Strength Training for Runners – The Step Up

Step-ups will always be a staple drill in rehabilitation and strength and conditioning programs when it comes to working with runners. Considering the unilateral, weight-bearing nature of the step-up, it effectively challenges recruitment patterns analogous to those encountered during routine activities of daily living and sport.
This article is a must read for any runner and one of the best articles you will read hands down regarding strength training for runners – all focused around the step up. It’s written by renown running expert and physical therapist Dr. Christopher Johnson. He’s not just an academic, but also a 2x Kona Qualifier and currently ranked 16th (AG) in the country for long course racing. So let’s just say he knows a thing or two about running performance! Chris was kind enough to release this chapter of his ebook Running On Resistance FREE for you guys here in this article. If you like what you read (and we know you will), you can save 15% on his book using the code “stepupsforgains here.

“Whenever you’re scared of something, don’t let that define you. We all feel it, but step up.”

– Vince Vaughn

The step-up explicitly demands single leg postural stability and coordination as well as dynamic control of the pelvis and trunk while cycling the ankle, knee, hip, and arms through arcs of motion that approximate those encountered during running.2,3 The step-up also serves as an adequate stimulus to foster endurance and strength of the lower extremity and can easily be progressed or regressed depending upon the goal or ability of the runner. While a fair amount of research exists on the step-up, one must exercise caution when drawing definitive conclusions based on the available studies considering the manner in which the step-ups were performed between the particular strategies used, the rate at which they were executed, and whether or not assistance was afforded. Furthermore, some of these studies involved the subjects wearing shoes whereas others had the performers wearing socks.4,5

When selecting the height of the platform or step, the most natural place to start is seven-eight inches as this approximates the height of a standard step and challenges the runner through ranges of motion likely to be experienced at the level of the lower extremity during the running gait, particularly at the level of the knee and ankle. Sometimes the step height may need to be reduced when performing certain variations of the step up that demand greater ankle dorsiflexion range of motion as limitation may lead to compensatory motion.6,7

Similar to the bridge exercise, the step-up can be modified in a variety of ways to bias the load to specific regions or preferentially target specific muscle groups at the level of the hip, knee, and ankle. For example, if the goal is to challenge the gluteus maximus the “crossover step-up” would be the variety of choice.8

To foster proper form and technique, we encourage runners to start with the “toe-off to step-up” variation, which breaks the drill into parts to safeguard against the use of momentum while ensuring that the runner is loading the desired regions and tissues. Having coached this exercise for several years, it has been the authors’ experience that excessive momentum is arguably the most common mistake when performing this exercise and invariably shortchanges the primary benefits of the step-up.

Once the runner has become proficient with the “toe off to step-up” they are ready to progress to the “fluid step-up.” Make sure that on the eccentric (lowering) phase that the runner performs the movement in a slow and controlled manner until they reach the starting point. Next, we can progress to “continuous step-ups” such that they are never unloading the stance leg to challenge the runner’s strength and endurance further. Upon mastering these baseline drills, feel free to explore some of the more advanced variations outlined below which further challenge the runner via external loading strategies and working through various planes of motion.

For such a simple and practical drill, the step-up yields a myriad of benefits. It can be used across the injury to performance spectrum among athletes of all ages and abilities to challenge the coordination, strength, and endurance of each leg in an upright manner that mirrors running. Through simple modifications, we can also tailor the step-up to improve stair negotiation from a rehabilitation standpoint or program more advanced variations that can engender a performance stimulus. Either way, the step-up is a fundamental movement and exercise that will always have a place in both rehabilitation and performance training programs in working with runners. As with all single leg drills, focus on quality over quantity and strive to move with grace and precision.

Benefits & Rationale

  • Challenges the runner from a U/L, weight bearing position thereby mimicking the performance demands of running
  • Forces the runner to progress the leg over the foot (ankle dorsiflexion)
  • Challenges coordination and reciprocity of motion analogous to running
  • Cycles the runners through arcs of motion in the lower extremity that resembles running
  • Challenges runners in both a concentric and eccentric manner from a head to toe perspective

Equipment

  • Firm, level surface
  • 7-8” platform or equivalent (i.e., step stool, sidewalk, cinder block)
  • Light to moderate resistance tubing or 1⁄2”mini monster band
  • Barbell and bumper plates

