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Smith machine step ups: Will they build your quads and glutes?

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Step ups are one of the most effective Smith machine quadriceps exercises because they allow you to remain virtually upright, which makes your quads bear the brunt of the load.

However, the setup for Smith machine step ups can be quite tricky. You've got to get the bench position just right and then line your shoulders up perfectly with the barbell—It's just cumbersome. I much prefer the free weight version.

Plus, if you're even remotely tall, the exercise quickly becomes impractical. And, in many cases, downright impossible.

That said, for many smaller lifters, Smith machine step ups are an excellent finishing movement that can really bring up the outer quad sweep when performed correctly. And that's what this guide is all about!

"A step-up is a simple body resistance exercise that works muscles in the legs and buttocks."
Dr. Laskowski
Mayo Clinic

Smith machine step up exercise details

  • Main muscles: Quads, glutes
  • Supporting muscles: Abs, lower back, hamstrings, calves
  • Exercise type: Unilateral
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, weight bench/step up platform
  • Recommended gear: Knee sleeves, bar pad, hip circle
  • Exercise purpose: Increase the size of your quads and glutes while simultaneously improving your balance and coordination

How to do Smith machine step ups

Here's how to perform Smith machine side step ups:

  1. Place a bench lengthways in the centre of a Smith machine and then set the bar to just below shoulder height.
  2. Step on the middle of the bench with one foot and let the other foot hang off the side of the bench until it touches the floor. Unlike with a back squat, you're starting the exercise from the bottom position.
  3. Ensure that your spine is in neutral, that your eyes are looking straight ahead and that you have a slight bend at the waist.
  4. Unrack the bar by pushing up with your leg that's on the bench, using the adjacent leg for stability.
  5. Push yourself up until the knee of your working leg is fully locked out.
  6. Squat back down to just bellow parallel by breaking at your knees and hips together, effectively sitting your hips straight down. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 12-20 reps.

Note: When squatting down, It might also be helpful to think about pushing your non-working leg towards the ground, which should naturally allow you to go deeper without compromising your knees.

Step up form tips

Push with your front leg

women using a step up platform

It's tempting to use the calf of your non-working leg to give you more spring in your step—literally—by jumping the weight up. And while this technique may very well firm up your calves, it won't do a lot for the quads and glutes of your working leg, which are the two prime movers in Smith machine step ups.

A quick fix is to mentally think about pushing through your front foot—the leg that's on the bench. Doing so naturally helps you to keep your balance, while also making every single rep and set much more effective for your legs.

Don't round your back

Doctor stretching a young man back in medical office

Performing step ups of any kind with a completely straight torso is a surefire way to lose your balance and topple backwards. Plus it takes your glutes, one of the biggest and strongest muscles in the human body, out of the equation, which (unsurprisingly) makes you significantly weaker.

To remedy this, you need to bend at the waist slightly as you perform your step up. Doing so takes tension off your back leg and places it on your working leg.

However, keep the torso angle within reason.

Bending all the way forwards, as if you were a baby trying to climb up the stairs, may indeed increase your glute activation. But it also places a ton of stress on your lower back, effectively turning your "step up" into a good morning, which robs your quads of stimulation.

Watch your knees

close up of a bodybuilder's quadriceps

Ok, don't literally watch your knees—that would cause your spine to round.

However, you always need to be aware of your knees' position. I believe this is called proprioception. And it's basically a biomechanical awareness that you develop as you become proficient at a particular exercise [1].

It's also why elite-level weightlifters and powerlifters can lift without a mirror—squatting and pressing is just second nature to them.

With regard to step ups specifically, you want to make sure that your knees don't cave in, and that your knees also don't go over your toes [2].

You can prevent your knees from caving in by just generally strengthening your quadriceps. When you first lift weights, you feel like a baby duckling walking for the first time, and it's very common for your knees to shake and buckle under the weight. However, these teething problems will pass with time.

Similarly, you can prevent your knees from travelling over your toes by keeping your forward lean within reason. Think about it for a second. If you had gymnast-level flexibility and could do a squat with your torso completely bent, which way would your knees go? Forwards? Or backwards?

They'd definitely travel forwards, right?

