NSCA’s Impossible Step Up, by Dr. Lon Kilgore

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this guest post by Dr. Lon Kilgore.

What should professional fitness trainers teach their trainees about performing step ups?

Evidence: The NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning offers incongruent and unachievable instructions to trainers on teaching clients to perform the step up exercise. To wit;

Instruction 1 – Use a standard overhand grip, just wider than shoulder width

Instruction 2 – Step under the bar and position the feet parallel to each other

Instruction 3 – Place bar on the base of the neck

Instruction 4 – Lift elbows to the rear

Instruction 5 – Chest up and out

Instruction 6 – Tilt head up slightly

Instruction 7 – Extend knees and hips to get bar off racks

Instruction 8 – Walk toward box

Instruction 9 – Stand back from the box a distance equal to the height of the box (12-18”)

Instruction 10 – Step up with one leg and place entire foot on box

Instruction 11 – Do not lean forward – maintain erect torso

Instruction 12 – Shift weight to lead leg and stand up with it, not using the trailing leg to push off

Instruction 13 – Stand up and pause

Instruction 14 – Lift trail leg and move backwards

Instruction 15 – Lower body with lead leg

Instruction 16 – Do not lean forward

Instruction 17 – Replace trail leg 12-18” behind box

Instruction 18 – When trail foot is in contact with floor, move lead foot to floor

Instruction 19 – Stand up and pause

Instruction 20 – Repeat the process with opposite leg leading

Instruction 21 – Replace bar on racks

From the NSCA's Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning

(Note: Images 1 and 2 are taken from a different perspective from images 3 and 4 so the lines indicating lean have been adjusted to accommodate the rotation in the image field)

Instruction 2, and a note in an accompanying figure caption, suggest that a set of squat racks or other device is the point of origination of the barbell in this exercise. The box that is to be stepped up on is pictured in front of the trainee and the bar is placed on the posterior side of the body. Does the trainee take the bar out of the racks and step back over the box or back up to the bar, unrack and walk forward to the box? Both approaches are problematic as an unseen obstacle must be navigated or the bar must be re-racked in Instruction 21 by backing with limited field of vision. No solution for these issues is presented.

An additional related and exacerbating issue is presented in Instruction 6, where the trainee is told to look slightly up rather than at the target of movement. Instruction 3 suggests that the bar is placed on the base of the neck which implies the bar is placed on or near the 7th cervical vertebrae, rather than on the more stable and comfortable shoulders. Combined with Instruction 4, lifting the elbows to the rear, this would increase the force placed on the spine of the 7th cervical vertebra. Further, this written instruction differs from the bar position in their accompanying photographs of proper technique. Instructions 9-12 present, as written, physically improbable movement, or poorly written instruction. The trainee is instructed to stand away from the box at a distance of 12” to 18”, or a distance equal to the height of the box.

This specific set of instructions render the step up movement, as described, impossible to complete.

Then in subsequent instructions the trainee is instructed to place their foot on top of the box and, without leaning forward or bending the knee to more than 90o, raise the entire body and barbell to a standing position on top of the box. This specific set of instructions render the step up movement, as described, impossible to complete. When the body is placed at an approximate femur length, or further, away from the elevated lead foot, the only way to make movement of the mass of the body upwards is to move it over the base of support (the lead foot), or create forward momentum towards the lead foot by leaning forward, and then extend the knees and hips to stand upward.

Instruction 12 says to shift weight to the lead leg and stand up without pushing off with the trailing leg and provides no explanation how to shift weight forward without forward lean or without aid from the trailing leg. It is worthwhile to note that in the images accompanying the written instructions, the trainee is about 4” away from the box not 12” to 18” away as mandated by the instruction. Further, in panels 2 and 3 it is clearly presented that there is significant torso lean forward required to accomplish the movement, which directly contradicts instructions 9 through 12.

Summary: The self-proclaimed world authoritative materials promulgated by the NSCA are inconsistent in recommendation, incomplete in scientific support, lacking definition, inadequate in anatomical description, and impractical in application. A clear and uniform description is not discernible. The said publication and recommendations create an environment where education of professionals on performing and teaching the step up is inconsistent and poorly described. The authorship, editorial, or graphical issues present may ultimately have negative effects on individual fitness results and the safety of the public, as correct technique cannot be reliably determined from the published statements, texts, and images.

Image by Dr. Lon Kilgore.

Image by Dr. Lon Kilgore.

About the Author
Professor Lon Kilgore graduated from Lincoln University with a bachelor of science in biology and earned a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology from Kansas State University. He has competed in weightlifting to the national level since 1972 and coached his first athletes to national-championship event medals in 1974. He has worked in the trenches, as a coach or scientific consultant, with athletes from rank novices to professionals and the Olympic elite, and as a collegiate strength coach. He has been a certifying instructor for USA Weightlifting for more than a decade and a frequent lecturer at events at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. His illustration, authorship, and co-authorship efforts include the best-selling books “Starting Strength” (first and second editions) and “Practical Programming for Strength Training” (first and second editions), recent releases “Anatomy Without a Scalpel” and “FIT,” magazine columns, textbook chapters, and numerous research journal publications. He is presently engaged in the most difficult task of his career: recreating the educational track to becoming a professional fitness practitioner. The second stage of this effort is the creation of a one-year university qualification in fitness practice at the University of the West of Scotland.

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