Lately, I’ve become a little more obsessed with targeting my glutes. Not because I’m trying to get a booty like Kim K (I’ve made with peace that that will never happen), but I’ve noticed what a difference glute strength makes to my lower back, balance, workout performance, and they look nice.
Recently though, I feel my glutes have been slacking. My lower back pain started to kick in again and I noticed my usual go-to glute exercises just weren’t firing up my booty like they used to. “My glutes are broken again” I messaged my coach. Maybe this was my backside’s way of telling me “we’re bored with those old exercises, give us some new ones”, who knows. But I was desperate to get them fired up again, so I thought of what exercises I hadn’t tried – step ups.
Step ups are one of the best beginner-friendly compound exercises for your lower body and, while they target the legs, they also work your booty hard. So, I set myself the challenge to do 50 step ups a day, for a week to see if I could kick my glutes back into action.
What are the benefits of step ups?
According to Puregym: “Step ups work the glutes, quads, hamstrings, adductors and abductors, calves, and core, and can help to improve stability and reduce muscle imbalances between the two legs”.
They’re also very beginner-friendly as they don’t require much skill to execute – you simply step up onto a box or weight bench and then lower yourself back down. They’re also easy on the joints too, particularly the knees.
How to do step ups
The great thing about step ups is that you can do them practically anywhere – at home or the gym – you just need a box, weight bench, or a raised surface to step onto. Even your stairs would be a great starting point.
They can be done using just your bodyweight, or you could use a pair of dumbbells or a single kettlebell if you want to make the move more challenging. Don’t have any weights? Another way you can progress the step up is by finding a higher surface to step onto, as this will place even more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings. Here’s how to do one:
- Stand in front of a step, plyo box or bench
- Lift your right foot up and place it onto your box
- Pushing through the heel of your right foot, lift your left foot to meet your right foot
- Slowly lower the left foot back to floor, then your right foot
Tip: "Avoid pushing with the bottom leg and avoiding dropping down quickly from the top," says Luiz Silva, Head of Fitness and Wellbeing and Personal Trainer at Castle Royle. "Lean your trunk forward slightly to help with the push from the top leg and try to control the pace on the way up and on the way down." This is a key part of the movement to help increase glute and hamstring strength.
Three things I learned
I train four times a week, so on my non-training days I would do my step ups using my coffee table, then at the gym I would use a weight bench. I'd do two sets of 12 reps on each leg, to make a total of 50. Here's what I noticed during my week:
1. Weights aren't necessary
While weights are a great option for making this exercise more challenging, they're not necessary and I found I could get a great glute burn without them. Instead, what I did was I completely slowed down the exercise using a 1-1-3 tempo – so I’d lift my leg in 1 second, hold it at the top for 1 second, then slowly lower it down for three seconds. This really helped me focus on that mind-muscle connection and I really felt my glutes twitching by the third-to-last rep.
When I did eventually add weights (and this wasn’t until day 4) I only used 2.5kg dumbbells, because I still wanted to really concentrate on using just my glutes to lift my leg and not compromise my form, which can easily happen if the weights start getting too heavy. I urge everyone to leave their egos behind and start with just their bodyweight first to see where you're at, as the focus should be nailing the exercise, feeling the muscles that are meant to be working, then progressing onto weights.
2. I quickly spotted my imbalances
I’ve always known that my right glute is stronger than my left, but doing step ups made this far more obvious. This is because step ups are a unilateral exercise, which is a move that trains one limb at a time, like a side lunge or a single overhead press. The American Council on Exercise says the main benefit of this type of training is that you’re using both sides of the body equally, which can prevent (or correct) muscle imbalances.
Although I do lots of other compound exercises that target my glutes, like squats and deadlifts, these are bilateral movements, where both limbs are being used simultaneously, making imbalances harder to spot. The first few days the step ups on my left were far more wobbly than the ones on the right, but by day 7 I felt a lot more stable (this is another reason I didn’t start with weights). It was a tad disheartening to realise my left side needs a lot of work, but now I know I just need to incorporate more unilateral movements into my training.
3. It relieved some of my lower back pain
One of the reasons I personally get such bad lower back pain is because my glutes become inactive, which is mainly caused by spending the majority of my day sat down. Nexus Massage and Rehab says the glute muscles are the main stabilisers in the pelvis, which supports the lower back, so when these are weak (or inactive) it can add pressure to the lower back.
Obviously my back pain hadn’t miraculously disappeared after two days of doing step ups ( that would be amazing) or even by the end of the week. However, by day 7 I can confidently say it had somewhat relieved it. I definitely stopped moaning about it to my partner as much, that’s for sure, which meant my tingle senses had been right all along.
I thoroughly enjoyed doing step ups, I think they're an excellent booty burner and great for your core too, as you really have to work hard (especially when lowering the leg) to stay balanced. I'm going to continue doing 50 reps in my warm ups, as it really wasn't that bad, but increasing the weight load as I progress.