30 Step Skills Every Fitness Instructor Should Have
Step remains a mainstay in fitness facilities—how are you keeping up with the demand and staying safe?
As IDEA Health & Fitness Association celebrates its 30th anniversary, what better moment could there be to look at step, an activity that revitalized the fitness industry? Launched in 1989 by Reebok, with creator Gin Miller at the helm, step continues to be a popular group exercise activity. The step platform is also a widely used piece of exercise equipment throughout the fitness industry.
Although participation in step classes has decreased in recent years, step is still practiced by millions worldwide. It’s a fun, effective cardiovascular workout. According to the 2011 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends report, step remains part of group exercise programming and ranks in the top 10 trends (Schroeder & Donlin 2011). Step platforms placed 8th out of the 25 most frequently offered types of equipment. More than 20 years later, many instructors are still teaching step. Many remain injury-free and are just as excited about step as when they first started teaching it. How is that possible? These professionals respect industry guidelines for safety; offer interesting, accessible choreography for all levels; and keep the music fresh and motivating.
If you are still teaching step or are thinking of starting (or starting again), here are 30 skills and tips that will guarantee success.
30 Timeless Step Skills
1. Participate in a step workshop or training course. It’s important to have formal step training to ensure a successful and safe experience. A good course will teach safety and technical guidelines, a repertoire of basic step patterns, cuing techniques and progressions.
2. Respect fitness industry guidelines for music speed. The fitness industry guidelines still recommend that group exercise instructors stay within the range of 122–132 beats per minute (bpm) to avoid musculoskeletal injuries (Scharff Olson 1998). Step speed recommendations haven’t changed dramatically since 1989, when Step Reebok was launched with a conservative range of 118–122 bpm.
3. Wear proper fitness or athletic footwear. In earlier years, experts recommended wearing proper “protective” footwear to minimize injuries from vertical impact forces. The emphasis was on flexibility and cushioning for the forefoot and on lightweight, breathable shoes. Today’s trend is “less is more,” with the barefoot or almost barefoot approach gaining popularity. Therefore, “protection” may relate more to hygiene and skin protection than to the ankle joint, arch and metatarsals. There are more options than ever, but the important thing is that steppers should know their personal podiatric needs. Remember that minimalist footwear requires a transition period, to give underutilized muscles time to develop.
4. Teach good alignment and posture. Can you train the core during step class? Yes! To avoid stressing the spine, always teach proper posture and alignment while stepping. Cue participants to maintain a full-body lean when stepping up and down and to stay in a neutral posture when performing most other patterns, including propulsive moves.
5. Place the entire foot on the step. When you place the entire foot on the platform as you step up, weight is distributed more evenly, reducing repetitive stress on any one part of the foot. This measure also prevents excessive dorsiflexion from the heel hanging off the edge, and there is less pull on the Achilles tendon.
6. Lower heels to the floor. Make sure the heel goes to the floor on the down step, as this reduces repetitive vertical impact forces on the forefoot. This guideline applies to both feet. Often steppers place the heel of the first foot down, but not the heel of the second, resulting in unequal stresses.
7. Begin with a proper warm-up. Prepare participants both mentally and physically by using a combination of simple movements performed on the floor and the step. Target the lower legs and feet and familiarize students with your cuing style.
8. End with a proper cool-down. After the main portion of class, include a cool-down to lower heart rate, reduce elevated core temperature and allow breathing to return to normal.
9. Refine verbal cuing. Support participants’ success by calling out the steps (e.g., “V step”), counting down and previewing upcoming patterns (“After four more, we’ll do two basics and two alternating hamstring curls”). Praise is also a cue (“Great job, everyone!”).
10. Use visual cuing. Supplement your verbal cues with visual ones. Use these to indicate the number of reps (hold fingers up high) or to preview a move (while participants are in a holding pattern, demonstrate the upcoming steps). If steppers can’t hear you, tap your head to communicate that you’re starting again “from the top.”
11. Increase step height for intensity. Raising the height of the platform (adding risers) is the simplest way to increase intensity. Studies have shown that raising the platform just 2 inches (5 centimeters) can increase intensity by as much as 11% (Reebok 1994).
