For a change, I figured this time I'd let you read an article post without deleting all my added crap.
Note: There was a period of time, not too long ago, when the Step-Up was being given all sorts of credit for all manner of things lifting. Pardon? Yep and yup, them step-ups were being hailed by experts for a while back there as better than, more effective than and safer than squats for athletes and other seekers of the coveted cereal box contract. The whole thing came and went and came again in the form of a spike in the popularity, no, the necessity of single leg training, with the "bilateral deficit" debate tacked on to give the appearance of innovation. This stuff happens. And still does! Not to worry, though. One arm dumbbell curls? Are you mad, my good man? Barbell curls are soooo much better. They weren't any sillier back then than people now. A large number of folks in the lifting community are still falling head-over-heels for the latest, greatest innovation to come down the pike. And there, my friends, is one of the strangest things about history. It comes with its own eraser designed with humans in mind!
But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, Buddy! Same story here as the one that went along with isometric contraction work. Man, if you could just put lessons learned from lifting history in a vial and inject people in the butt with it, eh. Nonetheless, Step-Ups are still a damn fine exercise. I danced with 'em a few decades ago in a very serious and determined manner a couple-two times per yer week for about a year. Even had a sweet little deal worked out with one of my patented Rectangular Multi-Purpose Incredibly Strong Boxes (stolen from various construction sites). Those things are still on my favorites list when it comes to two-bit gear I use. Personally, I prefer training on garbage. Dirty, worn down, bent, rusted out trash. It's like lookin' in a mirror, Baby! To each his own. It takes all kinds and too many of some. Where there's a will there's a dead guy.
That baby with the bathwater thing. I've been working on the patent for an invention that might make me rich and infamous later in time. It's dependent on human population growth getting way, way out of control, along with a marked shortage in food, water, breathable air and all those other incidentals we currently don't give a shit about. Okay . . . for the first time I'm making it public . . .
The Industrial Grade Mass Baby Smasher!
This thing's sure to change the course of human history, I figure.
Depending on how we behave down the line.
The Industrial Grade Mass Baby Smasher!
This thing's sure to change the course of human history, I figure.
Depending on how we behave down the line.
Ahem and Harumpah, continuing on. A rectangle, of course, has a long side and a short side. I would place the box in the "high side" position, take a barbell off the squat racks, get set up in front of the box and proceed to do alternating leg step-ups. When I was close to toast, I'd kick the box over onto the "lower side" position and continue on doing them craaaaazy step-ups. The cows would come home not long after; I'd re-rack the bar, rest with some desperate breaths . . . and then do it again. Bro. Worked out real well, too. But I was also squatting at the time, not replacing the Trusty Squat with the Secondary Step-Up. You've probably seen some of Bruce Lee's training journal pages. They're all over the place online. I love the way he wrote "Squats: To Infinity." Yep, that was the set/rep scheme. Now, this shows his personal Eastern spiritual influences. Had he, had Lee been instead born a Westerner, let's say reborn and raised as the son of an Idaho farmer, the training log would've read "Squats: Till the Cows Come Home." But I'm sure the intensity would've been identical. That's en-ter-tain-ment, as they say. And I do enjoy it. A far cry from the run-of-the-mill lifting dross often prone to boring one to suicide. You know the schtuff, I'm sure. Especially some of the forum nonsense. "My barbell won't fit through the front door. Should I superset the hinges or go with kettlebells?" I kid you not! Scraping beneath the bottom of the barrel for participants at times it would seem. Comment sections anywhere on any topic are always a joy to read. "Your ideas are of little interest to me and your sexual orientation is suspect!" They can get so nasty. And the language!
