If you are looking for exercises that target the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps as effectively as step-ups, you are in the right place. This blog shows you some step-up alternatives that will challenge your muscles, keep your workout routine interesting, and could be a better choice for you. We love to keep you safe and motivated! So let’s get started!
1. Hack Squat Machine
A Hack squat machine can be an excellent start for those new to weightlifting who have restricted mobility or have difficulty maintaining proper form with free weights while squatting. The backrest provided by the machine reduces stability demand and the load on the lower back, and knee joints, making it a safer option for beginners. It is also a great alternative to step-ups, working the same muscles with more focus on the quadriceps.
Once you have gained some experience in squatting, move to a barbell.
Barbell squats are good for increasing muscle mass, strength, and athletic performance but are also highly functional and mimic real-world movements like sitting down on a chair, getting up, and picking up things from the ground.
As the barbell is not fixed in place like the hack squat machine, barbell squats require more coordination, balance, stability, motor control, and lower back strength. So you can make great progress with this exercise.
Reps & sets:
Complete 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps at the beginning of your workout with 30-60 seconds of rest.
You can implement a pause at the bottom of both the hack machine and barbell squats. The pause at the bottom, called an isometric hold, creates greater time under tension, which leads to muscle growth and increases in strength.
Additionally, it can improve:
- Control over the weaker part of your movement (which normally is at the bottom)
- muscle activation and stability
- Set up the machine: Adjust the height of the pad
- Stand hip-width apart and turn your toes out slightly.
- Place your shoulders under the pads (you can use blocks for extra cushioning if it hurts your shoulders)
- Grasp the handles firmly and extend the legs to detach the machine’s lock.
- Keep your core tight throughout the movement.
- Lower the weight slowly and under control, keeping your back straight and your knees over your toes.
- Lower yourself into a squat, then slowly stand back up.
- Push through your heels and return to the starting position
- Avoid your heels and toes coming up throughout the movement
- Keep the feet slightly in front of you and sit back; this will work the glutes more
- Exhale as you stand up, inhale as you lower yourself down
2. Bulgarian Split squats
Bulgarian split squats are an excellent exercise for targeting the muscles in the legs, specifically the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
It can also improve knee and hip stability and increase mobility while working on side-to-side imbalances. You can target the glutes even more if you lean forward with the torso.
Add this to your routine for injury prevention, improved strength, to burn extra calories, or to achieve a toned, peachy, rounded bottom.
- Jumping with body weight
- Jumping with weight
Before you choose the advanced Jumping Bulgarian split squat, make sure your traditional split squat is on point! The jump component will work on explosive power (plyometric exercise), which can lead to improved athletic performance.
Reps & Sets:
If you do the more beginner-friendly bodyweight or dumbbell version, complete 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps on each leg with controlled movement. Take a 30-60 seconds break.
For improved athletic performance, perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 1-2 minutes of rest between sets. The reps should be explosive and good quality. Do this exercise after your primary movement.
- Stand in a split position with your back leg on a knee-high bench or box.
- Maintain a neutral spine, then lower your body by bending your front knee.
- Lower your body until the thigh of your front leg is parallel to the ground.
- Push through your front heel and return to the starting position
- Complete the desired reps and sets, then switch sides.
3. Box Jumps
Being a powerful athlete is an amazing skill. Box jumps enhance explosive power; therefore, you can jump higher, sprint quicker, and even squat heavier. And on top of that, it boosts muscle development!
I use this advanced exercise as progressions to step-ups. However, you can modify both exercises to increase or decrease difficulty.
Step-ups allow for muscle and strength development of the legs for beginners before jumps. Landing on a box instead of the ground can absorb the impact and be more gentle on the knee and hip joints.
Reps & Sets:
For explosiveness and power development, complete: 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps with 2-4 minutes of rest.
For endurance/lactic capacity aim, complete 2-3 sets of 20 reps with a 1-minute break or add it as part of a ‘circuit’ for 30 seconds of work and 15 seconds rest. Start on a smaller box and work your way up.
- Face the box and stand with soft knees, with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Push your hips back (slightly hinged), and swing the arms behind you
- Jump up and slightly forward by pushing yourself away from the ground, extending your knees and hips.
- Land with both legs, soft knees, and straight back on the box
- Try to be relaxed when landing, which will help you land softly
- Step down and repeat the jump
4. Single leg Box Sit-Down and Get-ups (Box Squat to Stand)
I love adding single-leg exercises into a workout routine, as they increase strength, improve performance, and reduce the risk of injury.
This functional exercise targets multiple muscle groups in the body, including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, core, and upper body. It improves overall strength, balance, stability, and proprioception.
It prepares the body for activities that involve sitting down and standing up, such as getting in and out of a car or walking down the stairs.
Reps & Sets:
To build muscle and strength, perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with a moderate to heavy weight. If these reps feel unachievable for you, complete reps and sets that suit your current strength and fitness level. I mean better to do some than NONE.
You can progress this exercise to:
- Touchdown squats
- Pistol squats
These are very challenging and require a lot of core, lower body, and upper body strength.
- Stand in front of a box or a bench (knee height) facing away
- Hinge on the hip (push your hip back) onto the box or bench, keeping your back straight and your core engaged.
- Sit down on the box or bench, and then stand up by pushing through your heels and extending your hips and knees
- When getting up, keep one leg off the ground and avoid swinging, but use the strength of the legs
- Repeat for the desired reps and sets.
- Add weight or resistance to increase the difficulty of the exercise.
- Start with a high box and progress to a lower one as you get stronger.
- If standing up on one leg feels difficult, keep the front heel down, brace the core and stand up that way.
5. Romanian Deadlifts
This exercise helps strengthen the posterior chain muscles. You can perform it with various equipment, such as a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, and even resistance bands. It’s a great exercise and can improve posture and sports performance.
But I would only recommend it to some, as it can be tricky to perform it correctly. Why?
Romanian Deadlifts are hip-dominant movements where you push the hips back rather than bending the knees and squatting. Beginners generally don’t know or have yet to experience the difference between the hip hinge and squatting. But I will give you detailed safety tips below.
Reps & Sets:
- Muscle building: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with 60-90 seconds of rest
- Strength: 3-6 sets of 3-5 reps on a heavier weight with full 2-3 minutes of recovery
- Endurance: 2-3 Sets of 15-20 reps with 30-60 seconds of rest
- Hold a barbell (or dumbbells or kettlebells) in front of you with an overhand grip and the feet hip-width apart.
- Engage the core, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Slowly bend at the hips, keeping your knees bent and your back straight.
- Lower the barbell (or dumbbells or kettlebells) towards the floor.
- Once you reach your max depth, squeeze your glutes and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the reps/sets suitable for your goal.
- Keep the bar close to the body: Don’t let the bar move away from the body, as it can put unnecessary stress on the lower back. It’s important to keep the bar close to the body throughout the exercise to maximize the benefit and reduce the risk of injury.
- Keep the back neutral: Avoid rounding the lower back, as this will put a lot of stress on the spine.
- Hinge from the hips: Use your hips, and engage the glutes, hamstrings, and core. It’s important to keep the legs relatively straight and focus on pushing the hips back rather than bending the knees.
- Be aware of your flexibility: If you are very flexible, you may rely on your flexibility to perform these exercises and may not engage the correct muscles. This can lead to poor muscle awareness, poor form, and a high risk of injury! Make sure you use your glutes and hamstrings when performing RDLs, and don’t rely on your flexibility.
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