Well, it's exactly the same with a step up. The more you lean forwards, the further your knee will protrude over your toes. So as I say, keep the torso bend within reason, and your knees will thank you for it.

Lean forwards slightly

man doing lunges on a step up box

Conventional wisdom says to always stay upright on leg exercises. After all, you're training your quads, not your spinal erectors, right?

Well, as we've just learnt, keeping your torso completely upright like a rocketship is a recipe for disaster. And by disaster, I mean potentially toppling over like a bowling pin. Painful and embarrassing.

However, by bending at the torso, even just slightly, you not only maintain your balance, but you naturally supercharge your strength by allowing your glutes to get in on the action. And, as any anatomy chart will clearly show you, the glutes are the most powerful muscle on your frame [3].

Recommended gear for step ups

1. Knee sleeves

I don't tend to do Smith machine step ups much since they put a lot of pressure on my knees. But when I do, I always wear my Beast Gear Knee Sleeves.

close up of beast gear knee sleeves

I used to think that knee sleeves were a bit of a gimmick, something that only gullible people would buy.

However, after feeling the benefits for myself, I now realise how ignorant I was. Of course, you can hardly blame me considering how much deception there is in the fitness industry—weight loss pills, magic fat burners, quick-fix programs—you know what I'm talking about.

But knee sleeves are different. They're backed by thousands of physios and pro athletes, and since wearing them during my leg sessions, my recovery rate has sped up dramatically. Obviously, this is because knee sleeves naturally reduce your inflammation levels by promoting blood flow to damaged muscle tissue.

Rymora sleeves

Yet, they also give you the confidence to lift heavy and aim for new PRs because the contoured fit—at least on my Beast Gear Knee Sleeves—provides incredible support and stability to the patella.

That said, I know that times are tough, and some knee sleeves are pretty expensive. So if you're on a budget, then I also recommend checking out these Knee Support Braces.

These knee sleeves are used by thousands of Brits who're seeking extra patella support and pain relief. Plus, there's really no risk in giving them a try since they also come with a money-back guarantee for peace of mind.

2. Bar pad

I asked my wife why she always uses her Advanced Squat Pad for step ups and lunges.

reehut bar pad

She told me, that even though the weight she uses is fairly light, the bar still rubs against her skin, causing significant discomfort. As a result, she'd often have to end the set before her legs were fully fatigued, leaving considerable muscle growth on the table.

However, by using a bar pad, she's now able to maximise her leg gains by ensuring that her glutes and quads are always the liming factor—not the pain in her neck.

3. Hip circle

I used to think that squats were enough to build the glutes.

bearded man warming up with his sling shot hip circle

But when I started reading into Bret Contreras's research on hip thrusts, I realised that I was missing out on so much growth. And, after trying the Mark Bell Hip Circle, I feel glute muscles burning that I didn't even realise existed.

You see, the glutes are powerful hip extensors. But they also abduct the hip, which you can do on those fancy "outer thigh" machines that you find in most modern gyms.

The problem is that you can't add the outer thigh machine to your squats and hip thrusts.

After all, it's a standalone machine.

However, you can place the Mark Bell Hip Circle around your knees during leg exercises to increase your glute activation. And, ironically, it costs about 50x less than these so-called hip abduction machines.

Step ups muscles worked

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

As we've established, you can increase glute activation during Smith machine step ups by learning forwards. However, unless you're fairly short, even bending at the waist isn't enough to get a full range of motion, which is why I much prefer using dumbbells.

Quads

Illustration of the quadriceps anatomy

Your quads are the prime movers in a Smith machine step up. And research shows that it's the coverted outer quad sweep, in particular, that enjoys the majority of the tension [4]. Of course, this muscle stimulation once again relies on a deep range of motion, which, depending on your height, you may or may not be able to achieve on Smith step ups.

Core

Illustration of the abdominal anatomy

Your core isn't usually very active during Smith machine exercise since the machine takes care of most of the stabilisation for you. However, since step ups are a unilateral (single leg) exercise, your stabiliser muscles are naturally much more active than with say...two-feet squats, because they prevent you from tipping to one side.

Erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

As with your abs, the erectors helps to stabilise your body during step ups. However, compared to squats, they're under far less pressure because (1) you're using less weight, and (2) your torso is more upright, which shifts the tension off your lower back and onto your legs [5].