I figure in a couple more years when I'm 70 or so, and maybe if my knees are starting to get too hot, I'll bring back step-ups on a regular basis. Until then, though, at this time and for my needs The Squat Is Impossible To Top. He said emphatically. I said emphatically, Soldier! You can do all sorts of cool things with the Step-Up. Train it all sorts of different foolish yet wondrous ways. There's no one "right" way. I've seen some real wrong ways to use an exercise, but this one's got a pretty wide variation span when it comes to various intensity techniques. So, it's not just a strength-training movement exercise lift thing. If you're a bodybuilder, enjoy the huge array of training variations strength trainers and other lifters of the intellectual Luddite persuasion will never experience, and apply all the usual methods, ignoring those few that are suspect. Possibly dangerous. Superset with. Tri-set. Rest pause. Pyramid. High reps. As many reps as possible in a chosen time frame. Working down in reps to a sweet-n-sweaty heavy poundage. Slow controlled step-ups. Step-ups done dynamically in a room with a real low ceiling. Did I mention football helmet with Velcro patch firmly fastened to its toppermost section. Apply similar in like fashion to ceiling. Once you're stuck up there start running. It's like a weightless treadmill! No matter. No reason you should ever go stale with these babies. The spaced quadruple repeat of a select word or phrase in writing, Bra. Taken from the ancients.
Before I forget it and regret it . . . a right-leg only step-up supersetted with a regular two legged squat is quite something. You do right-leg only step-ups till that leg's crapped out, then rack the bar, put a heavier (but not all that much, you'll find) bar on your back and do two-legged squats. Rest, and follow with left-leg only step-ups supersetted with more of the regular two-legged squats. Something weird happens. Once you go to the two-legged squats the fatigued leg seems to have more strength again real fast and it continues to put out real nice. White labcoats tested this out on a group of mice that had been given desiccated liver and they had 50% less dandruff than mice in the group that didn't brush their feet with Pestodent. Assholes. And I don't mean the mice. Hey, what is this stuff. Is this a personal blog with opinions or is it just a mass of free lifting stuff not available elsewhere online being offered to complete strangers at cost to the people behind it. And then dragged over to for-profit sites to boot! Sweet!!! I don't care, honestly. Use it all for whatever you choose. Hell, print it out and use it for toilet paper. It's not meant to be some kind of historical archive. Really. I just get a kick outta sharing things I find interesting. And voicing my deficient, dysfunctional opinions with occasional humor at less than tepid levels as my mind gradually deteriorates into the gift of dementia.
Anyhow . . . onward, upward, and outward. Rising, falling, ho-hum hovering.
Now, where were we?
And now . . . on to the article . . . "Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets" from 1989.
"How Did the Bulgarian Weightlifters Shatter World Records -- Without Squats?"
Intro by Terry Todd:
I first met Angel Spassov in 1984, when I was in Vittoria, Spain to do a story for Sports Illustrated on the teenage lifting phenomenon from Bulgaria, Naim Suleimanov, from Bulgaria. Suleimanov was there to represent the Bulgarian team in the European Championships and Professor Spassov (Professor of Power Training at the Bulgarian Higher Institute for Physical Education and Sport Education in Sofia, Bulgaria) was there as one of the team's national coaches.
Spassov spoke English and so he was my primary interpreter in Spain. Also, when I spent a week of so in Bulgaria, he continued to help me understand the country and the amazing athletes on the lifting team. In the course of many long conversations, we became friends. I saw Angel later in 1984 in Los Angeles before the Olympic Games, and I took him to Gold's Gym and down to Venice Beach. Recently, it was my good fortune to spend several days with him in Denver at the annual convention of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Later, in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Angel and I decided to write an article for a mainstream weight-training magazine; and we chose Muscle & Fitness because we wanted our article to have the widest possible circulation, as well as paying enough to cover all those drinks in L.A.
The article deals with a form of leg training currently in use in Bulgaria and Eastern bloc countries. Although the exercises we describe were primarily designed to increase strength and power, they might be of considerable benefit to those of you who would like to increase the size, shape and definition of your thighs and hips.
Almost a decade ago, a retired Soviet hammer thrower came to the conclusion that traditional forms of squatting were not the best way to strengthen the muscles of the thighs and hips. Many in the Soviet Union considered this heresy, as The Squat was the King of Leg Training in that country, just as it was, and still is, in the U.S.A.
