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Nov 042015

Step Training

Some notes for beginners by Shaun Brassfield-Thorpe

1) Height of Step

This can be varied at different times during training but it is best to start fairly low and later (in subsequent sessions) to increase in height to add intensity (the higher the step, the harder work it is).

Rather than give an exact height I will try and explain this in relation to the body.

With an activity such as running, the highest one actually wishes to bring the knee is to form a right angle i.e. the knee pointing straight out from the body. This would be equivalent to running at considerable speed and represents a greater range of movement than would be employed by a long-distance runner (if you look at a sprinter you will realise they raise their knees higher than a marathon runner etc). While one may take the knee higher for the purposes of stretching etc it would be counter-productive to raise the knee higher than a right angle in actual running as this would mean that some of the motion is going upwards rather than forwards (which represents bad economy) – so applying this to stepping and assuming one is stepping to aid running training etc (not other activities which may employ different body positions) then the maximum useful height for the step would be whatever causes the knee of the front leg to be raised to approximately a right-angle. Above this one may still find stepping useful for overall leg-strength development etc but the motion would be less relevant to running specifically. Naturally the actual max height of a step is thus determined by the height, leg-length, active flexibility and leg-strength of the individual.

Although the comparison is not actually very accurate in some ways it may be useful to think of using a low step as mimicking a slower running pace and a high step as equating to sprinting (this is meant to be a metaphor only but you may see what I mean if you think of the height of the step as fulfiling the same basic function as the length of a stride in running).

In general terms, a step height of maybe 6 inches to 8 inches (15 to 20cms) is fine for either beginning training or for endurance training, although individuals with good flexibility, leg strength and stamina may be able to start higher.

The height can be increased as training continues as one way of increasing intensity without adding duration to the workout.


The other main ways of increasing intensity but not duration are

A) adding XL (Extra Load)


B) increasing pace/cadence


C) Increasing Stride Length

Given that the maximum height will vary between individuals, and bearing in mind that perhaps the best way of assessing this is simply to try differing heights, a “rule of thumb” for selecting a higher stepping height may be to choose a step that is around ones knee-height when standing next to it. Obviously this is only a guide but it may be useful as a baseline.

Altering your stride length (stepping closer to, or further away from, the step) is another way of altering intensity as well as changing the specific range of motion; for cross-training purposes it is therefore often best to select a stride length for stepping that mimics the range of motion involved in your chosen sport/activity and/or vary your stride length in order to cover multiple ranges of motion.

2) Stepping Method

There are numerous (if not an infinite) number of stepping patterns and rhythms one could employ during step training but not all of these are especially useful if one is training for an activity such as running, hill walking etc (e.g. side stepping, turning etc can be very useful in other sports).

When you have become familiar with step training there is really no reason not to create and adapt patterns of your own to keep your training fresh and more interesting but it is probably a good idea to start with something simple that can be repeated easily and more or less indefinitely.

A good basic pattern would be the following :

  • Stand in front of the step at a distance that allows you to step up easily.
  • Step up with one foot (I will start with the right in this description but as the pattern repeats it does not matter which foot you begin with).
  • You now have the right foot on the step and the left foot on the ground.
  • Bring the left foot up onto the step next to the right foot i.e. both feet are on the step.
  • Now step back with the left foot and place it on the ground.
  • You now have the right foot on the step and the left foot on the ground.
  • Bring the right foot onto the ground next to the left foot (as you began).
  • Now step with the left foot.
  • You now have the left foot on the step and the right foot on the ground.
  • Bring the right foot onto the step and place it next to the left foot.
  • You now have both feet on the step.
  • Return the right foot to the ground leaving the left foot on the step.
  • Now bring the right foot to the ground next to the left foot (as you began)
  • Repeat the sequence as above. This pattern (left and right sides as above) counts as 2 steps i.e. 2 x up-and-down with the body.

Here is a simple animation which may make the above description easier to understand

A quick note; as will become rapidly evident, the above stepping pattern is rather different to running. This can actually be an advantage as unlike running where one gets a 1-2 change over on the stride, with this stepping method each leg is forced to work for a longer load-period (1-2-2-1-1-2-2-1- etc), which may make running seem a little easier by comparison.

