Step Down

Stephen Holt, Timonium personal trainer

Millions of readers of national fitness magazines including Shape, Women's Health, Fitness. Woman's Day, Family Circle, Runner's World, (and many others) have made their exercise programs both more effective AND more efficient with fitness and nutrition advice from "America's Baby Boomer Expert," Stephen Holt.

The Step Down is an exercise you can do virtually anywhere — with the appropriate equipment.

Back when I was 9 or 10 years old (yes, a looooong time ago, smart a*s), I used to turn an old, sturdy (or so I thought) metal trash can upside down and use it for Step Downs.

Unfortunately, after months and months of trouble-free sets, the metal trash can collapsed mid-set and my knee crashed down into the seam where the trash can had ripped. My first ER trip. You can still see the scar on my left knee.

(That’s only my second longest visible injury. Ask me about my tongue some day.)

Be smarter than a 10-year-old and use something guaranteed to be safe — like an actual step, for example, if you choose to do these at home.

Keep in mind that if you’re stuck with just a step (as in a stair step, that is), your average step is only 8″ high. If you’re starting at 8″, eventually you’ll need something bigger to satisfy you. [Insert your own personal joke here]

Here’s How You Do It

Yes, I sometimes show less than optimal form (no offense to our assistant, an ACSM-certified trainer) to show we all have issues we need to work on or work around.

Do you see her right knee wiggle a little? Don’t do that! The key is to track your knee over the middle of your foot. If you can’t control the wiggle, stop doing this exercise and focus more on lower body stabilization exercises. (if you want examples, just let me know.)

Even though the Don’t-Let-Your-Knee-EVER-Go-Past-Your-Foot thing is grossly overrated, you’ll be far more comfortable in this particular exercise if you step slightly backward (with your left foot in the video example above).

The key here is to lightly tap the floor with your left heel so that all the work is done by your right leg. If you bring your left foot flat to the floor, the tendency is to push off with that foot to get back up.

As we remind our clients all the time, you don’t get any bonus points for staying on one leg the entire set. You’ll do better quality work by tapping down (your left foot in the video example) on top with every rep.

As for the height of the step, most of our clients start with 8 inches and progress up to 12-14 inches for the taller clients, or even 16 inches for the extra-athletic clients. The higher the step, the more you have to use your glutes (that’s good), but the harder it is to control. Always choose control over height!

I go with the 24 inch plyo box myself, but I’m a fancy-pants former Olympic Bobsled Trials competitor (bet you didn’t know that). Choose a height that’s challenging yet knee-friendly and appropriate for YOUR strength and conditioning level. Self-to-self comparison is all that really matters. There are no “leader boards” with us.

Although this looks like just a lower body exercise, true control involves controlling your upper body through your core. “Dancing” arms, as I like to call them — or “Danger Will Robinson” for clients closer to my age — is a sign of poor core control. Lower the step, place your hands on your hips (or comfortably clasped in front, as in the video) to train your core to handle this exercise.

The Step Down should be one of the staples of the 1-Leg Quad Dominant section of your 3-4-5 Total Body Fitness Matrix. If you struggle with this exercise at all, go back and work on your knee, hip and core stabilization until you can do the Step Down with aplomb.


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