A lot of confusion exists in the fields of strength and conditioning and physical therapy about single leg exercises. In fact we just had a well timed forum question on the StrengthCoach.com forums about using step-ups. I've written extensively in my all three of my books about single leg exercises and single leg progressions but, sometimes things are worth repeating. I often see the terms step-up, step down and 1 leg squat used almost interchangeably in the literature. I also think many coaches think these three exercises are similar. The truth is that all three share similar movement patterns yet the three are distinctly different. Lets look at all three:
Conventional Step up
Step Up- step-ups can be a great explosive exercise
but, in my mind are a bad choice as a strength exercise. However, for some reason they remain popular. I think the reason they stay popular is that they are an easy exercise to cheat on. For most people step-ups are a true combination exercise. In fact they are usually a combination of the extensors of the working leg and the calf of the non-working leg. The bottom line for me is that step-ups are hard to do well and easy to do poorly. That makes them a really poor choice in my book.
In addition, step ups have another huge drawback. A step up begins with an almost pure concentric contraction. In that way they are similar to chinups. For athletes with knee problems, particularly patella-femoral issues, step-ups can be an uncomfortable exercise that can cause problems. Without the preceding eccentric component ( starting in extension loaded by gravity) found in most squatting exercises the knee can experience some discomfort that could other wise be avoided.
Often athletes with patella-femoral pain will find one leg squats or step downs relatively comfortable but will get pain with step-ups. Remember, step-ups begin in flexion with little to no eccentric load. Imagining asking someone with bad shoulders to bench press off the pins of a power rack. I think anyone with shoulder issues would cringe. There is a clear benefit to eccentric preloads when it comes to the patella femoral joint.
Step Down- the step down is actually not a step down at all but rather a limited range one leg squat.
This is another example of the poor terminology we are often saddled with in our industry. I like step downs as they are an excellent progression to a one leg squat. What I don't like is the name.
The key difference between a
The key to patella-femoral health may be that the preceding eccentric contraction allows the patella to sit properly in the trochlear groove. The step down is most often done from a low box (12") to a heel touch or a toe touch. The step down is an excellent way to begin to develop both lower body strength and femoral control but as mentioned above is simply a deliberately range limited one leg squat.
One Leg Squat- the one leg squat is the king of single leg exercises and the gold standard in rehab. In a one leg squat the body is now unsupported and the range can be as large as tolerated.
The Pistol Squat is a popular internet version that I am not a fan of. In the
The key is to realize that these exercises, although seemingly similar, have some significant differentiating points. Think of Step Ups as an exercise to be used sparingly and, with healthy athletes. Think of the Step Down as a rehab progression into a One Leg Squat. I hope you can take a minute and try them for yourself.