Step ups are a great lower body unilateral exercise (one leg working) that's proven to increase lower body strength and muscle mass, decrease muscular imbalances and create more stable hips. 

However, for this exercise you need an appropriate step or box and not everyone has access to one at home. 

If this is you then read on because I'm giving you my top 10 best step up exercise alternatives you can do at home.

Step ups engage your quads, hamstrings, and glutes in a way that helps build lower body strength, balance and a strong core.

It's not always practical to do step ups at home, but some step up alternative exercises mimic the movement and engage similar muscle groups, let's dive straight in. 

1. Walking Lunges

woman doing walking lunge exercise outside

Walking lunges are a great way to develop a solid lower body.

The benefits of lunges is that they engage all the same muscle groups without the need for any equipment.  

Walking lunges are great for beginners, and they engage all your leg muscles, including your glutes.

Benefits:

  • Good for beginners.
  • Engage all major leg muscles.
  • Improves balance and coordination. 

How To Do A Walking lunge:

  1. Start standing with feet at shoulder width apart and step one leg in front of you.
  2. Step into a lunge position by bending your knees to a 90-degree angle before pushing up and moving your other foot forward. 
  3. Make sure your back knee doesn’t touch the ground as you perform each step, and aim for 8-10 reps on each leg per set.  

Tips From A Trainer!

If you find them a bit too easy, you can add more resistance by holding a weight in each hand and up this as you get stronger overtime.   

2. Box Jump 

man doing box jumps

You might have seen people performing box jumps in the gym, but it's not as intimidating as it looks. 

The explosive movement involved in box jumps are great for your legs, and for engaging your core to stabilize your body as you land. 

You will need a box to perform it, but it’s a great alternative to step ups that incorporates more power. 

However, if you find this exercise too challenging or don't have the right equipment, you can try out the box jump alternative exercises that target the same muscles.

Benefits:

  • Develops explosive power. 
  • Builds muscular endurance. 
  • Works all the muscles in the lower body. 

How To Do a Box Jump:

  1. Choose a box that is the correct height for your fitness level and height. 
  2. Start standing facing the box, roughly six inches away from it, with your feet shoulder width apart.
  3. Bend your knees until you are in a quarter squat position, pushing your hips back and swinging your arms behind you. 
  4. Push through your heels to drive your body up from the floor and jump onto the box, swinging your arms forwards to help drive momentum upwards. 
  5. Land with flat feet and straighten the legs to complete the jump. 
  6. Pause for a second and then step back down to repeat. 

Tips From A Trainer!

These can be done anywhere as you do not need a plyo box and are excellent exercises to incorporate into outdoor workouts. 

If you prefer to use a safe and stable surface indoors then check out - Best Plyo Boxes Reviewed

3. Bulgarian Split Squats

woman doing bulgarian split squat exercise

Bulgarian split squats are quite challenging and may take a little time to master, but they offer some real benefits. This exercise is vital for building single leg strength.

They engage all the leg muscles and your glutes, helping you to improve your overall strength. They also help with your coordination and balance in a way that is more beneficial than step-ups, so they’re a great one to work into your routine.

If you're unable to do the Bulgarian split squat, prefer different exercises, or simply want to add variety to your workout, there are plenty of Bulgarian split squat alternatives to explore and incorporate into your routine.

Benefits:

  • Helps build a better squat.
  • Seriously strengthens the legs and glutes.
  • Engages the core to help remain stable throughout the movement.

how to Do A bulgarian Split Squat:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and around 2-3 feet in front of a knee-high platform, facing away. 
  2. Extend one leg out behind you, placing the top of your foot onto the platform. 
  3. Ensure that your torso is upright and your upper body is stable during the movement. 
  4. Inhale and slowly lower yourself down, driving your knee toward the ground. 
  5. As you exhale, stand back up by pushing the floor away from you. 
  6. Repeat this motion on one leg for the desired number of reps before switching legs.

Tips From A Trainer!

Start off with either your body weight or light weight and master the balancing aspects before increasing. These can burn your glutes quickly if you overload yourself! 

4. Deadlifts

man doing a barbell deadlift in the gym

Deadlifts are one of the best exercises there is for muscle development, muscle mass and strength. 

Deadlifts are a useful compound exercise to engage many big muscle groups. If you have a home gym, then they are a good alternative for step ups. 

However, if you lack equipment, have an injury, or want to mix things up, you can try out deadlift alternative exercises.

benefits:

  • Works the whole muscular system in one movement.
  • Builds strong a strong back and legs.
  • Improves athleticism and sports performance. 