3) Muscular emphasis during stepping

At this stage there are 3 main possibilities of how you can step using this pattern :

a) using roughly equal emphasis on both the front and rear legs

b) emphasising the front leg to lift the body while the back leg is simply drawn up onto the step

c) emphasing the rear leg to push off the ground to bring the rear leg up onto the step (using less force with the front leg).

All of these are useful and applicable; I would suggest initially not emphasising the action of either leg and just concentrating on the motion of stepping generally. Later, when one has the stepping pattern ingrained and does not need to think about this at all, it can be useful to switch between a few minutes of front-leg emphasis and a few minutes of rear-leg emphasis.

4) Learning to step effectively

Before one considers adding XL, increasing tempo or height etc, one first has to become very familiar with the basic exercise itself.

Do not be tempted to rush things too much, even if the training seems easy. Stepping may highlight weaker areas of your anatomy, especially during the first few sessions of training, but you may not notice the effect while training, you may just feel things over the next day or two.

If you don’t or no longer feel any special effects during or after stepping then it may be time to add XL etc, but if you do it too quickly you may still complete a stepping session perfectly well but leave yourself too stiff or tired for training the next day (which would obviously be undesirable).

If you are warmed-up then the upward phase of stepping can be performed as quickly as is comfortable for you (bear in mind that faster movements will become more tiring with repetition). However, at least for the first few sessions, make a point of stepping down backwards relatively slowly. In reality, the speed of the motion is not the issue, the important point is that you should be stepping off the platform fairly gently and with good control, not allowing your bodyweight to crash downwards which could cause strain on joints and tendons.

A good training method (which also applies to running) is to try to make your steps / footfalls virtually silent. Unless you are using shoes on a wooden floor or similar surface (which will amplify the noise of your steps), if you are producing loud slapping sounds with your feet then you are probably stepping up or down with too much force – which at best wastes energy and at worse can cause strain and impact damage.

In early training especially (but in reality always) try to keep your stepping movement smooth and controlled at all times. If you can step with a fluid action, good posture and good balance then it may be possible to add either speed or height or XL. But if your stepping is jerky, ragged, wobbly or in any way uncontrolled then adding XL, greater height or faster pace would be a very bad idea – very much like “trying to run before you can walk”.

When you begin stepping you will probably find the first few minutes fairly easy. Control your pace at this point rather than speeding up as it can be a long way until the end of the session –  just like activities such as running, pace judgment with stepping is important and you should initially aim to complete a training session at a fairly constant tempo before attempting to try any more advanced methods.

5) Footwear and training surface

You don’t usually need to wear any special footwear for stepping as long as your trainers / shoes etc give adequate support (or one could train barefoot). However it is a good idea, in the early stages at least, to step down onto a surface that isn’t too hard as it may take a little while to learn to step downwards and backwards “softly” while controlling bodyweight (especially with XL).

6) Cadence / Step Rate

At this point do not worry about attempting to set a specific cadence (number of steps / reps per minute etc).

In all probability, this will determine itself through practice at whatever will be your (current) optimal level. However, do try to keep the tempo / cadence constant in early training (later on one may do intervals of faster stepping then slower to recover etc).

While stepping will almost certainly raise your heart rate, increase breath rate and make you hot and sweaty, you should aim not to allow yourself to become out of breath or quickly exhausted, even if this means reducing the work-rate a little.

Becoming exhausted during exercise often leads to a deterioration of form and posture – this should be avoided at all costs.

When a person is acclimatised to an exercise it is then possible for them to push themselves harder while maintaining good from, posture and breath, but it is extremely difficult to keep good form etc when pushing ones limits while trying to learn an exercise.

Get the form right and fitness improvement will follow.

Aim for a harder workout at the expense of good form and you are heading for disaster.

