There is something I call the ‘xtreme goldfish’ phenomenon. Take something that works and it must work better if you make it more and more extreme.
Step was invented by a trainer named Gin Miller. She worked with Reebok. Something called ‘Reebok University’ was formed to begin doing research on step. Before they ceased to exist in the late 90s they had been on record with 128 as the upper limit for advanced participants.
I went back and looked at my 2007 ACE group instructor manual and found it said “According to Reebok Step Training Guidelines, beginners are easily and appropriately challenged at music speeds of 118 to 122 bpm. Safe cadences of 122 to 128 bpm are acceptable for participants at intermediate to advanced fitness levels seeking greater aerobic challenges.
There has been a lot of research since then, (as in a lot of things in fitness), and people in the business of certifying fitness instructors certainly keep abreast with this research, though may not agree on the results. ACE still, from what I understand, recommends staying under 128, though I have been told that AFAA suggests for advanced participants 135 is ok…. though I would be interested in having that confirmed.
Most premixed music today marketed for step seems to be between 128 and 130, though some goes up to 135…. but I have not seen higher. Some marketed for seniors primarily seems to be slower.
I remember back in the 90s when there was a lot of chat among instructors about step speed. The conversations tended to go “We are told to stay slow, but if I do noone comes to my class”….
I would have to say personally I feel safe at 128 or 130… I find beginners start to get confused if you inch up to 130, BUT you are more likely to confuse them if you try to teach too much too quickly, or do not break things down too much. I think 125 might be fine for beginners.
I guess I think though it feels good to go fast, there are other modalities where you have a repetitive movement that allows more speed with less risk.
Ariadne gave a great answer. I would add to that by asking how many risers are being used. The original research with 2 risers and BPM in the low 120s equated the VO2 max of a step class with running. Despite this, many people raised the BPM and lowered the risers. This however lowered the VO2 max, but participants liked it because it felt they were working harder. I have seen some fun choreography that mixes step and floor aerobics. The music is usually faster, but they generally use 1 or no risers. If this makes participants happy it is probably safer than the fast speed on 2 risers.
There is indeed a fine balance between keeping people happy and making sure they are safe. You can educate them that they are burning more calories (makes more sense to the clients) at a lower BPM on 2 risers, than a fast BPM on 1 or no risers.
I think both of the posts by Janet and Ariadne are interesting and well written.
I started teaching step in early 1992 when it was very new. We stepped slow, about 122bpm, simple repetitive movements, and we used 2 risers. The benefits that were touted by Reebok University (which I attended once) and Exersafety (my step certification – entity has since folded) were that, compared to hi/lo and cardio dance, the heart rate response was more predictable and more consistent.
And then somewhere around the late 1990’s, things went crazy for a while. The choreography got more complex and the music got faster. But the step height didn’t go down right away! Eventually, it felt like step split into two separate categories, “athletic” step at 130bpm or less, and “dance” step with lower steps and faster music.
I’m more on the “athletic” end of the spectrum, and continued to teach step until 2011 in the 130bpm range. At that speed and with my style, I did lose one class because I replaced a dancy instructor who taught well over 150bpm, and members hated my style. So I sympathize completely with the instructors who say if they step slowly, no one will come to their class. I’ve been there! But at the end of the day, I am responsible for the safety of my class. I can’t control how fast other instructors step, or whether they do contraindicated moves, or how they cue. All I can do is know where my personal “lines in the sand” are and stick with them.
The dance step that I see around my area is about 130 – 135bpm. The dance step I see on youtube, much faster than that.
I am really excited to see what Zumba Step brings to the step format! I got my license March 1 and have been teaching it for 3 weeks. Since Zumba, it is a dance format that uses the step. But another tenet of Zumba is the simplicity of the movement – easy to learn. I think that a lot of the people who felt intimidated by the complicated step classes that evolved in recent years might tip-toe in and try a Zumba Step class. The step platforms are low. There are moves both on and off the floor, all simple to learn. It’s a fun mix of dance and step, without feeling like you have to have a PhD in step choreo to walk in the door.