Ten years ago, the full squat was the foundation of the exercise programs for almost all elite athletes in the Soviet Bloc nations, whether they were weightlifters or not. Soviet athletes -- be they wrestlers, runners, fencers, soccer players or swimmers -- all squatted. But because the retired hammer thrower had won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games and because he was a respected graduate of the Central Institute for Physical Education and Sport in Moscow, his opinions were taken seriously.
His name: Anatoly Bondarchuk. This is where there should be some form of intensity-increasing music effect. Maybe that Clunk-Clunk from Law & Order. "The Clang!" Something like that.
Try it . . .
His name: Anatoly Bondarchuk.
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:
1) produce greater gains in thigh and hip power; and
2) cause fewer injuries.
Bondarchuk does his research and coaching in Kiev. His fellow Soviet coaches and sports scientists were skeptical about his conclusions. However, as time passed and he was able to convince a few athletes and coaches in a variety of sports to drop squats from their routines and adopt the high step-up, it became clear that he had made a significant breakthrough. Many of the athletes using his "new" exercise began to make gains in power that were well beyond what they had made using only the squat.
We qualify the word "new" because, in one form or another, the step-up has a fairly long history herstory it'sstory. A review of dozens of pre-1900 books in the Physical Culture Library at the University of Texas revealed that the step-up was commonly practiced before the turn of the century. In fact, Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, who was for years the directer of physical training at Harvard University, used a form of the step-up as he was devising one of the first known methods of cardiorespiratory training. Sargent's method, first used over 80 years ago, is called the Harvard Step-Up Test. It involves stepping up, at a timed pace, onto a bench or chair approximately 20 inches high for a set period of time and checking the pulse rate at predetermined intervals.
A short yet wondrous presentation on Sargent by Aaron Kaiser is Here:
This guy, this Sargent, did one helluva lot for weight lifting.
You should know about him. Or not.
But the step-up was also used to strengthen and develop the hips and thighs. As weight training grew in popularity in the 1920s and '30s, the step-up with extra weight began to appear in books and magazines of that era. However, the squat with added weight was also given an enormous boost in America during this same era thanks to several crucial factors:
1) The wonderful lifting of the young German immigrant "Milo" Steinborn, who could do a full squat with more than 500 pounds.
2) The publicity given to Milo's world-record-breaking abilities in weight lifting; and
3) The career of Joseph Curtis Hise, who not only gained a great deal of strength and muscle size with high rep squats, but also had the ability to fill other bodybuilders with enthusiasm for this arduous but effective form of training.
Absolutely! Hise, along with Charles A. Smith, make up the two man army of my all time favorite muscle writers. Yes, true elite authors who at times limited themselves to lines written on the pursuit of might and brawn. Of course, in the case of both these personal faves, there was much more inserted into each article. Hise, especially, used his notoriety and publishing opportunities to further his own secondary cause . . . that of realizing a strange deaf-eared and blind-eyed quality among the majority when it comes to looking over the self-imposed wall of ignorance we choose to build around ourselves. Had Hise, and Smith as well for that matter, existed in the digital, all hands on internet era, I doubt they would've lived as long as they did. How do you spell suicide, anyhow. I know there's a rope in there somewhere.
When the Eastern European nations, led by the Soviet Union, began to assert themselves athletically after World War II, one cornerstone of their success was The Squat.
-- Before I forget . . . "An Intimate History of Killing" by Joanna Burke. Great book I'm currently reading. Deals with the kill experience of soldering in the three great wars of the last century, WW I, WW II and Vietnam. The main thrust of the text aims at delving into the rarely considered "dark"underbelly of pleasure we as humans derive from killing in the agentic soldier state, and how this pleasure rarely speaks its name upon return to the homeland. Includes letters from men and women from many countries, prose, conversations and poetry written on the topic, as well as analysis, examination and discussion of the act of sanctioned killing and the excitement, incomparable joy and existential release it brought a large percentage of 20th Century warriors involved. Excellent book by an accomplished author of several fine books.