12. Vary the music. Playing songs from different genres will not only inspire you to change your choreography but also prevent participants from getting bored or anticipating your playlist.
13. Use power moves. Propulsive moves (leaps, hops and jumps) add variety and challenge. These moves also increase workout intensity by more than 50% (Reebok 1994). Always give participants the option to power up or down.
14. Use accents and rhythm changes. Inserting accents and rhythm changes will spice up your routines and stimulate participants. For example, instead of running up on counts 1 and 2, step on count 1 and accent count 2 with a leap.
15. Mirror participants when possible. When you mirror class, you have better eye contact and voice projection. Exceptions may be when teaching turns or moving across the step from front to back. Most instructors use both facing and mirroring techniques.
16. Use floor–step mixes. Combine movements on the step with movements on the floor to spice up your routine. For example, perform two V-steps on the step, and two grapevines on the floor or from a side approach.
17. Include step in circuit classes. Why not use the step to create cardio and strength stations in a circuit class? Do squat jumps for cardio, and do push-ups with feet on the step, hands on the floor, for strength.
18. Use the platform to assist with stretching. Let the step be your stretching buddy. Do a calf stretch while standing on the step, heel off the platform. Stretch the hamstrings by standing on the floor, knees slightly bent. Place one foot on the step, lean forward, extend the leg and dorsiflex the foot.
19. Use the step for strength training. The platform is ideal for all types of resistance exercises using body weight or small studio equipment. Perform a variety of moves in positions on and off the step: sitting, supine, prone, standing, squatting, etc.
20. Find new choreography on the Internet. There are numerous places to find choreography ideas online. Video platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo and the IDEA Educational Video Library make it easy for instructors to discover inspiring, interesting step patterns and routines. A word of caution: Evaluate each video for safety and effectiveness before teaching it.
21. Allow ample room for movement. Make sure there is adequate space around the platforms so students can execute movements efficiently. This also reduces the possibility that participants will bump into each other or trip on a neighbor’s step.
22. Hydrate before, during and after class. Sweating a lot is common during a cardio step workout, so encourage people to hydrate (water is preferable).
23. Don’t step too far away from the bench. Stay within 1 foot of the platform. This will allow for better posture and ensure that heels return to the floor.
24. Don’t pivot on a loaded foot. To prevent knee injuries, whenever possible hop when pivoting; this allows the unloaded foot to move freely and protects the knee from stress.
25. Match choreography to music. Mapping out your step combinations with the music you’ve selected will help you break down the choreography. This will make your teaching seamless and more professional.
26. Film and archive choreography. Use a simple camera or your cell phone to record and archive your step combinations. Create a library of ready-to-go choreography.
27. Recycle choreography. When you need inspiration, turn to your archives (see above)! Mix up some of your favorite past patterns and combinations by changing the order, by combining choreography from several classes or simply by adding one or two moves to your current routine.
28. Create a theme. A great way to attract new steppers or to energize current participants is to create a theme. Ideas include the holidays (Halloween or Christmas); seasons (skiing in the winter, getting bikini-ready for the summer); and promotions (8-week weight loss program).
29. Create a fusion class. Combine another activity with step to provide cross-training, variety and the benefits of two or more activities. For example, combine step with Gliding™: alternate step choreography with resistance exercises performed with Gliding discs on the floor.
30. Make it fun! Finally, nothing beats the fun factor. That’s what fitness, exercise and step training are all about! Your participants come to class for a good workout, but they also want to enjoy the experience! When people have fun while exercising, there’s a greater chance they will continue, see results and achieve their desired goals.
Reebok. 1994. Introduction to Step Training Manual and Power Step Manual. Reebok University Press.
Schroeder, J., & Donlin, A. 2011. Serving your base & looking for opportunity in special populations. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8 (7), 25–29.
Scharff Olson, M. 1998. Reebok Position Stand on the Recommended Step Exercise Training Criteria for Promoting Aerobic Fitness in Healthy Adults.