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3 Functional Step-up Exercises for Glute Activation

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

When it comes to functional lower body exercises, step-ups take the gold. Step-ups are the perfect way to strengthen muscles and build balance while reducing stress on your knees and back.

Although many people turn to squats to strengthen their glutes, step-ups are actually a great way to functionally strengthen them. Most people tend to focus on the size and appearance of their glute muscles when strength training, however, focusing on aesthetics alone won't help you with the strength and balance needed for daily activities.

Functional fitness training incorporates all three planes of motion (3D exercise) and mimics daily movements, for example: twisting, squatting, reaching, bending, etc. These 3D step-up exercises will focus on glute activation by stabilizing the knee and hip, while also extending the hip.

Man performing a step-up exercise.

Step-ups for Glutes

Step-ups are a great exercise to activate your glutes! In order to understand why, let's go over the muscles of the buttocks first. There are three muscles that make up the glute area:

  • Gluteus maximus

  • Gluteus medius

  • Gluteus minimus

The gluteus maximus (GMax) is the largest of the three, playing an important role in maintaining our body's upright posture and extending and rotating the thigh. The GMax helps us to rise from sitting and bending, walk up a hill, and run.

Step-ups are perfect for activating that GMax muscle, in turn helping us with our daily tasks of getting up from a seat or walking up stairs. The stronger your glutes are, the better you can perform these activities! According to a study done in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, step-ups elicited the highest gluteus maximus activation levels of all the other exercises tested in the study.

3 Functional Step-up Exercises for Glutes

Here are a few examples of functional and 3D step-up exercises that are great for activating your glutes and more! All you need is something to step up onto, whether that's a box, a stair, a coffee table, or a chair; it just needs to be sturdy enough so you can lift your body weight onto it. Remember, the higher your elevated surface is, the more it will work your glutes! We will be using a medicine ball and dumbells in our example videos, but you can use anything with weight, or skip it for a lighter exercise.

Step-up X-Chop 4-Way

Our first exercise is the step-up x-chop in four different directions. The first thing you need to do is get your medicine ball or weighted object and get in position behind wherever you're stepping up.

Start with your left leg on the step and your right leg on the ground, and your medicine ball by your right hip. Step your right leg up while twisting the medicine ball toward your left shoulder, and then step back down, reversing the movement. Repeat on the other leg and do 10 reps of these.

Man performing a step-up exercise with a medicine ball

Man performing a step-up exercise with a medicine ball

Watch the full video tutorial, along with the other two directional movements involved, by visiting our movement library! If you're not a member, sign up to gain access today.

3D Step-up Knee Drives

Knee drives are the most traditional form of step-ups, but this example has a twist - literally. 3D step-up knee drives incorporate all three planes of motion for maximum mobility.

Starting in the sagittal plane, this step-up is what you are probably most familiar with. Just like the previous exercise, start with your left leg up and your right leg on the ground. Instead of a medicine ball, place your arms in the running position, with your right arm in front of your body, bent at 90 degrees and your left arm down at your side. Stand up on your left leg, leaving it slightly bent, and bring your right knee up into a high knee position. At the same time, switch your arm positions, bring your right arm down to your side, and your left arm forward bent at 90 degrees. Step back down onto the right leg, do 10 reps, and switch legs.

Man performing a step-up exercise in all three planes of motion

Man performing a step-up exercise in all three planes of motion

Watch the full video tutorial, along with the frontal and transverse movements, by visiting our movement library! If you're not a member, sign up to gain access today.

3D Step-overs Knee Drives

Lastly, we have step-overs which take a more all-around approach to step-ups. Instead of just stepping onto an elevated surface, you will be stepping on and over to the other side with dumbbells if you have them.

Start on the ground with a dumbbell in each hand; step up with your left leg first, then the right. Turn your body 90 degrees to the left, moving your left foot, and step down to the ground with your right foot, following with your left. Now that you're on the ground again, turn your body so that you're once again facing your elevated surface, and do it all over again!

Man performing a step-up exercise with dumbbells.

Man performing a step-up exercise with dumbbells.

Looking to Start a Fitness Journey?

Fit Societe focuses on functional and natural movements for effective workouts without the fear of injury. Start for free with a consultation and body evaluation from one of our fitness coaches!


Ariela Liberman is a Marketing Associate and a staff writer for Fit Societe, with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies. Born and raised in San Diego, she is a Southern California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.

Reviewed by Scott Ryan, BS, CSCS, CF-L1, CF-W, BFRC, a professional coach who specializes in Applied Functional Science, Strength and Conditioning, CrossFit L1, and Olympic Lifting. He attended New England College in New Hampshire obtaining a bachelor's degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis on Biomechanics. He has a passion for injury prevention and coaching, as he was a collegiate athlete who suffered sports injuries. His goal is to get athletes back to optimal shape as well as prevent future injuries.

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