When you’re Octavia Spencer, you don’t need a gym to sneak in a workout. You don’t even need traditional workout clothes. The Oscar-winning actor shared an Instagram video over the weekend of her and the crew of the upcoming Apple-sponsored TV show Are You Sleeping? wearing everyday garb to do a variety of workout moves on-set. While her fellow cast and crew mates do planks, reverse lunges, and push-ups, Spencer busts out a set of step-ups, a classic workout move that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: stepping up onto (and then down from) an elevated platform.
You can check out the video here:
According to a separate Instagram post by actor Mekhi Phifer, Spencer’s Are You Sleeping? co-star, these group fitness sessions are a daily occurrence for the cast and crew called “Ten at Ten.” “Every hour 10 min after EVERY hour you have to do at least 10 reps of something strenuous,” Phifer writes in the caption. “We are on the set sometimes 12-14 hours a day, so you do the math!”
Whether you're on set, at the gym, or in your living room, Spencer's step-ups are a great option for do-anywhere fitness. Here's why.
The step-up is primarily a cardio move, though it also works your balance and coordination, and strengthens muscles in your lower half.
A basic step-up, like Spencer demos, is a low-impact cardio move, Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer, tells SELF. If you pump your arms in tandem with your legs like Spencer does, you’ll get your heart rate up even more. The move is also good for strengthening muscles in your lower half, including the stabilizing muscles around your ankle joints, as well as your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, says Mansour.
On top of that, step-ups can improve your balance, James Brewer, NYC-based certified personal trainer and certified Spin and TRX instructor, tells SELF. Many people struggle with balance, he says, and doing a simple move like the step-up, which also requires coordination and single-leg strength, can help.
There are several ways you can make the move more strength-focused.
One is by driving your knee up every time you step, like the woman standing next to Spencer in the video. This prolongs the time that you are standing on just one leg, explains Mansour, which amplifies the single-leg strength required.
You can also add weight to the movement, says Brewer—simply hold kettlebells or dumbbells by your sides as you step. You can also slow down the pace of your step-ups—particularly on the descent—to up the strength challenge. “One of my favorite step-up modifications is to descend over five counts and then as soon as your heel touches the ground, you explode back up,” says Brewer. It’s almost like a mini reverse lunge, he explains, and the slower you descend, the more strength you’ll build, especially in your glutes. He suggests trying 12-15 of these slo-mo descending step-ups on each leg.
With step-ups, you can change which lower-body muscles you work depending on exactly how you place your feet. If you place the majority of your weight on your heels, you’ll primarily target your hamstrings and glutes, says Brewer. If you do this move on tip toes, you’ll hit more of your quads and calves.
There are a number of ways you can incorporate step-ups into your workout.
The beauty of step-ups is that all you need is an object to step onto. This can be a stair, bench, curb, or box.
From there, you can do the move as part of a circuit, or as a standalone cardio exercise in lieu of the elliptical or stairmaster, says Mansour. It could be a great warm-up move, or provide a burst of cardio in the midst of weight training. You can make the move more challenging by raising your arms straight above your head and keeping them there as you step, says Mansour. You can also pick up the pace to the extent that your step-ups resemble running. Of course, the faster you go, the bigger the cardio challenge.
You could also do a short set of step-ups during the work day as a way to boost your circulation, she adds. With any set of step-ups, makes sure you periodically change which foot you’re leading with so that you work both sides evenly, says Mansour.
Another tip: When you step, keep your feet hip-distance apart, says Mansour. “Not like you're on a tightrope but also not super wide,” she explains. Also, unless you’re purposefully doing the tiptoe or heel version mentioned above, make sure you step down evenly with your entire foot, she says.
If you have a history of knee and/or ankle injury, keep your steps light. “Make sure you aren’t stomping on the step and pressing down super hard,” Mansour explains. Instead you should feel “light footed.” (As with any exercise, always check with your physical therapist or doctor before trying if you have a history of injury in the area that's being worked.)
Lastly, though Spencer’s "anytime, anywhere" approach to fitness is undoubtedly inspiring, if you can, you should wear proper exercise shoes when doing step-ups (and any exercise, for that matter), says Mansour. This will help keep your workout safe and efficient.