Can't Do a Step-Up? Here's What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

If you're struggling with step-ups, the first change to make is lowering the step you're using.
Image Credit: Stuart Anning/Cultura/GettyImages

You may not even notice how many times per day you go up a step, until it suddenly becomes difficult. If you find yourself choosing the elevator over the stairs or if your favorite stair climbing workout becomes impossible, it's important to listen to your body.

"The main factors that can contribute to someone not being able to perform a step-up include having pain or an injury, limited mobility and limited strength," Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

You need to have adequate strength in your quads, glutes and, to a lesser extent, calves, he says. "If one or more of these muscle groups is lacking the strength needed, you will not be able to perform the step-up properly."

Stiff joints that can't go through their full range of motion can also limit your ability to perform step-ups. "You need a specific amount of mobility in your ankle, knee and hip. If you don't have the range of motion necessary in these joints and are unable to get into the proper position, you simply will not be able to perform the step-up," Wickham says.

By looking at your form during step-ups, you can determine the cause of your struggle as well as the best way to get stronger. Below, Wickham explains how to interpret those clues and what to do to regain your ability to step up.

Warning

If you're experiencing a lot of knee pain when doing a step-up, stop and get checked out by a doctor to rule out injuries. “This pain could be caused from a damaged meniscus or other ligaments in and around the knee,” Wickham says.

Or it may be osteoarthritis, a common form of arthritis, especially for those over 50, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. The degenerative condition causes pain, weakness and knee buckling and can contribute to difficulty with steps.

1. Your Quads and Glutes Are Weak

If your knee buckles, gives way or shifts to one side or the other during your step-ups, it's likely your issue is due to lack of muscular strength. In order to perform the exercise properly, you need stability in your knees and hips and strength in the muscles that support those joints, specifically, your quads and glutes.

Fix It

The following exercise is a form of reactive neuromuscular training (RNT).

"This exercise increases the activation of your lateral gluteal muscles, helping stabilize your hip and knee," Wickham says. "Focus on keeping your knee tracking over the middle of your foot the entire time. It should not move to the inside."

Move 1: Step-Up With Band

  1. Place a light resistance band just above your right knee, while securing the other end of the band around a sturdy object to your left.
  2. Place a low step in front of you and step up with the right leg.
  3. The band will want to pull your knee inward, however, resist and push your knees outward while stepping up.
  4. Make sure your knee tracks over the middle of your foot.
  5. Perform 2 sets of 20 reps.

If you have pain while doing this exercise, instead do a Romanian deadlift to target your glutes and hamstrings. Once your muscle strength improves, you can return to the step-up.

Move 2: Romanian Deadlift

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells at your sides.
  2. Perform a hip hinge, sending your hips back behind you as your torso folds forward.
  3. Keep your back straight and core engaged, as your slowly lower the weights do the ground.
  4. Once your chest is parallel to the floor, reverse the movement and return to standing in a slow and controlled movement.

Lunges, either with or without weights, are another excellent exercise to strengthen the muscles surrounding your knees, Wickham says. Even better, perform all three of these exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting your knees and hips.

Move 3: Lunge

  1. Start standing up tall, then step a few feet forward with your left foot.
  2. Bend both knees to 90 degrees, with your back knee hovering just above the ground and your front knee either over your ankle.
  3. You can keep your hands on your hips or hanging by your sides.
  4. Hold for a beat before pushing off your front foot, returning back to standing and repeating on the other leg.

2. You Lack Hip Mobility

If you find yourself leading the movement with your head and thrusting your upper body forward in an attempt to get on top of the step, take a step back and reassess you hip mobility.

"Leaning your upper body forward is a compensation for lack of hip or ankle mobility and leg strength, specifically quadriceps and gluteus muscles," Wickham says. "Focus on keeping your upper body relatively upright, limiting the amount that your upper body flexes forward."

Fix It

If you're performing step-ups during a workout and feel yourself lean forward, decrease the height of the step or box until your hip mobility improves and you can step up while keeping your torso upright. In the meantime, Wickham recommends a hip flexion end-range stretch exercise to improve hip mobility.

Hip Flexion End-Range Stretch

  1. Lie on your back inside of a doorway or a piece of gym equipment such as a rig.
  2. Place the foot that's closest to the wall on the wall.
  3. Next, flex your hip as much as possible, bringing your thigh toward your stomach.
  4. While leaving your foot on the wall, move your body and hips closer to the wall to increase the stretch and hip flexion. You should now be in a maximal hip flexion stretch.
  5. Next, contract your glutes and push your foot into the wall as hard as possible and hold for 20 seconds.
  6. Relax after 20 seconds.
  7. Next, while staying in the stretch, try to lift your foot away from the wall and hold for 20 seconds.
  8. Repeat the above for at least 3 rounds per side.

3. You Have Ankle Mobility Issues

If you're unable to keep your heel down when you step, you could have an issue with ankle mobility, says Wickham. Specifically ankle dorsiflexion, which is the action of lifting your toes up and back toward your shin.

Fix It

Ankle Mobility Stretch

  1. Start in a half-kneeling position, with your back knee on the ground.
  2. While keeping your heel on the ground, let your knee move forward as much as possible until you feel a stretch in the back of your lower leg and ankle. Make sure that your knee tracks over the middle of your foot.
  3. Next, contract your calf muscles by pressing your foot down into the ground like you're pressing on the gas pedal and hold for 20 seconds. Relax after this contraction.
  4. While staying in the stretch, perform the opposite contraction, by trying to lift your foot up off of the ground and hold for 20 seconds.
  5. Repeat the above for at least 3 rounds per side.

4. The Step Is Too High

Step-ups are a great exercise to strengthen your legs, but make sure you are doing them correctly. "A big mistake that I see often is people using a step, box, or bench that is too high for them," Wickham says. "The higher the step is, the more mobility someone will need to perform the step-up correctly."

Fix It

If you feel yourself leaning forward or your legs buckling, you need to make adjustments. "The fix is to choose a step or box in which you can step up onto in a controlled manner, while keeping your chest up. You will most likely need a smaller step than you think."

Don't let your ego get in the way, you'll still get a fantastic workout without putting unnecessary stress on your knees and hips.