Dumbbell Step Up vs Lunge (Differences, Benefits & More)
Dumbbell Step-ups and Dumbbell Lunges are two of the most effective lower-body exercises to train single-leg strength. These exercises not only help in developing strength but also offer several other benefits such as improved balance, coordination, and core stability.
In this article, I will compare how to properly execute each movement and explain each exercise’s benefits. I’ll also directly compare each exercise side-by-side for some common training goals. In just a few minutes, you should have a good understanding of which (or both) exercise is best for you based on your training goals and experience.
Dumbbell Step Up
- Dumbbells (Kettlebells can also be used if needed)
- A very stable surface to step up to. (Ideally, a box or bench that is stable, heavy, and well balanced)
- Quads (Rectus Femoris, Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius)
- Hamstrings (Biceps Femoris, Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus)
- Glutes (Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius)
- Secondarily: Forearm Flexors
Note: The height of the box will factor into the amount of Quad and/or Hamstring involvement. The higher the box, the more the hamstrings will be emphasized.
- With the dumbbells at your side, hinge at the waist and bend your knees to lift. Keep a neutral spine as you are lifting the dumbbells. NEVER ROUND YOUR BACK WHILE LIFTING.
- Use a box height that will allow your hip and knee flexion to be as similar as possible to your stride while sprinting or bounding.
- Place one foot on the box, and drive the other leg’s knee up.
- The leg drive should be fast and explosive. (Quick note: keep the up leg’s foot pulled up toward the shin).
- Engage the glutes and pause for a brief second at the top of the movement.
- Carefully lower the leg back down and prepare for the next repetition.
A stable box cannot be overstated here. If the box is not stable, do not do step-ups. The risk-to-reward ratio should always be considered with all exercises and implements.
Box height is very important to benefit from this movement. If the box height is too short or high, there will be less sport or movement-specific training.
As with all movements, quality movement is better than the quantity of weight. This movement is typically programmed for specific training of single-leg drive and down-leg stability. Make sure the knee drive is explosive.
If the dumbbells are getting in the way of your knee drive, hold the dumbbells in the front rack or goblet position.
Benefits of Dumbbell Step-Ups
Dumbbell Step-Ups are a great exercise for building single-leg strength.
Step-ups require you to balance on one foot while stepping onto a box or platform, which helps to improve balance, stability, and coordination.
Step-ups are an extremely versatile exercise. By adjusting the height of the box being used, you can alter which muscle groups will be targeted. A taller box will emphasize the hamstrings more while a lower box will emphasize the quads.
In case you’re wondering, yes, Dumbbell Lunges make a good alternative for Step-ups. Here are more alternatives for Dumbbell Step-Ups.
- Secondarily: Grip (Forearm Flexors)
- Grab two dumbbells, one in each hand
- Squeeze the shoulder blades and engage the lats to create a stable back to help with bracing the upper body
- Once you’ve created enough room for yourself from the dumbbell rack (or wherever you pulled them from) you can begin the movement.
- Step forward with one leg, giving yourself enough room to drop into a lunge comfortably without feeling overextended.
- Keep the chest as upright as possible and drop the back knee to roughly one inch from the floor.
- Now drive through the heel and midfoot of the front foot to drive yourself back up tall.
- Repeat on the opposite leg and alternate back and forth until all reps have been completed.
Coaching Points (Fixes to Common Mistakes)
When you step out, make sure to keep the feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re feeling very off-balance in your lunge there is a good chance that you are stepping the lead foot directly in front of the back foot (essentially placing yourself on a tight rope).
Keep the front foot flat on the floor when in the lunge position. One of the most common mistakes is raising up onto the ball of the front foot. One of the reasons for this is often the next most common mistake that I see with Dumbbell Lunges…
Make sure to take a big enough step. Often times I see athletes take way too small of a step. This leads to lunge being extremely cramped and can lead to a whole host of other issues (like coming up on the ball of the foot as mentioned above).
Benefits of Dumbbell Lunges
Single Leg Movements like Dumbbell Lunges are an extremely important addition to any athlete’s workout regimen, regardless of sport.
Many (if not most) athletic movements are often done on one leg. This includes sprinting, jumping and cutting.
Single Leg Exercises help improve leg strength, balance, stability and also show any strength imbalances the lifter may have from one side to the other. Single Leg Exercises can also be part of the solution if and when an asymmetry is found.
Dumbbell Step-Ups vs Lunge: Which is Better?
Now, let’s take a look at the two exercises side-by-side and discuss whether one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.
Better For Developing Strength and Size: Toss Up
Each exercise may have its own strengths, but when it comes to developing strength they’re pretty much the same. Saying that one exercise is necessarily better than the other for improving strength or building muscle mass would really be splitting hairs.
This is why I like to include both exercises in my programming. Using both movements periodically within your strength program can add new stimuli to the body which can be beneficial for growth. It also simply adds variety which will help keep your workouts from getting stale.
Better For Beginners: Dumbbell Step-Ups
Let me start by saying I don’t necessarily think Dumbbell Lunges are a bad exercise for beginners to learn and do. I simply think that if you compare the two movements side-by-side, Step-ups is the more beginner-friendly of the two.
The technique is a little easier to pick up with Dumbbell Step-ups. This makes sense because most of us are pretty proficient at walking up stairs and a Step-up is really just a glorified version of just that.
Lunges, on the other hand, are not a movement you’ll probably find yourself naturally doing every day (or any day). Beginners can tend to get their weight out onto the ball of their front foot way too much putting additional strain on the knees. Maintaining good posture is also a common issue.
Whichever exercise you decide to start using, always remember to always start light (even just bodyweight is great) and focus on technique first. Once your technique is sound then you can start gradually increasing in weight.
I’ve just spent an entire section of this article comparing which is better – Dumbbell Step-Ups or Dumbbell Lunges. But, the truth is (assuming you have the necessary equipment) there is no reason to not have both exercises in your strength program.
Both are excellent exercises for developing single-leg strength. And, by utilizing both exercises you can add variety to your workouts – an often overlooked but much-needed aspect of any long-term training plan.
So, instead of trying to figure out which one you should be doing, my suggestion is to figure out how to incorporate both Dumbbell Step-Ups and Dumbbell Lunges into your program.