DIFFS: BENCH STEPS
If you give the illustration a quick glance you will see a common training exercise used for fitness and sport. Bench Steps, with or without a load or offset is not a core TAKEOFF exercise but does have high value for mobility and motor patterning. The illustration is taken from an actual situation where the athlete (a runner) was instructed to do 3 sets of 8 reps with each leg. In the background she has done a full workout session of middle distance intervals and is now doing developmental work. I’ve shown the start and finish pose for a step somewhere in the middle of the series.
What is happening here? The person is able to complete the sets with just a bit of fatigue, and could certainly walk away saying they’ve accomplished the task. The person caught my attention as red flags that kept popping up because of several technique and rhythm faults that could lead to injury at the worst, and at the least limit her performance. There are several ways of looking at this exercise, and I’ll start with the mechanics. It appears that this athlete has some mobility issues with the lower legs, and quite probably weakness or ineffectiveness in the hips (glutes) that leads to a quad dominant style of stepping. It could also be that she’s never received instruction and is simply doing what she thinks is effective technique.
The evidence for these related issues comes from the elevated foot in the start and slightly bent over posture with a forward head tilt. The whole movement pattern (which you can’t see fully) is one of collapsing inwards and forwards slightly and pushing off from the grounded leg so that the boxed leg can work primarily from the thigh. If I drew a line thru her centre of mass as it travelled it would ‘scoop’ under the boxed hip side then climb…hips that ‘sit’. The result is a right-left oscillation or weight shift. What I’d rather see is a curve that ‘climbs over’ the boxed hip with a free leg that lifts along with the extending thigh. From the finishing position there is an indication that the deep hip flexors are not acting as prime movers of the free leg judging by the overly high knee pose.
Before reviewing this case history I’ll say something about all situations and safety. It would not be unusual for athletes to take this exercise further with overloads such as dumbbells and barbells. Doing them very quickly is another variation that raises concerns. So, discounting the imbalances for a second, please make sure that if you are going to do exercises such as this one with overloads ensure you are working in a rack and lifting area with competent spotters. Adding overloads to this subject will not make her a better athlete; it will likely make the imbalances worse through exaggeration or amplification. Overload exercises such as this tend not to be ‘indicator-remedy’ like other TAKEOFF core moves. The result will more than likely be a self-feeding loop where quad dominance, ineffective hips and tight lower legs feeds more of the same.
Bench Stepping can be a valuable addition to the athletes programme because of the split stance that helps correct imbalances, develop the glute-ham connection and build in overall body stability. Plus, there are enough variations that boredom and loss of focus need not be a problem. But that’s only if the movement is performed correctly. If the movement is performed without attention to alignment and the tilt-shift in balance then it reinforces the pre-existing movement patterns. You can bet the mortgage that the same athlete seen running, leaping or walking up stairs would exhibit similar hip-sit movements. On the flat we’d see the incomplete stride, paddling feet and overworked lower legs with any running activity. These are patterns which promote rather than prevent injury to the Achilles, knees, hips and lower back.
An additional concern comes in when I look at the full regimen. Fatigue challenges our stability mechanisms, and in this exercise the all-to-common overloads, box height or speed variants tend to work towards fatigue as the goal. As we tunnel in on completing the task or number of sets we tend to lose sight of technique. We forget that our bodies are very, very good at compensating in order to get the job done. However, rolling an ankle on the return, twisting as the legs get tired and overemphasising the knee lift are all fatigue related moves that can turn an imbalance into a dangerous exercise.
The purpose of Bench Stepping is to develop a balanced left-right, whole body lift that can be used in other movements. We want to minimise side-to-side lurching and at the same time shift the balance of work so that the hips are fully engaged. We want the overall movement to be proximal to distal: hip to foot. To do that we need mobility in the ankle joint, stability in the knee and mobility in the hip.
Most of the cues for correct ground based movements tend to be hip-down or toes up, and there is a whole body option to consider as well. In this exercise, because of the split stance and an elevated ‘box’ leg, the whole-body sensation may be a good place to start.
Adopt a tall posture with a full foot on both ground and box. A useful cue is to create space between the lowest rib and hip crest.
Shift forwards without bending at the hip or lifting the heel. This means you will tilt from the ankle and keep the straight body posture.
Use the shift to initiate the step: isolate the box leg and increase tension from the hip down. Your body should rise without pushing off using the grounded foot.
*If you cannot do this, if your body doesn’t want to rise, then perhaps the bench is too high (a common issue)
Raise the body and free leg as a unit
Let the free leg lift and shift as you extend the box leg and hip at the top
Start the return by keeping the box leg dominance and tall, long posture.
Finish the return by touching the full foot to the ground and then shift your weight by un-tilting at the ankle before you start again. It’s a good idea to bring the other leg down to the start position so that one-side or alternating legs have the same start balance.
You will notice at first that this is a much harder exercise to perform because of the weight shift from one hip to the other. A hip-focused movement pattern may feel very different if you are used to a lower leg and thigh drive pattern. You may have to lower the bench height if you find that the movement is too difficult or that you have to shimmy in order to lift your hips. In fact, try it on a standard stair height to feel the Diff. If you are doing this with overloads or offsets then lower the weights. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t feel good to knock it back a notch but your body will reward you with better performance because you are developing a great sport posture.
A new motor pattern will be programmed in about 10-14 days…that’s the time it takes for you to get through the mechanical, awkward feelings and lower overloads. After that you will be able to shift focus, feel the smoothness of the lift and also try variations with a sense of ease. Over a longer time frame (for athletes like this) the lower leg mobility patterns will improve so that the heel doesn’t rise as you shift forwards. At this point you will have minimised the risks in a body move that has inherent safety issues because of the posture and split stance.
One of the good things about this athlete and her pattern was that she left the arms alone rather than using them as part of the body swing and grounded leg push-off. Similarly, fixing the arms in a T or Outstretched position allows you to engage the hips more. It will feel harder at first but reward you later. To test your stability hold a broomstick vertically out in front with both hands as you step. The goal will be to minimise wobble as you learn a new and more effective pattern.
Try not to get seduced, trapped or coerced into overload variations until you are ready for them. You may have to insist on lower bench or box heights to begin with in order to solidify a good movement pattern. And…even if you do heavy overloads its worth doing a few sets of free Bench Steps just to ensure that you have the balance and stability that ensures growth. Always remember that fatigue (which is part of training) has a way inserting compensations into our movement patterns or capitalising on old patterns we thought we had left behind long ago.
J. Erik Little