How To Do A Deadlift:

  1. Start with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with toes slightly turned out.
  2. Slightly bend your knees and bend over at the hips until you can grip the bar. 
  3. Keeping your core tight and back engaged, pushing through your legs, keep the bar close to your body and extend your hips as you stand tall.
  4. Hold it at hip level for a few seconds and then lower it back down.

Tips From A Trainer!

Deadlifts are good for all levels of experience. Start with a light bar if you are a beginner and progress slowly in weight while you focus on technique. 

5. Sled Pushes 

women doing sled push exercise

Sled pushes work your legs, back, and core, and you're able to customize the resistance to challenge your body.

Not every home gym will have a sled or enough room to use one, but they are a good alternative to a step up exercise and actually engage more muscle groups.

If you don't have a sled - here are some sled push alternatives to try!

Benefits:

  • Full body workout.
  • Boosts sports performance.
  • Can be used to increase speed or endurance.

How To Do A Sled Push:

  1. Start with a loaded sled in front of you and bend forward, so your shoulder is resting against it. 
  2. Your legs, shoulders, and arms should all line up so that they are all pushing in the same direction.
  3. Push the sled until you reach the end of the track, and you should feel it in your legs and back.

Tips From A Trainer!

Engage and activate your core as you push your sled. This will help build force and momentum and make it much easier to move. 

6. Glute Bridges 

woman doing a glute bridge exercise on a mat in the gym

Glutes bridges focus the energy on your glutes and hips, and while they won't work as many muscles as step ups, they're good as part of a lower-body routine.

Step ups help condition your glutes, and it’s good to work in some glute bridges as part of your alternative workout.

benefits:

  • Builds stronger and more functional glutes. 
  • Stronger glutes help protect you from knee and low back pain.
  • Helps improve squatting and deadlifting performance.

How To Do A Glute Bridge:

  1. Start by lying on the floor, face-up, with your hands by your side and knees bent upwards.
  2.  Next, lift your hips off the ground, keeping your feet flat on the floor, pause at the top before lowering back down to the ground. 
  3. Try to repeat this 8-10 times, and you should start to feel the burn.  

Tips From A Trainer!

This exercise can be done with body weight only or if you want to increase the stimulus then add weight. This can be a barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell.  

7. VMO Dips 

man doing VMO Dips

VMOs (vastus medialis obliques) are a muscle group just next to your knee, which are increasingly important as we get older.[1]

These dips are like a reverse step up exercise and are well suited for older people or those recovering from an injury. 

This movement will help mimic the step-up exercise and give you greater flexibility. 

Benefits:

  • Improves knee stability.
  • Great exercise for knee rehab and injury mitigation. 
  • Good for improving imbalances.

How To Do A VMO Dip:

  1. Start by standing on a raised platform and put one leg out in front of you. 
  2. Bend the other knee and slowly lower your body down until the leg in front of you is almost touching the floor, ensuring your hips remain stable throughout the movement.  
  3. Pause, and then return to starting position. 

Tips From A Trainer!

This exercise is not just for the elderly and can play a role in knee and leg strength anyone who does serious lifting. 

8. Good Mornings 

man doing good morning exercise in the gym

The Good morning is a loaded hip hinge exercise that works your core, hips, and hamstrings, so they're good to incorporate instead of step-ups in your lower body regime.

You do need a barbell for this exercise, but because there's so little movement, you don't need much space. This makes it a perfect step-up alternative for those with a small home gym.

If you're new to training or you have an injury that a barbell good morning is unsuitable for, the good news is the same results are possible with good morning alternative exercise.

Benefits:

  • Effective exercise for strengthening the whole posterior chain.
  • Improves strength that transfers to compound lifts and everyday life.
  • Reduces risk of hamstring injury due to the eccentric loading nature of this hamstring exercise.

How To Do A Good Morning:

  1. Start standing tall with your legs shoulder-width apart and a barbell held behind your shoulders. 
  2. Slowly bend at the hip until your get to waist height, and then raise back up again, keeping your back straight throughout and your upper body stable. 
  3. Pull your hips through and return to the start position. 

Tips From A Trainer!

Good mornings are a classic exercise and for good reason. Take this exercise slow and steady to get the best results. 

Further Reading - Good Mornings Vs Deadlifts

9. Single Leg Press

man doing single leg press

This is one of the most effective ways to target all the smaller muscle groups in your lower body, but you will need a leg press machine, which many homeowners won't have.

The Single leg press will probably help condition your body more effectively than step ups, but you are reliant on equipment, so they won’t be available for everyone.

benefits:

  • Improves muscular imbalances.
  • A good single leg variation for beginners.
  • Increases hip and knee strength and translates to squatting and deadlifting. 