Drills

  1. Toe-off to step-up
  2. Fluid step-up
  3. Continuous step-up
  4. Step-up & over
  5. Step-up + OH reach
  6. Four-way step series
  7. Band-resisted step-up
  8. Barbell step-up

General Errors

  • Excessive gripping (hammering or clawing) with the toes
  • Relying on the use of momentum during the ascent
  • Poor control of the lower extremity on the descent
  • Failure to extend the knee adequately at the top of the movement
  • Raising the arm and leg on the same side
  • Allowing the upper arm/brachium to break the plane of the body in a forward direction
  • Holding one’s breath

 

TOE-OFF TO STEP-UP

Rationale

This exercise builds upon the slow-motion marching drill while further challenging the performer’s lower extremity strength and control while synchronizing the opposite arm and leg in a manner analogous to running. Unlike marching, however, the step-up demands the runner to progress the leg over the foot (ankle dorsiflexion) and further challenges strength of the knee extensors, hip abductors, and rotators. We generally initiate step-up training using the toe off to step-up variation, which involves a part-whole learning strategy to foster proper technique and safeguard against momentum while ensuring that the runner is loading through the desired regions. Once a runner masters this version we quickly look to focus on performing the step-up more fluidly in other parts of the e-book Running On Resistance.

Objective

The performer will perform a smooth weight shift forward (not a calf raise) while keeping their trunk erect until their bodyweight is centered over the involved side followed by a brief pause. Proceed to complete the step-up while synchronizing the opposite arm and leg while “getting tall” at the top of the motion. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position while making sure to control the descent throughout the lowering phase.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on a 7-8” step alternating between both sides

Relevant Cues

  • Focus on remaining tall throughout the exercise
  • Imagine that you are balancing a beanbag/ corn hole bag or plate on top of your head with the goal of preventing it from falling off
  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room

Specific Error

  • Failure to pause before initiating the step-up

 

FLUID STEP-UP

Rationale

Once the runner demonstrates proficiency with the toe off to step-up, the next exercise we routinely prescribe is the fluid or traditional step-up, which is essentially the toe-off to step- up smoothed out. This is a relatively common movement considering that most people are forced to negotiate stairs on a regular basis, yet it’s often performed haphazardly in the rehabilitation and performance setting thereby shortchanging the benefits of the exercise.

Objective

The performer will do a fluid step-up to a high knee position while synchronizing the opposite arm and leg before returning to the starting position. Make sure to control the movement throughout the range and keep the pelvis

and shoulders square to safeguard against compensatory strategies. When returning to the starting position, there should be minimal to no sound as the foot contacts the ground.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side using a 7-8” step

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Errors

  • Per general errors

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CONTINUOUS STEP-UP

Rationale

The continuous step-up is a natural progression of the fluid step-up. Mostly, it’s the same exercise with the exception that the runner is never unloading their bodyweight between repetitions. In turn, this demands greater strength, endurance, and control. The ankle is also challenged to a slightly greater degree regarding ankle dorsiflexion which will become readily apparent upon trying this version.

Objective

The performer will do a step-up then reverse the movement all while synchronizing the opposite arm and leg and assuming a balanced upright posture. When contacting the ground with the non-balancing leg do so with the toe cap as opposed to the ball of the foot.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side using a 7-8” step while performing the eccentric/lowering phase over 3s and the concentric or ascending portion over 1s

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground, imagine that you are grazing an eggshell such that you don’t crack the shell
  • Focus on contacting the ground with the toecap of the shoe rather than the ball of the foot
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Errors

  • Failure to assume a tall position throughout the exercise
  • Contacting the ground with the ball of the foot as opposed to the toe cap

 

STEP-UP & OVER

Rationale

A common denominator of the running gait irrespective of footstrike is that the runner has to advance the leg over the foot and progress through the forefoot and ideally the first ray to engage the windlass mechanism. Along these lines, the step-up and over is a slight variation of the fluid step-up that further challenges the runner to advance forward while controlling their bodyweight as they load through the forefoot, first ray, and metatarsals. This exercise is also challenging in that it demands control to reverse the motion when returning to the starting position. We routinely incorporate this into our work with runners dealing with plantar fascia complaints in addition to those who may be recovering from a bone stress injury involving the metatarsals for example. Caution should be exercised in prescribing this exercise in the context of a runner dealing with a “reactive” Achilles tendinopathy given the increased compressive loads associated with increased ankle dorsiflexion when stepping forward.

