Looking for a replacement or alternative for step ups?
We’ve got you covered.
Whether you simply don’t like the exercise, don’t have any appropriate equipment to use at home or at the gym, are struggling with knee pain… or something else entirely, we’ve got a list of 6 carefully thought out step up alternatives that will help enhance your workouts.
We’ve selected exercises that work the same muscle groups, but in different ways, as well as some advanced options for those looking for a more challenging workout.
At a Glance – Best Step Up Alternatives
- Glute Bridges – Best for Bad Knees
- Straight Leg Deadlifts – Best for Strengthening the Glutes
- Box Jumps – Best for Explosive Power
- Squat Calf Raises – Best Alternative without a Bench
- Stair Climber – Best Gym Alternative
- Walking Lunges – Best Bodyweight Alternative
What is the Step Up Exercise?
It’s worth mentioning what a step up is.
The step up exercise involves stepping onto a raised platform (or step), before stepping back down. Usually you would lift each foot individually onto the platform before lowering them back down.
It is a relatively simple bodyweight movement and we’ve found it’s often included in fitness workouts and programs.
The problem is, however, without access to a bench or plyo box, it can be difficult to find an effective surface to set up onto. Ideally, it wants to be high enough to activate your glutes during the movement. Similarly, certain MSK problems could make the movement quite difficult.
Step Up Benefits and Muscles Worked
Step ups are an effective exercise because they replicate a movement that you’re likely going to need a lot during the day… the ability to step up and down from a raised surface. Particularly for those looking for practical workouts with real-world implications, things like step ups are worth doing.
Step ups primarily target the glutes and legs, as well as engaging the core for stability.
The height of the raised platform or surface will change the level of difficulty. A higher platform will be more challenging. Interestingly, the height of the platform will also change how the muscles are engaged. A higher platform will focus more on the glutes and hamstrings, whilst a lower platform will focus more on the quads.
It is also common to hold weights, such as dumbbells, to increase difficulty too.
6 Best Alternatives to the Step Up Exercise
Glute Bridges – Best for Bad Knees
Glute bridges are a great way to target your glutes and hamstrings, without putting unwanted strain on your knees.
Unlike a step up that will put pressure on the knee as you straighten your leg to lift yourself up onto the raised surface, glute bridges don’t require any movement at the knee. Instead, this exercise focuses on lifting the glutes off the floor by hinging at the hips.
Glute bridges won’t activate the quads as much as step ups, and subsequently, they’ll put more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
By using resistance bands, or simply holding a dumbbell on your waist, you can also increase the difficulty.
Try Isometric Glute Bridge Holds
If you’re still experiencing knee pain or discomfort, try opting for fewer repetitions and hold the each repetition for longer. Holding a glute bridge will require your glutes and hamstrings to stay engaged, so it can be a simple way to strengthen this part of the body without lots of repetitions.
Straight Leg Deadlifts – Best for Strengthening the Glutes
If you’re doing step ups as a way to strengthen your glutes, you may want to consider any variation of the straight leg deadlift (we tend to prefer single straight leg deadlifts).
This will be considerably more challenging that a step up, however it will lead to more muscular growth in the glutes and hamstrings.
To make the most out of straight leg deadlifts, you want to really focus on your form and technique. Bad form could lead to injury.
The reason we’ve included straight leg deadlifts as opposed to regular deadlifts, is that by performing a deadlift with straight legs, your glutes and hamstrings do more of the heavy lifting… which are the key muscles required when you’re stepping up onto a high platform.
You can also hold a pair of dumbbells to increase the difficulty.
Box Jumps – Best for Explosive Power
Like step ups, box jumps require a raised platform… usually a plyo box.
Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, you want to squat down before jump high enough that you land on the plyo box. From there, jump back to the floor, or step down… and repeat.
This movement will get your heart pumping and can offer an effective cardio workout in itself. 5 x 2 minute rounds of box jumps is more than enough to leave you in a pile of sweat by the end of it!
Box jumps are really effective for athletes and those looking to develop explosive power in their lower body. It also encourages you to learn how to land softly, which is useful in all sorts of sports.
If you’ve got bad knees, you’ll probably want to give this one a miss though.
Squat Calf Raises – Best Alternative without a Bench
If you don’t have any equipment you can step onto… such as a bench or plyo box, squat calf raises are worth considering.
Squat calf raises involve doing a calf raise after a bodyweight squat. This further engages the calves during the exercise.
If you’re not actively training your calves, adding in some squat calf raise supersets is a simple way to ensure they’re getting included in your workout routines.
Stair Climber – Best Gym Alternative
If you have access to gym equipment, the stair climber is basically a mechanical version of the humble bodyweight step up.
Each brand of stair climber varies, but generally speaking, they’re like a treadmill for stepping.
If you want to follow a cardio workout, then a stair climber is worth considering.
Our only word of caution about stair climbers is that often the actual “step” is quite small (especially compared to stepping onto a plyo box). This is completely fine, but it’s worth noting that a small step generally engages the quads more, and a bigger step engages the glutes/hamstrings more… so if you’re using the step climber for your glute workout, perhaps think about just using a plyo box or some of the other alternatives in this list.
Walking Lunges – Best Bodyweight Alternative
The final step up alternative in this list is a simple bodyweight exercise that is beginner friendly.
Try to get as low as possible to really activate the glutes.
The walking lunge may sound easy, but it actually offers a really effective lower body workout, and when you hold dumbbells, or a weighted barbell, the exercise is as tough as it gets.
It requires strength, balance, coordination and total body stability.
You can also try walking backwards whilst lunging too, to work the muscles from a different angle.
If you don’t want to do step ups, this list helps illustrate the sorts of exercises you can substitute it with.
If you’re struggling to do step ups due to injury, it’s worth speaking to a healthcare professional such as a Physical Therapist as they may be able to recommend specific exercises to try to help speed up your recovery.
For all these alternatives, we’d recommend starting off doing them as bodyweight movements first and only once you feel confident, adding additional resistance such as dumbbells or a weighted barbell.