Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist/DVRT Educational Coordinator (Co-creator DVRT Restoration Certification, Should & Pelvic Control Courses)
The other day someone commented on a post of mine, “quadzilla.” Now, I am not one to comment on a persons body but there are those that feel the need to do so in the world of what is the internet.
I actually didn’t mind the comment, my body has always been the type that puts on muscle, I have alway been that way, so to me if someone says I have quads, great! I work hard to make my body strong, mobile, and resilient, so I don’t mind getting a comment for the hard work I put into training. What was funny about that comment was that the person said I must squat and deadlift super heavy all the time get those quads.
My squats generally look more like something like this DVRT Press Out Cossack Squat because I can get more out of the exercise!
I guess people associate muscle mass in the lower body to that of only heavy deadlifts and squats but to be truly honest, my quads were not made by deadlifts and squats, in fact, I don’t do a lot of those in my workouts, variations of them but not what you tend to think of in building strength or muscle in the lower body.
I think people feel they can only get strong if they lift a lot of weight and we know the only way to lift a lot of weight is to be in a rather stable stance or movement pattern. What people don’t realize is that true strength is built in multiple planes, moving through different planes of motion and resisting planes of motion while doing so. That rarely happens with heavy deadlifts and squats. Sure we load the body but in actually an overly simplistic way than what we could be doing with smarter training.
So what did build my “quadizallas” and overall leg strength, if you care to know? If I would have to say one thing in particular, step-ups. I am sure you a disappointed and saying to your self, how can step-ups build big strength? In fact several gyms I have been to, and I have been all over the world to various gyms, don’t even have steps…its not even something that gets programmed. Crazy as its such a big part of my programming and rehab protocols.
So what is it about the step up? Let’s take a look at the benefits the step up gives us. The step-up is a multi-planar exercise, it’s a true single-leg exercise that forces us to resist many forces as we step up and down. We train acceleration and deceleration while building creating stability. The step-up allows for an amazing way to train the lower leg/ foot stability which has a huge impact on how the glutes function. We also have a powerful hip extension action that has the ability to have a positive transfer to real-world power and strength development not to mention an extremely effective way to build glute strength and hypertrophy.
I’ve seen so many patients over the years that were really strong on one foot, but terribly weak on the other foot which caused all sorts of knee and low back issues.
The problem with steps ups is that people usually don’t think about how they are programming or progressing them in their workouts. You see it all the time in bigger gyms (happens in smaller ones too) where the fitness coach looks around and finds an empty bench and grabs it like it is gold. Without a thought to the height of the step (not to mention some benches can be way too soft for people) the coach just has the client use the bench as a completely arbitrary load. Meaning, you wouldn’t just grab a random weight for someone to perform an exercise right? You would think if they could handle the load and move the weight well.
The same thought should be used in exercises like step-ups. Since the height of the step is so essential otherwise you see people don’t get too much out of the movement because they are forced to use too much momentum. That forces the lifter to have to “cheat” the movement and we don’t get a lot of the great benefits of stability, strength, and functional muscle that step-ups offer.
Most people don’t give much thought to step-ups and how they are performed. That is a HUGE mistake and the complexity of the movement compared to squats and deadlifts means we should be even MORE thoughtful!
Besides the height of the step, we should consider the direction of the step as that changes the intensity as well. Moving forward and back is easier than moving more laterally, which is easier than crossing over. This may sound like a lot to think about, but in actuality, it gives us more options to progress people and make the same exercise feel quite different to the body.
The other important element to teach with people is to actually load them right off the bat! Sounds counterintuitive, but when I worked as a physical therapist in a fall prevention clinic I would see patients have the hardest time doing everyday life tasks like stepping up. Besides lacking the strength and stability of the lower body, they just had no core control and that actually impacts the lower body.
We don’t think of the core as being that important in exercises like step-ups and lunges but it is SO important! If our core is unstable then we see the pelvis and lower body reflect that instability. When we create proximal stability in the core, we not only get better distal mobility in the hips but also much better strength/stability.
That is why you see us using tools like the Ultimate Sandbag or kettlebells in order to create that core stability along with the ability to create better force through the hip. These tools also allow us to challenge the movement and create purposeful progression with the step up. Going front load with an Ultimate Sandbag allows us to create stability through trying to “break” the Ultimate Sandbag apart and that tension along with the load gives us better control. Where holding double kettlebells in the rack uses the core, but because we can’t create the same tension, is more of a progression of the load.
Applying concepts like our “x-patterns” where we load the body differently from side to side allows us to amplify the benefits of the step-up being multi-planar, but also doing so in a progressive and thoughtful manner. Adding in steps ups to your programming can be a powerful way to build lower quarter strength and stability, it should be a staple in your training.
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