Since the early 1900’s, the squat lift has been the bread and butter for building strength in the legs. Almost every athlete in every sport has performed a version of the squat lift in their training. The problem with squats is that many athletes don’t like to do them because they are hard and in some cases when done improperly will cause injury and pain. The problem is that due to the influences of power lifting and strongman sports there are a lot of athletes that believe that squats are the only lift they can do for their legs. The squat lift works the legs very well and is a great lift but there are better alternative lifts that can be used instead that eliminate the risk of injury and pain. The lift that I believe is a great alternative is the step up.
Anatoly Bondarchuk, the former Soviet throws coach did some studies on whether back squats or step ups would be most useful to his athletes. His studies led him to conclude that a particular form of what we'll call the high step-up had two significant advantages over the standard back squat. Bondarchuk concluded that high step-ups, firstly, produce greater gains in thigh and hip power and secondly, cause fewer injuries. He started having his athletes use step ups instead of squats and convinced many other coaches to do the same. Many of the athletes using step ups began to make gains in power that they weren’t doing back squats. Bondarchuk concluded due to his studies that heavy back squats are potentially dangerous to the structure of the lower back. Recent studies have shown that the back squat places a load on the structure of the lower back in the bottom position, that is at least twice as heavy as the load on the bar. According to Bondarchuk the faster you descend and the faster you reverse direction and begin to arise from the bottom in a squat, the greater the load on the lower back will be and the greater the chance of injury. Also as athletes try to increase weight in the squats it gets harder to maintain good technique. Bondarchuk concluded that it would be safer to use a form of weighted step-up.
The Step-up is done by stepping up onto a platform with some form of weights and then stepping back down from it. Although it is an incredibly simple exercise, there are a few variations and things to be aware of. The ideal position for the leg to be in at the start of the step up should be with hamstrings parallel to the ground. This basic exercise works the hips and thighs, and by adjusting the step height you can favor either more of the quadriceps or the hamstrings. A higher step works the hamstrings harder and a lower step targets the quadriceps. So if an athlete is weak in the hamstring area, he should use a slightly higher bench to step up onto to. According to research done by Osse Aura, a professor of biomechanics at the Finnish Institute of Physical Education, the hamstring muscles should be approximately 75% as strong as the quadriceps muscles. If that ratio is not maintained, the chance of injury increases, while the chance of maximum performance decreases. If the quadriceps of a certain athlete are too strong, that athlete should use a higher than normal box height and thus place more stress on the hamstrings. If, on the other hand, an athlete's hamstrings are too strong, the box height will be lowered so that the quadriceps may be stressed more completely. In addition to the step height, speed and number of reps both play crucial roles in determining the effectiveness of this exercise. These general rules usual apply; the reps will be lower and the breaks longer when training for maximum strength and the reps higher/breaks shorter for hypertrophy goals.
According to the article BULGARIAN LEG TRAINING SECRETS written By Angel Spassov and Terry Todd, the Bulgarian and Soviet Olympic weightlifters both abandoned squats and made their lifts in the snatch and clean and jerk higher than ever before. They use the example of Leonid Taranenko, the current holder of the world record in the clean and jerk in the superheavyweight class to prove this claim. Taranenko has done the clean and jerk with a weight of 586 pounds. It is perhaps more amazing that Taranenko didn’t do any type of squat for four years before breaking the world record. Besides his practice on the snatch and clean and jerk, the only form of heavy leg training that Taranenko does is the high step-up with weights. One thing coaches in the Soviet Union and Bulgaria noticed was that those athletes, both lifters and those in other sports, who dropped the squat and used the high step up developed more complete muscularity than those who simply squatted. Many of the coaches say that the legs of those who work hard on the high step-up look more like those of someone who did sprinting and jumping as well as squatting. Apparently, the balance required in the high step-up calls more muscles into play, producing fuller, shapelier development.
I have had knee problems my whole career that has plagued my performance. Me and my older brother also have a genetic back disease called Sherman’s syndrome, which causes daily pain. I have done many sets and reps of squats in pain due to tendonitis of my knees, back problems, and foot injuries. As a thrower it is important to have legs as strong as they can be since all power in the throwing events is produced in the legs. Because of injuries and problems I have had, I decided this year to implement more step ups into my program. Some variations I have implemented this year are the parallel step up, the high step up for my hamstrings, the low step for my quads, and a fun variation of the lateral step up which helps with stabilizing muscles in the legs, such as the adductor and abductor muscles. These lifts have helped me gain leg strength without the normal pain I have been accustomed to. After a couple of months this season of doing this, I have noticed that my knees are feeling better and my back is not in pain which has not only helped my throwing but also my other athletic performances. I have also been able to sleep better and perform daily functions with more ease.
When my older brother returned home from serving an LDS mission, and knowing the problems his back would have with squatting, decided to do step ups in order to help him get back into shape. My brother has always been a big back squatter, but he didn’t want to cause the stress and pain that would come with heavy back squatting. He decided to do step ups for 3 months to help him recover and get his legs back into shape for throwing. He saw huge gains in a short amount of time and noticed that his legs got their strength back sooner than any other major muscle groups in his body. That track season proved to be a very successful one as he improved all of his personal bests from before his 2 year mission. He attributes some of that success to the gains he was able to make pain free through step ups. I recently did some squats to see how they would feel for my body. While doing them I noticed that I had reduced pain, and I felt more stabilized while performing the lift and was able to lift a big amount for me. I have concluded that implementing step ups into my program has not only helped my over all body strength but has also helped me gain the leg strength I need without causing pain. I also feel that doing both step ups and squats in the same program is beneficial and both lifts can help the other have gains. I have seen gains in my overall lifting strength especially in such lifts as snatch and cleans and I have seen gains in my throwing distances.
"Barbell Step-up." ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Net. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.
OverSpeed 2002. "OverSpeedTraining - Articles: Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets." OverSpeed Training. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.
Spassov, By Angel. "The Step-up : a Real Squat Alternative? - Straight to the Bar." Straight to the Bar. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.