Objective

The performer will complete a fluid step-up then slowly advance forward and lower their bodyweight to the ground in a controlled manner thereby progressing through the forefoot and first ray before reversing the order of the drill and returning to a high knee position before finally the starting position.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on a 7-8” step alternating between both sides

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Errors

  • Per general errors

 

STEP-UP + OVERHEAD REACH

Rationale

Although running is not an overhead sport, we like this variation to help engender a sense of being tall. The step-up and overhead reach is also ideal to prescribe in working with triathletes considering the overhead performance demands of swimming. The triathletes who trust their coaching needs to us invariably report a sense of not only being taller on the run but also longer in the pool after focusing on this drill. Lastly, this step-up variation can be used in working with patients recovering from a shoulder injury or surgery by addressing the entire kinetic chain. It’s quite amazing to witness how this drill facilitates regaining overhead mobility.

Objective

The performer will do a step-up combined with an overhead reach while keeping the palms of both hands facing midline before returning to the starting position.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on a 7-8” step alternating between both sides

Relevant Cues

  • With the arm positioned overhead, imagine reaching your fingertips to the sky or ceiling
  • Time the movement such that the arm that is reaching overhead reaches the apex of the movement at the same time the thigh of non-balancing leg reaches a 90° position

Specific Error

  • Failure to fully elevate or raise the arm overhead

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FOUR-WAY STEP SERIES

Rationale

While running is a sport that primarily occurs in the sagittal plane, one must never forget that it’s a tri-planar activity. Furthermore, it’s been shown through prospective research that deficits in strength and control at the level of the hip can put runners at risk of lower extremity injury.9 It’s therefore essential that we challenge runners through single leg drills in a tri-planar manner. One way to accomplish this is through the four- way step series. This drill expands upon previous versions of the step-up by incorporating a step- down and toe tap as well as a cross-over step up which has been shown to yield the highest level of activity in the posterolateral hip musculature. In turn, we effectively challenge strength, coordination, and endurance in the frontal, sagittal, and transverse planes. Mastering this drill series is one of several milestones that we are looking for runners to reach especially during the rehab process following a RRI.

Objective

The performer will do a step-up followed by lowering their bodyweight into three different positions that correspond to the 12, 9, and
3 o’clock position. The goal is to complete one round in a wobble-free manner while synchronizing the opposite arm and leg.

Success

Performing 1 round on each side using a 7-8” step in a wobble-free manner without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 consecutive rounds on each side without taking a break using a 7-8” step

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Error

  • Failure to return to a high knee position between each movement

 

BAND-RESISTED STEP-UP

Rationale

Considering the prominent role of the hip flexors and hamstrings in the running gait, particularly in the context of faster speed or up-tempo running and sprinting, it’s important to build strength and capacity of these muscles groups. Upon completing this drill, it will become readily apparent that the hip flexors will be placed under greater load on the non-balancing leg while the hamstrings and hip extensors are further challenged on the stance leg. We often use this drill in working with performance runners and strive to focus on the speed of movement to rapidly load the hip flexors to replicate the manner they are loaded during the running gait. By positioning the band around the foot, we can also challenge the pretibial muscles which lead to greater recruitment of the hip flexors.

Objective

With light to moderate resistance tubing anchored at ground level on one end with the other secured around the ankle and foot in a “figure of eight” position, the performer will complete a step-up while drawing the non- balancing leg into a thigh-high position before returning to the starting position.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side using a 7-8” step in a wobble-free manner without relying on momentum

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on both sides in a rapid manner using a 7-8” step

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Errors

  • Backward lean at the top of the movement
  • Failure to maintain the foot in a parallel position to the floor or stepper at the top of the motion

 

BARBELL STEP-UP

Rationale

If the goal is to create a stimulus to build strength, it’s crucial for athletes to “get under the bar.” Along these lines, the barbell step-up is an advanced version of the drill that we often prescribe to performance oriented runners. Not only does it place greater (axial) loads on the body but it also demands a heightened level of coordination since the arms cannot freely move since they must secure the bar in place. Naturally, safety is a concern when performing this drill. It’s therefore reserved for those runners who have developed mastery of the other step-up drills. Runners are also encouraged to use a squat rack when getting the barbell in position to optimize safety.

Objective

The performer will unrack the weight with the barbell secured in a high or low bar position based on comfort. The performer will complete a step-up while drawing the non-balancing leg into a thigh-high position before returning to the starting position.

