By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
If you have been looking for something to super charge your lower body as a launching point for greater workout success down the road, you may just find that a simple exercise like Bench Step-Ups can do all of that and more. This simple exercise is a great way to attack your thighs, hips and gluteal muscles1 so that they become more powerful and fatigue resistant while shedding the winter accumulations and revealing the look of polished granite. One of the best things about step-ups is that you do not have to wait until you get to the gym to do them.
All four muscles of the quadriceps femoris (“quadriceps”) of the anterior thigh are activated by step-ups.1 The vastus lateralis muscle is positioned on the lateral (outer) part of the thigh. The vastus medialis covers the medial (inner) part of the thigh. The vastus intermedius is located between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis and it covers the central and deeper parts of the thigh. The fourth muscle in this group is the rectus femoris. It attaches to the hip and it travels down the central portion of the thigh.2 All four quadriceps muscles come together above the knee and attach to the patellar tendon, which connects to the patella (kneecap). The patellar ligament stabilizes the patella to the top part of the tibia bone of the leg just below the knee. Together, the quadriceps femoris extends (straightens) the leg at the knee joint by pulling on the patella and through it, the patellar ligament that is attached to the lower leg (tibia bone). The rectus femoris also flexes the thigh at the hip joint by pulling the knee and thigh towards the chest. In the step-up, the rectus femoris pulls the thigh up for the initial step while all four quadriceps muscles act to extend the knee during each step upwards.
The gluteus maximus is the largest hip extensor muscle. It is most active during the push phase of the stair climb upwards3 because it helps to straighten (extend) the hip joint by pulling the thigh posteriorly (backwards). The fibers of this muscle run from the posterior side of the ilium bone of the hip and sacrum bone of the lower region of the vertebral column, to the posterior part of the femur and the iliotibial track (a tough band of tissue that runs along the lateral part of the thigh and attaches to the lateral side of the tibia bone near the knee).
The hamstring muscles of the posterior thigh are made up by the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, the hamstring portions of the biceps femoris muscle, and the adductor magnus muscles.2 In general, the hamstring muscles attach to the hip bones posteriorly (at the ischial tuberosities projections of the hip structure that you sit on when in a chair), and these muscles run to either cross the knee joint (semimembranosus or semitendinosus, biceps femoris) or attach to the femur bone (adductor magnus).2 These muscles help the gluteus maximus extend the femur during each step upwards3 and they are active to reposition the leg for the following step.4
THE EXERCISE: BENCH STEP-UPS
1. Locate a step, bench (e.g., the bottom step going up to your house or apartment), or perhaps a sturdy box. If you are in a gym, you should be able to locate a step with a non-slip surface to use for this exercise.
3. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms at our sides. Keep your back straight and shoulders up. Don’t lean forward.
4. Place your right foot on the bench or platform. Keeping your torso upright, push off with the left leg to raise your body onto the bench, placing that foot alongside your right foot. Try to avoid excessive forward movement of your torso as you lift your body onto the step.
5. Step down with the left foot, followed by the right foot.
6. Switch legs and repeat
Your balance can get a bit hairy after a few hard sets, so pay particular attention if you feel your body swaying or unsteady during the step-up. Not only will your muscles be activated after a few hard sets, your entire cardiovascular system will also be challenged, and that means more calories can be expended for reducing body fat.
1. Simenz CJ, Garceau LR, Lutsch BN et al: Electromyographical analysis of lower extremity muscle activation during variations of the loaded step-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:3398-3405.
2. Moore, K.L. and A.F. Dalley II. Clinically oriented Anatomy. Fourth Edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, 1999 pp 531-551.
3. Boudreau SN, Dwyer MK, Mattacola CG et al: Hip-muscle activation during the lunge, single-leg squat, and step-up-and-over exercises. J Sport Rehabil 2009;18:91-103
4. Saad MC, Felicio LR, Masullo CL et al: Analysis of the center of pressure displacement, ground reaction force and muscular activity during step exercises. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2011;21:712-718.Ebben, WP, Feldmann, CR, Dayne, A, Mitsche, D, Alexander, P, & Knetzger, KJ 2009. Muscle activation during lower body resistance training. Int.J.Sports.Med. 30, 1-8.
Illustrations by Bill Hamilton, CMI