First chapter excerpt Here:
Samuel Wilson Fussell's father Paul has a mention in there, and one of his books is in the bibliography, if you have an overwhelming need to believe there's any coherence or a thread of connection going on up there. You tiresome musclehead.
For a time, they turned to the West, particularly the United States, for training theory; but as the years passed and they developed their own coaches and sports scientists, they began to rely more and more on their own research. It was this tradition of self-reliant research that led Anatoly Bondarchuk (Law & Order Clang optional here) to challenge the supremacy of the squat.
One thing Bondarchuk concluded was that the heavy back squat was potentially dangerous to the structure of the lower back. In fact, according to his studies, it can be demonstrated that the back squat places a load on the structure of the lower back that -- in the bottom position -- is at least twice as heavy as the load on the bar.
In other words, if you are lifting 300 pounds in the full squat, your lower back is stressed to an amount equaling at least 600 pounds, usually more. The actual amount depends on the speed of descent and ascent. The faster you descend and the faster you reverse the direction and begin to arise from the bottom, the greater the load on the lower back and, according to Bondarchuk, the greater the chance of injury.
Bondarchuk also noticed that athletes who were pushing for those few extra reps on a set of squats almost always sank an extra inch or so at the bottom in order to get a bit of "bounce" to push them through the sticking point of the exercise. For this reason, and because he observed that in no sport did the athlete ever find himself in the full-squat position. Bondarchuk concluded that it would be safer to use a form of weighted step-up.
When he began his research, he was unsure of several things. He wasn't sure how high the bench or box onto which the athlete would step should be. As he began to experiment with different heights, he soon realized that he could achieve complete development of the thighs and hips by using varying bench heights, depending on the needs of the individual athlete. Being well-schooled in anatomy and physiology, he understood that the higher the bench, the more stress would be placed on the hamstring muscles. You know this . . . higher box height can be considered in the same way lower squat depth is. Conversely, he understood that a lower box would result in more work being required of the quadriceps muscles.
Finally, he concluded that the ideal position generally occurred when the athlete was standing on the toes of one foot with the other foot flat on the bench and the top of the raised thigh parallel to the floor. If, however, the athlete was weak in the hamstring area, he should use a slightly higher bench. 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. If that ratio is maintained, the chance of injury increases while the chance of maximum performance decreases.
Bondarchuk agrees with Aura's figures and uses a form of the leg curl and leg extension to determine the relative strength of those two muscle groups. If he finds the quadriceps to be too strong, he will instruct that athlete to 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.
Obviously, since an athlete cannot do a high step-up with even 50% of the weight he can use in the full squat, the problem of the "double loading" stress on the lower back is greatly reduced. The lower back experiences far less stress when an athlete does a high step-up with 100 pounds than when he does a squat with 300, assuming that both of these lifts are maximum efforts. Also, since it would be impossible for the athlete to "bounce" out of the bottom position in the high step-up, this exercise completely eliminates the problem of the bounce. This is an important consideration since the complete full squat, especially when done with a "bounce," is potentially harmful to the structure of the knee.
How It's Done
The high step-up starts out similar to the regular squat. The weight is placed on a squat rack and racked across the back. But then things are different. Before squatting, you would normally step backward, but with the high step-up you move forward, toward the box onto which you will step. Be careful as you position yourself for the step-up. You may need to construct a box if you can't find a bench of the proper height. And don't forget that you can use pieces of plywood under your feet to change the height range of the step-up if the bench or box is a bit too tall, or if you want to experience exercising this movement with a greater number of small height variations. You should also be careful to keep your shoulders more or less over your hips as you step up onto the box or bench. Don't bend forward at the waist in order to do the step-up. Also, slightly bend the knee of the leg onto which you lower yourself. It takes some of the shock out of the descent and is a bit safer.