Success

Performing 1 set of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step and standard barbell (20kg) secured in a back squat position

Mastery

Performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side in a wobble-free manner using a 7-8” step with a standard barbell secured in a back squat position

Relevant Cues

  • When lowering the non-balancing leg to the ground imagine doing so in a quiet manner such that you do not want to wake up a sleeping baby that is in the same room
  • Remain tall throughout the exercise

Specific Errors

  • Poor trunk control and failure to maintain the bar in a level position
  • Failure to assume an upright position

 

Did you like it what you read? You can get the entire book for 15% off using the code “stepupforgains” HERE.

About the Author: Chris Johnson, PT

running on resistance step up
Chris completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware, where he earned a bachelor of science with distinction while completing a senior thesis in the physical therapy department under Dr. Lynn Snyder-Mackler. Chris was a member of the varsity men’s tennis team, scholar athlete, captain in 2000, and recipient of the Lee J Hyncik award for excellence in athletics and academics. He remained at the University of Delaware to earn a degree in physical therapy while completing an orthopedic/sports graduate fellowship under Dr. Michael J. Axe of First State Orthopedics.
Following graduation, he relocated to New York City to work at the world-renowned Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma of Lenox Hill Hospital as a physical therapist and researcher. He remained there for the ensuing eight years until 2010, when he opened his physical therapy and performance facility, Chris Johnson PT PLLC, in the Flatiron District of Manhattan.
Chris currently resides in Seattle, WA with his wife and 2 kids and operates Zeren PT LLC, whose mission is
to provide unparalleled physical therapy and performance coaching for multisport athletes in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to being a physical therapist, Chris is a certified triathlon coach (ITCA). Outside of his professional work, Chris races triathlon at the amateur elite level. He is a five-time USAT All American, two-time Kona Qualifier, and is one of the dominant age group athletes in long course triathlon. Chris is also extensively published in the medical literature and is a sought-after international speaker.
You can learn more about Chris by checking out his website, Instagram, Vimeo, and his Runner’s Zone Online Membership.

References

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  2. Dicharry J. Kinematics and kinetics of gait: from lab to clinic. Clin Sports Med 2010 Jul;29(3):347- 64.
  3. Novacheck TF. The biomechanics of running. Gait Posture. 1998 Jan 1;7(1):77-95.
  4. Boren K, Conrey C, Le Coguic J, Paprocki L, Voight M, Robinson TK. Electromyographic analysis of gluteus medius and gluteus maximus during rehabilitation exercises. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011Sep;6(3):206-23.
  5. Ayotte NW, Stetts DM, Keenan G, Greenway EH. Electromyographical analysis of selected lower extremity muscles during 5 unilateral weight-bearing exercises. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2007Feb;37(2):48-55.
  6. Rabin A, Kozol Z, Moran U, Efergan A, Geffen Y, Finestone AS. Factors associated with visually assessed quality of movement during a lateral step-down test among individuals with patellofemoral pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Dec;44(12):937-46.
  7. Rabin A, Portnoy S, Kozol Z. The Association of Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion with Hip and KneeKinematics During the Lateral Step-down Test. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Nov;46(11):1002-1009.
  8. Macadam P, Cronin J, Contreras B. An examination of the gluteal muscle activity associated with dynamic hip abduction and hip external rotation exercise: a systematic review. Int J Sports Phys Ther.2015 Oct;10(5):573-91.
  9. Noehren B, Hamill J, Davis I. Prospective evidence for a hip etiology in patellofemoral pain. Med SciSports Exerc. 2013 Jun;45(6):1120-4.

2 thoughts on “Strength Training for Runners – The Step Up

  • Guys I’m very great full for all your advice. I have been running for the past 5 years and have been battling with some running injuries plus I was involved in a cycling and car accident. This all prevented me from a pain free Cape Town Marathon 2 years ago. Since I have been following you guys I became stronger and my running became less painful. In fact I ran the Cape Town Marathon in September this year without any pain. I entered the Comrades Ultra Marathon (+\- 90km) set for June 9 2019…your program gives me the physical en mental strength and motivation to keep up my training for this major goal in my life.
    Much appreciated. Henk. P. Tredoux.

    • Henk,

      You have been through alot and we are so happy to hear you have come out of everything stronger! You no doub thave put in a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears. Happy that we have been able to help you through it all. Thanks for your comment Henk!!!

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