued by the last 1-2 reps of every set.
How Many Step-Ups Should I Do To Increase Muscular Endurance?
To increase muscular endurance with step-ups, perform at least three sets of at least 15 reps with no more than 60 seconds of rest in between each set.
To supplement your step-up workouts, check out our guide to the best posterior chain workout here.
- 1Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Van Every, D. W., & Plotkin, D. L. (2021). Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports, 9(2), 32. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9020032
- 2Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
- 3de Salles, B. F., Simão, R., Miranda, F., Novaes, J. da S., Lemos, A., & Willardson, J. M. (2009). Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 39(9), 765–777.
- 4Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 51(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764