When we think of leg or lower-body training in general, it usually revolves around the bigger, more bang-for-buck exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges and leg presses. As awesome as these movements are, not everyone is capable of performing them. People with a history of injury or individuals with pre-existing orthopaedic conditions might not be able to perform these exercises without experiencing a significant amount of discomfort. Does that mean that training the lower half of their bodies is no longer in the cards for them?
Contrary to popular belief, exercises otherwise thought to be more rehabilitative in nature can still be utilised to achieve an appreciable amount of gains in both strength and muscle. It stands to reason that an exercise that excels at strengthening a weakened or damaged muscle can also be used to hypertrophy it beyond its baseline. One such example is the dumbbell step-up.
Unlike its more famous sibling, the Petersen step-up, the dumbbell step-up places more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings instead of having it all placed on the knee extensors. The key difference lies in the setup of the dumbbell set-up – while the Petersen step-up places the standing foot directly behind the heel of the landing foot, the dumbbell step-up reverses this.
Location and equipment courtesy of TripleFit
Holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand, simply place your foot on an elevated surface (stacked weight plates or an aerobic step board works fine) and stand up straight. While it sounds simple in theory, there are some subtle details to take note of if you wish to perform this exercise correctly.
As you stand up, you need to ensure that you’re exerting force evenly across your entire foot. Imagine there being three points of contact across your foot: your big toe, pinky toe and heel. Visualise pushing these three areas into the ground while engaging your hips concurrently as you stand up. In doing so so, some forward migration of the knee is to be expected, but it shouldn’t extend beyond your toes.
During the eccentric/lowering phase, take care to control the movement and not let gravity do all the work for you. As you touch down on your landing foot, raise your standing foot slightly so that it breaks contact with the surface. This brief separation eliminates the stretch reflex (much like pausing at the bottom of a squat), intensifying the exercise. All you need is a half-second or so before performing the next repetition.
There are four main ways you can achieve progression with the dumbbell step-up: increasing the number of repetitions, increasing the load, extending the tempo, and raising the elevation. When it comes to the last method, just take note of how much elevation you use. Ideally, you should not have to go any higher where upon it causes your hip angle to fall below 90°. Do it right (and with enough volume), and you’ll be able to “enjoy” that sweet burn that comes with the conclusion of every successful leg day!