How To Do A single Leg Press:

  1. Start by sitting on the machine with one foot on the pad and one on the floor. 
  2. Brace your body and push with your leg until the weight pad reaches the top.
  3. Pause for a second before lowering back down to starting.
  4. Make sure to alternate legs so you get the benefits on both sides.

Tips From A Trainer!

Push through your heels for maximum effect on your leg muscles. 

Related Article - Best Leg Press Machines

10. Squats 

woman doing barbell squats

Squats are regarded as one of the most important compound exercises, and they are an effective alternative to step ups because they engage all the same muscles.

You can perform them with your own bodyweight or use weights to add resistance if you’re more experienced.

Benefits:

  • Strengthens all muscles in your lower body.
  • Improves core strength.
  • Builds stronger joints.

How To Do A Squat:

  1. Start standing up with your feet roughly hip-width apart and feet pointing forwards. 
  2. Keep your back neutral and bend at the knees and hips, lowering your hips towards your heels and keeping your torso in an upright position.
  3. Pause at the bottom of the squat, and then push through your feet back into starting position.
  4. Repeat for desired reps and sets, ensuring you don't compromise on form.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you struggle with getting into a good bottom position in the squat then elevate your heels using small plates. The increased elevation helps with ankle and hip mobility. A deeper squat means more muscle fibre recruitment which means more gains!

Benefits Of Step-Up Substitutes Over Regular Step Ups

Step ups have a lot of benefits, and they’re popular with people of all fitness levels. The advantage of these step up alternative exercises is that you can mix it up and engage some smaller muscle groups which you might not normally train.

By alternating between leg exercises such as glute bridges and box jumps, you can train your body in different ways, shocking the muscles, and improving your gains.

Along with improving your conditioning, you can also keep your mind focused. By mixing in alternatives and new exercises, you prevent workouts from becoming stale and continually challenge your body. This helps you to stay excited and put 100% into your workouts.

Muscles Worked When Performing Step Up Substitutes

Step ups work out many of your more important muscle groups, and these alternative exercises look to mimic the movement and target the same areas. The muscles below are where you'll see most of your gains:

Quads

Your quads are the large muscles on the front of your thighs that are vital for day-to-day activities like walking, running, sitting, and standing.

Any exercises that involve bending your knee will engage quadriceps, and step-up alternatives like squats are really effective at growing them.[2]

Your glutes are essential for your posture and all movement.

The step-up alternatives which involve hip movement will engage your glutes, and you can normally maximize the benefits by pausing for a few seconds at the end of each movement and tensing them. 

Adductors 

Your adductors are located on the inside of your thigh next to your hips. They help with your stability and provide support for running and jumping.

Step up alternatives with explosive upward movement will engage your adductors, and exercises like box jumps are a great way you work these muscle groups.

Hip Flexors 

For full flexibility and movement, you need to have solid hip flexor muscles. 

Exercises involving your knees, particularly squats and Bulgarian split squats, are excellent for your hip flexors and will aid your overall conditioning.

Your hamstrings are located on the back of your legs and are engaged when there's explosive movement in your legs.[3]

They're vital for a strong body, and without well-developed hamstrings, your body won't be able to perform at its best. All of the step-up alternatives will engage your hamstrings, but walking lunges are particularly effective.  

Your calves are a small muscle group, but they're responsible for a lot of the power coming from your legs. 

Located on the back of your lower leg, your calves are engaged when you’re moving at an angle or gradient. This makes step ups really effective for training them, but some alternatives like squats and leg presses can also give you the same results.

Common Step Up Questions Answered

Are step up alternatives good for losing weight? 

Yes, by combining some of these exercises with a healthy diet, you can lose weight. They'll also help strengthen your lower body which will make other exercises easier.

Are step ups bad for your knees? 

Step-ups can strain your knees even if you’re using the cushioned steps in a commercial gym. If you have any pre-existing knee injuries, it's worth doing an alternative that is lower impact.

Can I use a chair for box step up alternatives? 

You can use a sturdy chair as an alternative, but it may be higher than your usual step, making it challenging for beginners.

Conclusion

Step-ups are a useful single leg exercise, but they aren’t suitable for everyone. There are a lot of alternative exercises that mimic the movement and deliver similar benefits to your legs and glutes, and we’ve introduced some of the best options here.

For the best results, you should look to mix them up to keep challenging your body as you improve your strength and conditioning.

References:

1.https://www.physio-pedia.com/Vastus_Medialis

2.https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22816-quad-muscles

3.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546688/

Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor

Hi, I’m Jo. I love sunrise swims, cold water immersion and cats. I have been dedicated to strength training for the past 14 years. I became a qualified Personal Trainer in 2020, and am passionate about helping my clients get stronger. Visit Jo Taylors Website