Several years ago the Bulgarian weightlifting team began to drop all back squatting in favor of the high step-up. By that time, many Soviet lifters had abandoned squats and made higher lifts in the snatch and clean and jerk than ever before. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this involves the career of Leonid Taranenko, the current holder of the world record in the clean and jerk in the super-heavyweight class. Taranenko has done a 586-pound clean and jerk. Think of it! Almost 600 pounds lifted from the floor to full arms' length overhead and his neighbors couldn't care less. Until they have to move a fridge or piano up to the fifth floor.
But to many longtime lifters in this country, it is perhaps even more amazing that it has been at least four years since Taranenko has done a back squat of any kind. 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. Heavy weights.
His best in this exercise is 396 pounds for a triple with each leg.
Taranenko's coach, Ivan Loginovich, one of the foremost trainers in the Soviet Union and star of the 1970 film One Day in the Life of Ivan Loginovich, was one of the coaches who worked with with Bondarchuk to perfect the high step-up and use it as a replacement for the back squat, and one of the proofs found in this particular pudding is Taranenko's many world records. Hey Hey Hey! Ouch. That phrase brings bile to the back of the throat now. Best go with an unrelated joke. Help! I'm trapped in a horse costume at the track and little men keep whipping me! The food's not bad, though, and I'm putting on all sorts of muscle mass thanks to the drugs they keep giving me.
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. Bodybuilders take note. 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. So bodybuilders, who often have a desire to possess legs with the musculature of a sprinter if viewed in a fun house mirror should take note. Apparently, the balance required in the high step-up calls more muscles into play producing fuller, shapelier development.
Working Them In
As far as how to work the exercise into your training routine, one way would be to simply eliminate squats and replace them with the high step-up, using the same sets and reps and handling as much weight as you could in the step-up. Another way, if you have a desire to push your strength levels up several notches, would be to do the high step-ups as the Bulgarian National liftinG teaM does them, which is as follows (assuming that the athlete can do a maximum of two reps in the high step-up with 170 pounds:
1 x 8-10 reps with no weight
45 x 6
110 x 3
132 x 3
150 x 3
160 x 3 x 3 sets
135 x 6 x 3 sets
115 to failure.
The Bulgarian team uses the pulse rate to let them know how far to take the sets.
They believe that each of the moderate to heavy sets should produce a pulse rate 162-180 beats per minute. The lifter doesn't begin his next set until his pulse has dropped to between 102 and 108. That's interesting, isn't it. There's things that this could be applied to. The metabolic ramifications of exercise pulse rate and muscular weight gain in previously trained white mice not using anabolic drugs and all that.
The Bulgarian team does virtually this same workout five or six days a week, along with quite a lot of other leg work that goes with the snatch and the clean and jerk and injecting steroids to increase recovery ability and expand capacity to train long and hard and come back and do it again right quick. As they don't say.
If these low repetitions don't appeal to you and you'd like to stick with a more traditional approach for step-ups, you might simply do several sets of progressively heavier warmup sets, go to 3 heavy sets of 6 reps, and finish off with 3 lighter sets to failure, aiming for 15-20 reps per set. Whew, that oughta do it. And if that doesn't give you a super pump, you need to have your oil checked!
If you do adopt either of these routines, we suggest you drop all other heavy lower body exercises such as leg presses, front squats, and hack squats. You could continue with leg extensions and leg curls, and of course with calf work, but you should be careful not to overwork.
The trick in all exercise programs is to do enough to stress the muscles so that they become larger and stronger, but not so much that they can't recover in time for the next heavy session. Give this result producing exercise a try. It has literally worked wonders with the strength and power athletes in Eastern Europe, and with their bodybuilders as well, most of whom swear by the high step-up.
Make no mistake, squats are a wonderful, effective exercise, but perhaps the high step-up can allow you to make even more gains than you could with squats. It's worked out that way behind the Iron Curtain, now home to oligarch puppeteers and lower priced potatoes.
One additional thought. You should try, if your schedule allows, to do the above high step-up routine within an hour, doing no other exercises at that time unless you can fit it into the 60 minutes. It worked for Morley Safer and it can damn well work for you.