Squats are not just an exercise; it’s an institution. It’s a special membership into an exclusive club that is paid by sweat, tears, pain and puke. It’s a proud badge that says that I’ve come,
I’ve conquered and I’ve survived the worst under the squat rack. It’s a badge that I’ve worn for over two decades.
Never in a million years would I have entertained the idea of not doing squats with my program. However, you can’t argue with Mother Nature and the basic ageing process. I am 43 years of age and have come to the realization that my knees can’t take it anymore. No matter what I try, ½ squats, ¼ squats, sissy squats, box squats, front squats or anything else that uses a squatting motion, my knees kill me. It sucks because not only do I love the movement but I love the way it develops my entire lower body. Up until my last training cycle, I’ve had to say good bye to squats. I’ve had to physically restrain myself from entering the squat rack.
But, you know what they say “as one door closes another one opens up”. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with different movements that hit the same muscle groups as squats. The main objective is to emulate the muscle development from squats without the knee stress. I’m happy to say that after a bunch of experiments I’ve found one that hits the glutes and thighs almost to the extent that squats does while greatly reducing knee stress. I’m talking about low level step ups.
The low level step uses basically the same muscle groups as the squat does but uses a natural stepping motion that reduces knee stress. The basic step up is as follows:
Okay, you may have seen these exercises in aerobics classes and they may seem kind of lame but after trying these with a pair of dumbbells and doing 5 sets of 20 for each leg, I’m a believer. Not only is this exercise amazing for quadriceps and glutes, it’s great for:
• Balance and core development – Since you have to step up using one leg and transfer your weight to the other at the top of the movement it causes you to concentrate of core strength and balance.
• There is actually less stress on the knees – You decide on your own comfort levels with the amount of steps used. If you find there is too much stress using 4 blocks, simply take away a block of two and still keep the benefits of the exercise.
• There is a lot less stress on the back as with traditional back squats – You don’t have any weight on your shoulders
The day after my first step up workout, my glutes and quadriceps were super sore – Just like squats. For the first two weeks my workout sessions was as follows:
3 sets of 12 using 10 pound dumbbells. 3 step up blocks used.
After two weeks, my step workout was as follows:
4 sets of 15 using 20 pound dumbbells. 3 step up blocks used.
After a month, my step up workout was as follows:
5 sets of 20 using 30 pound dumbbells. 3 step up blocks used.
My knees are holding out well with no noticeable pain. What really surprises me is the extent of my glute and quadriceps development. It has far exceeded my expectations. My leg routine has changed and is now as follows:
Leg extensions: 4 x 20 reps using light to moderate weight. This exercise is used to warm the lower quadriceps and knee area up.
Leg press: 4 x 20 reps using moderate weight. This exercise is used for development but to further warm the lower quadriceps and knee area up.
Step ups: 5 x 20 reps using moderate weight (dumbbells). This exercise is used to develop the quadriceps and glutes and most of my effort goes into this exercise.
Stiff leg deadlifts: 4 x 15 reps
Lying leg curls: 4 x 12 reps
Donkey calf raise: 4 x 30 – 40 reps
Seated calf raise: 3 x 20 reps (using 20 by 20 principle)
Like I said, step ups have exceeded all my expectations and I think I’ve found a suitable replacement for squats. For me, the muscle development is almost the same without the knee stress. It’s not exactly the same but honestly, the muscle development is pretty close.
The best thing about step ups is that if you notice a little pain in your knees, simple take out a block to reduce the height and your back in business. If on the other hand you want to add more range to the movement, simply add an extra block or two.
The biggest benefit to this exercise is that it puts you in control and you decide how to proceed – It’s a very flexible exercise.
For those of you with bad knees, start with one or two blocks and don’t use any weight. Just get used to the motion for the first week or so. Try doing 3 sets of 12 repetitions. You’ll notice that there is more emphasis on the leg being used to step up so take it easy at first.
After a couple of weeks try using a pair of 5 pound dumbbells and do 3 sets of 12 repetitions. After another couple of weeks try doing 4 sets of 15 or even 20 repetitions using the same 5 pound dumbbells.
After that, you decide on how to keep improving (more weight, blocks, sets, or reps). In addition, this exercise can be done just about anywhere. If you have access to stairs, perform them on the stairs. In fact any type of platform will do. Personally, I enjoy the step up blocks because I can modify the height of the step but if you don’t have access, any type of stair or platform will do.
Don’t let the look of this exercise fool you – It can be a very hard movement to do. I found myself huffing and puffing after the first a couple of sets of 20 using 20 pound dumbbells. It’ll set your quadriceps and glutes on fire without the dull aching knee pain associated with squats.
Here’s a pretty good instruction video:
All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.