7) Muscular, Cardiovascular and Aerobic Fatigue

Step training can be hard work – which is often why we suggest it. It is a taxing exercise which works the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and places a considerable amount of strain on the core (including the lower back) as well as almost all areas of the legs (quads, calves, hamstrings etc). Exactly where any individual may feel the strain of the exercise will of course depend upon their general fitness levels and also upon any specific training they have or have not undertaken previously.

For example, a runner who is used to running on a level track may not feel a huge effect in the legs generally but may feel (during or after stepping) that they have worked their front hip-flexors or lower back a good deal; someone with a history of heavy weight training may not find that stepping requires much strength (e.g. when compared to squats) but may rapidly tire due to the number of repetitions; a person with currently relatively weak leg strength may feel much of the effect in the quads or hamstrings due to the lifting and lowering involved, while another person may simply find the cardiovascular / aerobic effort a challenge – and so on.

In all cases, if muscular strength or cardiovascular or respiratory fitness appears to be limiting performance then the best advice is just to train sensibly e.g. reduce the tempo or pause for a short rest and then continue.

8) Use of XL (Extra Load)

Stepping works very well with XL – but added load should be introduced carefully. This is not only because XL will make the exercise harder / more intense (which is true of any exercise) but also because stepping involves a balance component.

If XL is added more quickly than the body can adapt to the change of balance that this can cause then the person is liable to misjudge or mistime their stepping, especially when stepping backwards.

Care should be taken to ensure that XL does not adversely effect balance (e.g. distribute weight evenly around the body not just placing it on the back – try a mixture of weight vest, holding dumbbells, weighted belt, ankle or wrist weights etc).

Ankle weights are generally fine for use with stepping as this is a relatively low-impact exercise but special care must be taken when stepping off the platform not to allow extra weight (where ever it is carried) to cause feet to crash into the ground. Always try to step lightly and silently.

Also remember that balance is less effected if XL is carried near the centre of gravity (e.g. close to or just above the waist). XL placed high on the back may not greatly effect balance on a flat surface but can cause notable instability when going up or down hill – or in exercises such as stepping.

Carrying light dumbbells can be useful if you want to greatly increase the cardiovascular effects of stepping and/or work the upper body at the same time e.g. try doing dumbbell “biceps curls”, “hammer-curls”, “reverse-curls” or “flies” while stepping. Again, a few minutes is no problem – half an hour is another matter…. but naturally one can do e.g. X-many reps then return to normal stepping just holding the dumbbells, then repeat (and so on).

9) Metabolic effects

Stepping can burn off a lot of calories both during and after exercise (through raised metabolic rate). Adding XL obviously enhances this aspect even more. While naturally the effects will vary with the individual (due to not only bodyweight but body composition, basal metabolic rate etc etc) stepping is one of the more demanding forms of cardiovascular exercise e.g. a person weighing 10st / 140lbs / 56kg who uses a step 12 inches / 30cms in height and steps at a rate of 30 steps per minute (defining one complete step cycle as being 1 up-and-down rep of the pattern for stepping given above) will typically burn off an average of 150 calories (gross) per 15 mins or 600 calories per hr. Naturally, increasing the height of the step, the number of steps per minute and/or adding XL increases this effect (often very considerably).

10) Posture

Aside from simply keeping good balance it is important to retain good overall posture when stepping (although this is true of any form of exercise).

Many people will find that when stepping they may have a tendency to lean forward as they raise their front leg onto the step. Try to avoid or at least minimise this and instead try to keep the core and trunk as naturally upright as possible. Don’t over do this (you don’t have to pretend you have an iron rod through your body) but do make a point of holding your spine in a natural, good alignment; you should be virtually as “upright” when stepping as you are when standing, walking or running.

Leaning excessively forward places additional strain on the core, including the lower back, and this is undesirable in this form of repetitive exercise. In addition, a forward lean can cause minor compression of the lungs and heart; while not in itself “serious” this typically has an adverse effect on the use of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and “leaning” in this way should be avoided. While “leaning” is perhaps more of a natural tendency when stepping, it is worth remembering that good running or walking form also requires a relatively upright position and that all leaning should come from the ankle NOT the hip.

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