Step-Ups vs Hip Thrusts: Choosing The Ideal Lower Body Exercise For Your Training Goal

Step-ups and hip thrusts are commonly used within the same strength and conditioning program as they complement each other well. Yet, the context in which we include them within a training program may vary depending on the athletes’ training history and goals. 

This article explores both exercises, which muscles they work and considerations for each so you can decide which is best for you and your goals. 

Understanding Step-Ups and Hip Thrusts

Step-ups and hip thrusts are two effective exercises with distinct focuses and benefits.

Step-ups emphasise single-leg strength and stability, whereas hip thrusts are renowned for precisely targeting the glutes and building maximal strength. 

Step-ups: This single-leg exercise involves stepping onto a box with one leg, driving through the heel to lift your body upwards, and then returning to the starting position. Step-ups target the quadriceps and glutes while also engaging the core and improving stability in the ankle, knee, and hip. 

Hip Thrusts: This exercise focuses intensely on the gluteus maximus, with the movement performed by resting the upper back on a bench, balancing a weight over the hips and thrusting the hips upwards. It’s renowned for its effectiveness in isolating and building strength in the glutes. 

Step-Ups Vs Hip Thrusts: Key Differences and Similarities

Muscles Worked

The step-up and hip thrust both target the glutes, yet there are nuances to the specific muscles they target and the extent to which they engage them:

Step Ups:

The main muscles the step-up works are the quads and glutes. However, the height of the box can significantly influence this…

  • Research suggests that using a higher box height during step-ups leads to greater activation of the gluteus maximus. This is because a higher box requires greater hip extension, which places more demand on the glutes to lift the body.  
  • Using a lower box height when performing the step-up (approximately 20% of leg length, according to McCurdy et al. 2005) resulted in greater quadriceps activation compared to higher box heights.  
  • The step-up also engages the core muscles for stabilization. 

Hip Thrusts:

The main muscles the hip thrust works is the glutes, with some engagement of the hamstrings and erector spinae and adductors. 

Step Up Vs Hip Thrust Muscles Worked – What The Research Says:

We have highlighted that the step-up and hip thrust both work the glutes. Still, research has shown that the step-up variation elicits the highest level of gluteus maximus activation (169.22 ± 101.47 % Maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC)) when compared to 24 other exercises. This may be due to the requirement to stabilise the knees and hips during the exercise’s upward and downward movement.

This demonstrates when you want to specifically target the glute, the step up is a great option – having said that, though, this exercise is difficult to perform, particularly for beginners to intermediate athletes due to the high demand for stability. This may limit the amount of weight they can effectively lift, potentially impacting maximal strength development. 

This study also showed that the hip thrust also presented a very high level of glute maximus activation (82.37 ± 18.65 % MVIC), likely due to the relatively high external load that can be lifted during this exercise and relatively low demand for stability.

Comparison of gluteus maximus activation for 24 exercises, with values given as mean of maximum voluntary isometric contraction percentage (% MVIC). Adapted from Neto et al. 2020. 
Comparison of gluteus maximus activation for 24 exercises, with values given as mean of maximum voluntary isometric contraction percentage (% MVIC). Adapted from Neto et al. 2020. 

Joints Worked and Ranges of Motion

The step up involves larger ranges of motion at the knee and ankle compared to the hip thrust. This distinction is attributed from the step-up being a squat variation, which is more knee-dominant, when compared to the hip thrust, which is a hip-hinging movement pattern, which is more hip-dominant.

Step UpHip Thrust
Hip JointModerate to High ROMHigh ROM
Knee JointHigh ROMModerate ROM
Ankle JointModerate ROMLow ROM

This table illustrates the differences in joint and range of motion between step ups and hip thrusts, highlighting how each exercise emphasises various aspects of lower body mechanics. 

Technique and Execution

  • Step Ups: Maintain a tall posture, focusing on driving through the heel of the leading leg to step onto the platform, then stepping back down with control.
  • Hip Thrusts: Focus on maintaining a stable core and driving through the heals to lift the hips vertically. Ensuring the weight is securely positioned and controlled throughout the movement. 

Difficulty

Both exercises are easy to learn, but both have their challenges. 

  • Step Up: Step-ups may seem simple, but they require balance, coordination, and single-leg strength to perform effectively. Athletes often struggle with proper knee alignment and may find it challenging to engage the necessary stabilizing muscles during the movement. Adjusting the step height can also impact the exercise’s difficulty, requiring greater strength and coordination as the step height increases. 
  • Hip Thrust
  • Hip thrusts are relatively straightforward to learn but can be challenging due to the emphasis on maintaining proper form throughout the movement, including ensuring correct weight distribution of the feet and hips and neutral spine under load.

Specific Scenarios for Each Exercise

Step-ups and hip thrusts are commonly used within the same strength and conditioning program as they complement each other well. Here’s examples of how each exercise can be utilized within a programme:

Step Ups:

Depending on how they are approached and executed, step-ups can be adapted to target specific outcomes, such as reducing muscle imbalances, enhancing single-leg stability, strength, or power. 

  • Step-ups are a valuable tool for addressing muscle imbalances between the two legs. 
  • They excel at developing single-leg stability and neuromuscular control around the ankle, knee, and hip joints. They can be incorporated into the warm-up by being performed slowly, with a tempo of three seconds up and three seconds down.  
  • Step-ups are effective for developing strength in the glutes and quadriceps. There are a couple of approaches to achieving this: (1) using a relatively high box or (2) using a moderate-height box with a relatively heavy barbell placed on your back, aiming for 4 sets of 5 reps on each side.
  • Step-ups can be utilised for explosive power development when performed with a lower box height under low-moderate load, focusing on maximum speed and intent to engage fast-twitch muscle fibres. Aim for 3 sets of 4-6 reps on each side, emphasizing maximal effort in each repetition. 

Hip Thrust:

The standard barbell hip thrust is a great tool for facilitating strength development in the glutes by enabling controlled eccentric lifting with heavier weights. This approach elicits the necessary adaptations for strength gains if completing 2-6 sets with 6 or less reps whilst lifting above 81% of your one repetition max if you’re aiming to develop maximal strength.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do step ups really work glutes?

Yes, step-ups are effective for targeting the glutes particularly the gluteus maximus along with engaging the quadriceps and hamstrings. Notably, higher box heights during step-ups intensify glute activation, maximising their effectiveness in glute development.

Are step ups better than squats?

Neither the step up nor squat is better, they are just different, they offer different benefits – for maximal global strength, the squat is better, but for addressing leg imbalances and enhancing single-leg stability and control, the step up is better. 

What is a good alternative to hip thrusts?

Below are some effective alternatives for hip thrusts: 

  • Glute Bridge
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Cable Pull Through
  • Kettlebell Swing
  • Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
  • Reverse Hyperextension
  • Cable Kickback
  • Step Up
  • Barbell Back Squat
  • Quadruped Hip Extension
  • Box Jumps

The best alternative for you will depend on your training history and outcome, check out our article on 12 Alternatives for Barbell Hip Thrust for more info. 

Conclusion

Step-ups and hip thrusts each play a crucial role in lower body training. Step-ups effectively address leg imbalances and enhance single-leg stability and control, while hip thrusts develop strength in the glutes. 

Depending on your goals, both exercises can be integrated into your strength and conditioning programme for well-rounded lower body development. 

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.