If you’re looking to bulletproof your knees and build a stronger VMO (the inner quad muscle), then it’s time to talk Poliquin Step Ups.
Popularized by one of the most influential Strength Coaches of the last few decades, Charles Poliquin, this step up variation is a fantastic exercise to include in all sorts of training programs.
It has also recently become a popular exercise to include in Knees Over Toes workouts too.
In this exercise guide, we outline everything you need to know about Poliquin Step Ups, including how to perform them properly, muscles worked, benefits and potential alternatives.
What is the Poliquin Step Up
The Poliquin step up is a single leg step up variation that involves stepping down and up from a raised surface with a raised heel. This can be achieved by either using a slant board, or placing your heels on an object (e.g. barbell plate) that is on top of a low step box.
The optimum height will depend on your own height and the desired knee range of motion. This isn’t a deficit single leg squat though, so the aim isn’t to fully bend at the knee from a great height. Instead, try and target a 30 degree knee bend (as a rough estimate, we find if the heel of your non-working leg is about 2-3 inches off the floor in the starting position, this feels about right). Over time, you may want to increase/decrease this to better suit your specific training.
To being with, start with a smaller step and work your way up.
Due to the raised heel, the Poliquin Step Up focuses on the VMO (Vastus Medialis Oblique), which is the “teardrop” looking part of the quadriceps.
Strengthening the VMO is associated with better knee health and movement… and is used frequently in exercise programs like Knees Over Toes training that prioritize exercises that are beneficial for the lower body joints.
The Poliquin Step Up is a regression from the Peterson Step Up, which involves raising the heel without support from a slant board or weight plate.
“Step ” Biomechanics
Although it’s often referred to as the Poliquin “Step Up”… the movement is really a “step down” in terms of how the exercise starts and the subsequent biomechanics.
How to Perform a Poliquin Step Up
To perform a Poliquin Step Up:
- Place a slant board or weight plate on top of a raised surface, such as a low step box.
- Place your left foot on the slant board or weight plate so your heel is raised and that your right foot hangs off the raised surface unsupported.
- With a straight torso, flex the toe of your right leg up.
- Bend your left knee so you lower your right foot to the floor. The heel of your right foot should be aligned with the toes of your left foot.
- As you bend your left knee, it should go over your left toes slightly.
- Pause for a moment before contracting the quads to straighten your left leg and return to the starting position.
- You may want to do the exercise near a wall for support if you are struggling with balance.
Coach’s Tip – This isn’t a single leg squat… so keep your glutes tucked in and avoid any hinging at the hips. The movement wants to focus on the knee and VMO activation.
Slow and Controlled Movement
Poliquin Step Ups involve a relatively small range of motion, especially compared to something like squats. This means you’ll probably find you can do repetitions faster… and more of them… but try and keep things nice and slow and avoid trying to do this exercise at speed.
The Poliquin Step Up primarily works the VMO muscle on the inner quad. It also activates the tibialis anterior, core and the other muscles in the quad.
The glutes, hamstrings and calves will also be engaged.
Poliquin Step Up Benefits
The VMO muscle in the quadriceps plays an integral role in extending the knee and providing overall stability to the knee joint. Ultimately, this means a weak VMO is a recipe for knee-related disasters.
Although your VMO may get activated and engaged during general lower body movements, including an exercise like Poliquin Step Ups will ensure you are giving this muscle attention during your workouts.
Imbalances within the quads, for example, a weaker VMO compared to a Vastus Lateralis (outer quads), can cause knee pain or problems due to incorrect kneecap tracking too.
Core Stability and Balance
Due to Poliquin Step Ups being a single leg exercise, they benefit from unilateral training and strengthening each leg separately.
As stated by Charles Poliquin himself, structural balance is a crucial attribute, not only opposing muscle groups, but also on both sides of the body.
As well as addressing muscular imbalances, single leg exercises help to develop better core stability and balance.
As you lower your non-working leg down, your body has to actively maintain stability to ensure you don’t fall over.
Ultimately, this is incredibly important, and is why Poliquin Step Ups are so effective to include in any sort of strength training program for over 50’s, due to the practical benefits in everyday living.
High Volume Exercise
Muscle development thrives on diversity and most of us are guilty of sticking with the same number of reps/sets for each exercise.
Poliquin Step Ups include quite a small range of motion and as a result, once you feel confident with the movement, you may find you can do 20 reps per set quite happily.
Not all exercises lend themselves to high volume sets, so exercises that do, are great to have in your arsenal to keep your workouts diverse and varied.
Replicates Walking Downhill
The actual biomechanics of the Poliquin Step Up replicates walking downhill, which helps to strengthen the muscles required to do such an activity.
If you find your knees hurt after a long hike, or walk, it may be due to a weak VMO… in which case, doing Poliquin Step Ups can help strengthen this, resulting in the ability to hike/walk for longer, with less pain.
Tibialis Anterior Activation on Non-Working Leg
The non-working leg requires your toes to be pointed upwards. This dorsiflexion of the ankle engages the tibialis anterior, and although this isn’t the primary focus on the exercise, it still provides benefits.
Frequently activating and strengthening the tibialis anterior (shin muscle), helps your shins absorb more impact during physical activity, which helps to protect your knees, hips and ankles.
This is another fundamental pillar of Knees Over Toes workouts.
Serious About Strengthening the Tibialis Anterior?
Check out our Tib Bar review, which explains how to take your tibialis anterior strengthening to the next level.
Great for Knee Rehabilitation
If you’ve been seeing a Physical Therapist due to knee pain, the Poliquin Step Up or something similar may feature in your home exercise program. This is because it can be a great way to get the knee working and VMO activated, without putting the joint under unwanted pressure (like with squats and other compound movements).
Our guide on cyclist squats is worth reading if you like the idea of adding more load to VMO-centric exercises. Cyclist squats are a type of squat variation focused on the quads and involve squatting using a slant board.
The Petersen Step Up is a very similar exercise to the Poliquin Step Up and we highlight the differences between these two movements further down this article.
We also recently highlighted the benefits of Spanish squats, as an effective rehabilitation exercise for jumper’s knee. Interestingly, this exercise requires the knee to be positioned as back as possible, as opposed to over the toes.
Weighted Poliquin Step Up
The easiest way to add progression to Poliquin Step Ups is to hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand.
This allows you to leverage progressive overload training into your workout and to keep progressing the exercise.
Don’t opt for heavy weights to begin with as this exercise needs very careful technique and execution. The instability caused by having an elevated heel and stepping down with one leg means the bodyweight version may be more than challenging enough to get started with.
Poliquin Vs Petersen Step Up
The difference between a Poliquin Step Up and a Petersen Step Up is that a Poliquin Step Up involves a supported elevated heel. This is usually achieved through the use of a slant board or standing on a weighted plate.
Petersen Step Ups would be considered a progression from Poliquin Step Ups due to the requirement to hold an elevated heel without support and thus requiring strong ankle stability and calf strength.
(You’ll notice the Petersen Step Up is often spelt as the “Peterson” Step Up… this is the same movements and simply a spelling mistake. The movement comes from Carl Petersen).
Poliquin Step Ups can be a very effective way to activate and strengthen the VMO… which is why the exercise has become such a staple in the Knees Over Toes training program.
The ability to activate the VMO also means anyone who is struggling to strengthen the “teardrop” part of the quad (whether that’s for bodybuilding and aesthetics, or for athletic performance), the Poliquin Step Up is certainly worth considering.
If you currently have any sort of knee pain, we’d recommend consulting with a Physical Therapist before starting any new exercise to ensure it is right for your personal circumstances.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – Engineered Bodies Strength & Conditioning