How to Do Lateral Step Ups: A Hinge Health Guide

Learn how to do a lateral step up to improve your lower body strength and overall balance, plus modifications to make this exercise easier or harder.

Published Date: Mar 26, 2024
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Have you heard of functional exercises? If not, you can probably figure out what they are just from the name. They’re strength moves that mimic the way your body functions in real life — and this can make the daily activities you do feel easier and less painful. Lateral step-ups are one such functional move. 

Lateral step-ups build strength as well as balance. They can help with things like stepping sideways onto a curb, or getting into and out of a car. Not to shade exercises like biceps curls or side crunches — they all have their place — but your body doesn’t exactly move like that IRL (in real life). Here’s more on the practical-yet-powerful lateral step-up.

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Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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What Are Lateral Step-Ups?

Lateral step-ups involve stepping one foot sideways onto a step and balancing on that leg as you hover the other foot off the floor.

What Muscles Do Lateral Step-Ups Work? 

  • Calves. Your lower legs get a workout from lifting up and lowering back down from the step. 

  • Quadriceps. This is the primary muscle group that lateral step-ups work. The quadriceps muscles run down the front of your thighs. They consist of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. It’s a big muscle group — bigger, in fact, than any other muscle group in your body. Your quads play a major role in activities like walking and running, jumping, climbing stairs, getting up and down from a chair, and squatting to pick something up from the ground. 

  • Hamstrings. Your hamstrings are muscles on the back of your thighs that help your knees and hips bend and flex. 

  • Gluteal muscles. There are three muscles — the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus —  in your butt. The largest is the gluteus maximus. But all three work together to do things like rotate, extend, and abduct your leg out to the side, and help stabilize your pelvis. 

  • Core. Your abs and back have to engage to keep you upright and balanced while performing this exercise. 

Benefits of  Lateral Step-Ups 

  • Better balance. Any exercise you do on a single leg can improve the strength and stability around your joints, and your proprioception, which is the body's ability to sense where it is in space. All of these factors give your overall balance a big boost that may reduce the risk of falls and injury.

  • Improved mobility. It’s worth repeating: Lateral step-ups are a functional exercise that essentially trains your body for everyday life through movements that mirror the way your body naturally moves doing activities like walking up and down stairs.

  • Increased joint stability. Working the muscles in your lower body supports the joints in your ankles, knees, and hips.   

  • A stronger core. Balance exercises challenge your ab and back muscles, and there’s good evidence that a strong core helps you manage back pain, and may even prevent future pain flare-ups.

 Lateral Step-Ups: Exercises and Modifications 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Lateral Step-Ups

Lateral Step-Ups

Lateral Step-Ups

Lateral Step-Ups

To do lateral step-ups:

  • Stand sideways next to a step with the foot closest to the step on top of it, knee bent.  Your other foot should be on the floor with your knee mostly straight. Hinge at the hips and lean your torso slightly forward. Then bend your elbows and clasp hands in front of you. (This will help with balance.)

  • Now, push through the foot on the step, straightening your knee and lifting your other foot off the floor. 

  • As you hold this position, focus on balancing on your standing foot while your other foot floats in the air.

  • Lower your foot back to the floor to return to the starting position.

  • Repeat, then do this exercise on the opposite side.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your hip, thigh and leg muscles working.

Everyone is different, which is why you may need to modify this exercise to meet your needs.

Lateral Step Ups Modifications

Lateral Step Ups Modifications

To make lateral step-ups easier:  

  • Use a lower step to perform the exercise.

  • Or try placing one hand lightly on a wall, railing, or table to help support your balance. Use as little pressure as you can while still feeling stable.

To make lateral step-ups harder: 

  • Use a higher step to perform the exercise from.

  • Limit any “push off” momentum from the foot that’s on the floor. Just focus on using the leg that’s on the step to lift you up. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Guler, Ozkan, et al. (2021). Effects of Functional Strength Training on Functional Movement and Balance in Middle-Aged Adults. Sustainability, vol. 13, no. 3, p. 1074. doi:10.3390/su13031074

  2. Marcori, A. J., Monteiro, P. H. M., Oliveira, J. A., Doumas, M., & Teixeira, L. A. (2022). Single Leg Balance Training: A Systematic Review. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 129(2), 232–252. doi:10.1177/00315125211070104

  3. Daun F, Kibele A. Different Strength Declines in Leg Primary Movers Versus Stabilizers Across Age — Implications For The Risk of Falls in Older Adults? (2019). PLoS One,14(3):e0213361. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0213361

  4. Hauer, Klaus, et al. (2020). Effectiveness and Sustainability of a Motor-Cognitive Stepping Exergame Training on Stepping Performance in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 17, no. 1. doi:10.1186/s11556-020-00248-4