Squats and step ups are commonly used within the same lower body routine, and even sometimes interchangeably. However, the context in which we would incorporate a squat or a step up in our routine might change based on our goals and our abilities.
So, what are the differences between the step ups and the squats? Step ups are a simply lower body option for those with non weight room goals or limited abilities who seek to improve baseline strength, while squats are a better option for those who want to build total body strength and lower body mobility to do so.
If I had to choose one, the squats would be fundamental to my lower body routine, while the step ups would make an appearance in key situations.
Additional context might help you decide which is best for you. So, in this article I will cover:
- Why the squat is the most effective in building total body musculature
- Why the step ups can be effective for novices or those with physical limitations
- Tips on how to perform each exercise
- The muscles used for each exercise
- The pros and cons of each movement
Step Ups vs Squats: An Overview
Strengthening the lower body is key for any population, whether it be your average gym goer or someone seeking to enhance peak performance. Strong legs and a posterior chain have great carry over to daily tasks and compound movements like deadlifts or power cleans.
Lower body movements are fundamental to a well rounded program. While squats are the most fundamental exercise, some aren’t able to do it due to lack of motivation or mobility. Therefore an alternative such as the step up can be beneficial to take the place of the squat in your lower body programming.
Step ups are a simpler lower body movement that can be used to target the quads, glutes, and hamstrings at a much lower intensity, when compared to other lower body movements.
Novices can benefit from step ups due to the lower level of difficulty, while targeting key muscle groups such as the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. These muscles are important to strengthen as they are active during daily activities such as walking, running, and picking up heavy objects off the ground.
Step ups can be a great option especially if you are trying to save energy for outside of the gym activities as it isn’t as fatiguing when loading up as squats might be.
There is also a balance component involved as we generate force through the single leg that is leading the movement into the apex of the step up.
Moreover, unilateral (one-sided) movement is important to implement into any program as it gives additional attention to each side ensuring imbalances don’t occur. Practicing balance is important as well by strengthening the muscles that help keep you upright.
Furthermore, if we are coming back from any type of hip, knee, or lower back injury, then step ups are a great alternative in building and maintaining lower body strength, as it does put less stress on these joints and the lower back.
Squats are a lower body compound movement that target the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and erectors, while promoting total body strength and muscular development.
Everyone can benefit from adding a squat into their program, but as it is more complicated, it requires greater motivation and learning to become proficient.
Becoming proficient in the squat can lead to an improvement in hip and ankle mobility, which can be beneficial for injury prevention and overall muscular health.
Unlike other movements, the squat can be loaded to a great degree as a compound lift that targets the legs while loading the posterior chain.
A strong posterior chain can be great for sports such as football, baseball, and track or a variety of lifting activities such as powerlifting, olympic lifting, crossfit, and even bodybuilding.
Consequently, additional benefits are a higher caloric expenditure due to the capacity at which we can load and move through a squat pattern. Therefore, while aiming to lose weight, the implementation of a squat can expedite the rate in which you shed weight.
Step Ups vs Squats: Pros vs Cons
Step Ups Pros
- Compared to other lower body movements, step ups are a much easier option. Novices can benefit from any sort of movement, and often we need to start them with something easy such as a step up. Even though step ups might be simple, difficulty can be increased via dumbbells or barbells as well.
- Step ups can be done anywhere. Available equipment can often create obstacles in our training, this is why step ups are a great option. All you need is an elevated surface to step on to effectively do a step up.
- Step ups can be progressed easily. As mentioned earlier, step ups can be loaded up in a variety of ways. Bands, dumbbells, barbells, or even medicine balls can be used to enhance the difficulty of this exercise.
- Step ups can help increase balance. Just like general strength, the muscles involved in balance are important to strengthen as well. Balance is a key in athleticism and daily tasks by being able to maintain posture in a variety of positions.
- Step ups improve unilateral strength. Focusing on single legged strength can help even out imbalances that occur from bilateral or two legged movements.
Step Ups Cons
- Step ups move through less range of motion. Less range of motion means that the quads, hamstrings, and glutes are activated to a much less degree than other exercises such as a lunge or split squat.
- Progress can be limited with step ups. As simple as the step up is, there is a very limited amount of progress that can be made with the step up. Therefore a variety of other lower body exercises should be implemented to ensure robust development towards your goals.
- Lower absolute loads due to less muscular involvement. When compared to the squat, the step up has a lower threshold for increasing absolute strength due to limited involvement of the glutes, hamstrings, and posterior chain.
- Squats are a great mobility exercise. The squat isn’t a strength activity alone, it can be fundamental in building hip and ankle mobility. This alone can make the squat great for injury prevention or coming back from an injury.
- Squats are fundamental to total body muscular development. As the loading of this movement is on the back, there is a lot of stress placed on the entire body, which can be great for building muscle as a novice or an intermediate lifter.
- Squats can be loaded to a great degree. Compared to other lower body exercises the squat can be loaded much more as it is drawing from the posterior chain and both of the legs.
- There are plenty of variations to choose from when it comes to the squat. Variations such as front squats, SSB squats, Bulgarian split squats, high bar squats, low bar squats, and many more are options that you have to choose from when programming.
- Great for strength or building muscle. Depending on your phase of training, squats can be incorporated in a way to either build muscle through higher rep ranges or strength with lower rep ranges.
- Squats are typically done with both legs. This isn’t the obvious con of the movement but when movements are done bilaterally imbalances are more likely to occur. To combat imbalances, you should implement more single legged work such as split squats or lunges.