Hamstrings and calves

Illustration of the hamstring anatomy

The hamstrings are not particularly active during step ups (or any exercise that resembles a squat, for that matter). Your calves, however, are—especially if you use your non-working leg to assist your "active" leg.

Of course, doing this robs your working leg of a certain amount of resistance. However, it's actually quite a clever way to get some heavy eccentric overload training for your quads. You essentially "cheat" the weight up with the help of your calf, but then lower it under control with your quads and glutes.

It's worth a shot if you're more advanced. But if you're a beginner, I'd steer clear of such training techniques and instead focus on learning the proper form [6].

Step ups benefits

Reduced muscle imbalances

close up of a woman's quadricep muscles

Back squats are great for adding mass. However, they're also great for worsening existing muscle imbalances. And for those of us who care about building a proportional physique, that's a problem.

Step ups, especially when performed with dumbbells (sorry beloved Smith machine), are equally effective for adding mass. After all, your muscles don't know what a "squat" or "step up" is—they're just pieces of meat that respond to tension.

However, unlike barbell squats, they're incredibly useful for fixing muscles imbalances because you can ensure that each side of your body receives equal work.

And that's to say nothing of the fact that you can develop a stronger mind-muscle connection with single-leg exercises...

Improved balance

woman doing yoga on the beach

If you're just trying to builder bigger or firmer legs, then I realise that you might not care about balance. However, if you have athletic ambitions beyond the aesthetic, then balance is a crucial motor skill to develop because it makes you a more powerful, agile athlete.

Bigger, firmer glutes

woman performing glute exercises with a hip circle by the pool

You can't use that much weight on Smith machine step ups because of the awkward setup and foot position. However, that doesn't stop them producing one heck of a glute burn when you perform them for high reps (especially after doing heavy hip thrusting).

And while I can't promise that you'll have the glutes of an IFBB Bikini Pro, high-rep step ups will definitely give you firmer glutes fast. That is, as long as you eat enough calories and consume plenty of high-quality protein.

Step up alternatives

Smith machine leg press

It doesn't take a genius to work out that using a Smith machine as a leg press is probably a bad idea. One slip and that bar is thundering towards you torso like a guillotine. I wrote a guide discussing how you can make it safer. But suffice to say, I don't recommend it for 99% of people.

Smith machine split squat

When you perform Smith machine deficit split squats, you'll quickly realise that the movement is essentially the exact opposite of a step up, which makes it one of the best exercises for glutes. Rather than leading with your front leg, you elevate your back leg, making it easier on your knees, but a little tougher on your back.

But besides being remarkably knee-friendly, this squat variation is impeccable for developing the glutes because it provides an incredible stretch that precious few exercises can replicate. It's well worth adding to your routine if you have a quad-dominant physique, or if you simply want bigger glutes (who doesn't?).

Smith machine lunge

sportswoman performing lunges

Doing high-rep Smith machine lunges is one of my favourite tactics for bringing up the outer quad sweep, which gives your physique that x-frame look. It's a very similar exercise to the Smith machine step up. However, the setup for a lunge is far less cumbersome, and, in my experience, lunges enable you to lift considerably heavier weight than step ups, which naturally leads to faster quad development.

Smith machine reverse lunge

young man and woman working out in the gym

If, like me, you have dodgy knees, or just can't be bothered with the fiddly "step up setup", then I definitely recommend giving the Smith machine reverse lunge a try in your next leg workout.

Not only is it incredibly easy on your knees (especially if you wear extra protection) but it also hammers your glutes without placing hardly any strain on your lower back. You can also elevate your front foot slightly and do Smith machine lunges with a step platform, which increases your range of motion.

Anyway, I have a sneaky suspicion that humans are naturally more adapted to lunging backwards than forwards. After all, when our ancestors saw a dinosaur outside the cave, the last thing they'd do is a set of forward lunges. Instead, they'd do the exact opposite—lunge backwards in caution, much like a boxer does in a fight. Coincidence? I think not.

Overall, reverse lunges are just great. And, by my reckoning, much more useful for building your legs than Smith machine step ups!

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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