- Squats can place pressure on the lower back. This is a common complaint of people who do squats, a way around this is to find a variation such as the front squat or split squat in which the low back is less compromised.
- Squats are complex and can be challenging to learn. The number of squat tutorials you’ll find on youtube are endless and it isn’t without reason. This exercise can be challenging to learn, especially when you get to heavier weights.
Step Ups vs Squats: Muscles Used
Step ups prioritize the quads while targeting the hamstrings and glutes as supporting muscles. Squats will target all the same muscles to a greater degree while targeting the erectors as well.
Step Ups vs Squats: Incorporating Variation
When deciding whether to incorporate step ups or squats, you would need to decide which variation is most appropriate to implement.
Step ups: Variations
Barbell Step Ups
When compared to other variations, barbell step ups can be loaded the most. I would most likely recommend this variation as an alternative when you absolutely cannot squat.
Banded Step Ups
This variation requires greater explosive ability as to overcoming the elastic resistance of the band. Absolute loading is quite low here which makes this an excellent alternative alongside squatting to increase rate of force development.
Lateral Step Ups
This would be the best selection when coming back from injury as it places a majority of the movement close to the midline, while challenging hip and ankle mobility with effective loading of the quads and glutes.
While traditional squats target the posterior chain, front squats will load the anterior chain or front of the body, which places greater emphasis on the quads and stabilization of the core. This can be a great addition to your program as it challenges your ability to maintain proper posture during the squatting movement.
Safety Squat Bar
Implementing a safety squat bar variation will challenge you to maintain a more upright position while building tension in the muscles of the back without the use of the bar. The safety squat bar can be great if you have shoulder mobility issues, and therefore placing less stress on the elbows and shoulders as well.
The goblet squat is a good place to start with if you've never squatted before. Also, you can incorporate goblet squats alongside your regular squatting to further enhance your technical abilities. Tempo reps can even further help with practice for getting comfortable with the different positions of a squat.
Step Ups vs Squats: How To Perform
How To Do The Step Ups?
- Stand in front of an 8 inch box with your feet at least hip to shoulder width apart.
- Lean your torso forward as you place your whole foot onto the box in front of you.
- Load the leg on the box as you forcefully drive your opposite knee up into the air until your thigh is parallel to the ground.
- Control your driving leg back towards the ground to return to the starting position.
- Repeat these steps for all subsequent reps on both sides of the body.
How To Do The Squats?
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you drive the weight of the bar into your traps.
- Take a big breath through your chest and bare down through your ribs to produce a “brace”.
- Stand up with the bar by focusing on hip extension.
- Take three precise steps backwards to get into your feet shoulder width apart as to assume the starting position.
- Take another breath through your chest to build a brace, and build tension by squeezing the hips and shoulder blades.
- Initiate the rep by sitting back with your hips and letting the knees travel over the second and third toe.
- Sit back until the thighs are slightly past parallel to the ground.
- Drive through your hips and quads and stand up with the bar to complete the repetition.
- Repeat bracing and subsequent steps for the following repetitions.
Which Exercise Is Best For You?
When To Use The Step Ups?
- You want to limit the amount of fatigue from your lower body days.
- You are returning from a hip, knee, or back injury.
- You want to improve single legged strength.
- Your goal is to increase the balance in a single leg.
When To Use The Squats?
- You want to strengthen the lower body and the posterior chain.
- You are a powerlifter and have to squat, as it is one of the big three.
- You are a sports athlete or are involved in a competitive lifting activity, as the squat is the best exercise for improving performance across the bar.
- You want to promote total body muscular development.
- You want to challenge yourself, as this exercise requires some skill in execution.
When To Use Both?
- You want to increase both unilateral and bilateral strength.
- You want to increase explosive ability in the lower body.
- You have extra time at the gym.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Step Ups Better Than Squats?
Step ups improve unilateral strength and hip extensors while avoiding pain points such as the lower back or knee, which can make the step up a more effective option over the squat. But if your goal is to improve max strength, the squat is a better choice.
Step Ups vs Squats For Glutes: Which Should You Do?
Squats will get more engagement of all the muscles, while step ups can get some sort of activation as well. If you have a higher ability as a lifter, then I would recommend squats over the step ups, as it targets the glutes the most. However, if you are just starting out step ups can be a valuable option to consider as well.
Other Squat Comparison Articles
- Box Squat vs Back Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Olympic Squat vs Powerlifting Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Zercher Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Goblet Squat vs Front Squat: Form, Benefits, Differences
- Leg Press vs Squat: Why You DON’T Need To Do Both
- Bulgarian Split Squat vs Lunge: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Anderson Squat vs Pin Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Squats Vs Sumo Squats: Pros, Cons, and Differences
While I wouldn’t prefer to program step ups for my clients, whether injured or avoiding fatigue, there are circumstances that make step ups a great option for them to make progress. Even so, step ups can be done anywhere and be loaded in a variety of different ways from bands, barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebell variations.
In contrast, I have never gone without squatting in my program, and neither have my clients, this is because they are the most effective lower body exercise that should be done by everyone. If i had to choose between the two, squats would be the best option of lower body routine.
About The Author
Javad Bakhshinejad was born and raised in the Washington Area. Currently, he is a student at Seattle University where he’s been pursuing an MS in Kinesiology, and has been a Strength Coach in the athletic department. He was a competitive bodybuilder for 8 years where he later transitioned to competitive powerlifting for 4 years. Currently, He has his own personal coaching business, where he works with powerlifters and bodybuilders.