“Step Up” Your Adventure Training

Do you like good food? I mean really good food? I love great food! Have you ever had an epic meal that was so good you could recall exactly when and where it was, even years later? The best meal I have had in years was during my visit to Italy with my comrades from StrongFirst™ Germany, when attending the StrongFirst Bodyweight (SFB) Instructor certification. The evening before the event we were all very hungry (as usual) and had spent more than an hour looking for a place to eat. My good friend and StrongFirst Certified Team Leader Sven Rieger asked StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor Fabio Zonin for a good location that could feed four hungry instructors. Fabio gave Sven the address for a restaurant owned by a friend of his and informed us that we would be treated like kings (which we were).

I believe good cooking is a lot like training. To prepare a good meal you need to follow a recipe. Similarly, when training towards a goal you need to follow a plan. A good meal has different courses that occur in a certain order i.e., 1st course, 2nd, etc. A good (long term) training plan has different protocols that build upon one another and should be followed in order. All the dishes to be prepared for a huge meal have their ingredients and every protocol has its own exercises. Only the highest quality ingredients have the best taste and only exercises conducted with the best possible form and technique are effective.

A good training plan is even more important when it comes to preparing for adventure events such as backpacking, alpine climbing, and obstacle course racing because it’s not as straight forward as preparing for an event like a powerlifting meet or the Tactical Strength Challenge. At StrongFirst we recognize this issue and offer the All-Terrain ConditioningTM course which teaches Strong EnduranceTM principles and how best to program to prepare for outdoor adventures.

Kenneth's summer HRST training

Elite culinary schools teach cooks to be great chefs and every world-class chef has a “go to” ingredient or secret sauce that can make an ordinary dish taste out of this world. With this article, I would like to share a special ingredient to add to your training, the “secret sauce” of adventure training preparation: loaded step-ups.

Loaded Step-Ups

For many years, step-ups have been a training staple for alpinist, mountaineers, and backcountry big game hunters preparing for uphill climbing endeavours. As an outdoor sport enthusiast, I have used step-ups to prepare for hiking and backpacking trips, alpine climbs, and mountain bike marathons as well as general conditioning.

Step-ups as preparation for these kinds of activities make perfect sense. But in reality, they have many uses. They can be a minimalist strength endurance exercise that can easily be added to a strength training program to promote recovery. They can be used as an addition to an endurance-based training program, a replacement for other types of traditional endurance training such as running, especially when during unfavorable conditions like extreme heat, cold, or inclement weather. They are also useful for military personnel on deployments who need to adhere to operational security or for individuals unable to run or jog due to previous injuries.

The early years of my step-up training were highly glycolytic and usually left me feeling tired and sluggish. The so-called “programming” I followed at the time was a linear progression of sorts, with the goal to always do more, go faster, step higher, and carry a heavier load.

I thought there must be another, “smarter” way to train that would deliver results from step-up training without killing myself in the process. Recalling what I had learned at Strong EnduranceTM and rereading my manual, I found the outlines to come up with a step-up protocol that delivers strength, endurance, and mental fortitude. I named it Heart Rate Step-Up Training (HRST).

HRST is a heart rate-based protocol that uses pre-determined timed intervals and their respective rest periods. The duration and volume of the training sessions is governed by the individual’s heart rate.

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HRST Variables

The first task that I faced with putting together a step-up protocol was to come up with standardized variables that needed to be constant throughout training. This was not as simple as it sounds, due to the many factors that come into play with step-up training. I studied all aspects of the exercise and began testing and assessing variables that could be set in stone before further designing the protocol. This led me to four constant variables: step height, heart rate ranges, tempo, and load.

Step height

This is personalized and needs to be adjusted to each athlete. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all,” I have chosen 75% of one’s bent knee height (BKH) to be optimal for step-up training. To determine your bent knee height, use the following method.

  • While barefoot, sit with one hip on the edge of an upright standing black-roll roller or a low box, approximately 30cm high (your hip must be below knee height while sitting). The bent knee of the opposite leg should be resting on the floor.
  • The toes of the foot of the measured leg should be touching a wall or optimally, the inside of a doorframe. The shin must remain vertical (90 degrees to the floor).
  • Use a carpenter’s square or any right-angled object (hard cover book, clipboard, etc.) to measure the height of the bent knee. Use a pencil to mark the height at the bottom of the square touching the wall or door frame. Then measure the distance from the floor to the mark you have made. This measurement is your 100% BKH.
The proper step-up knee angle
  • To find 75% BKH simply multiply this number by 0.75 and round up to the next full centimetre. (100% BKH x 0.75 = step/box height 75% BKH).

Heart rate ranges

All HRST protocols use the individual’s heart rate (HR) as a measurement for training. A formula is used to determine heart rate ranges that are to be followed through the protocol. The following method has been found to be well suited for the establishing these ranges. HR Ranges are expressed as Training Heart Rate Ranges (THRR).

First, the following values need to be determined:

  • Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)
    • Men: Use this formula to calculate your MHR: 208 – (0.7 x age).
    • Women: Use this formula to calculate your MHR: 206 – (0.88 x age).
  • Resting Heart Rate (RHR)
    • Measure your pulse first thing in the morning, preferably within 15 minutes after waking and before engaging in any significant activity.
  • Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)
    • MHR minus RHR = HRR
  • Training Heart Rate Range (THRR)
    • To determine your THRR, take a percentage of your HRR and add it to your RHR.
  • Example
    • A 40-year-old male with a RHR of 50 results in the following values:
    • MHR: 208 – (0.7 x 40) = 180
    • HRR: 180 – 50 = 130
    • 55% THRR = (HRR) 130 x 0.55 + (RHR) 50 = 121 bpm (round up or down)
    • 88% THRR = (HRR) 130 x 0.88 + (RHR) 50 = 164 bpm (round up or down)


The ideal tempo for stepping under load at this height is 19 steps per minute (SPM) and can easily be monitored with a simple metronome app. 19 SPM is a “medium” pace that can be sustained for intervals of varying length, while still maintaining proper stepping technique.

Load (intensity ranges)

Although a specific assessment is needed to determine the optimal load, an intensity of 20% body weight (BW) for men and 15% for women has proven to be the best average load to begin step-up training. (I would advise using a sturdy rucksack with a padded hip-belt for this training, but a weight vest is an acceptable alternative).

Stepping Technique

Now that the variables have been set, we can move on to how to properly perform the exercise. Wait a minute, you might be thinking. What’s so difficult about stepping up and down from a box? At first glance this may seem super simple but there are a lot of things happening during this exercise. Step-ups are kind of like the kettlebell swing, it’s a basic exercise that can get very deep the farther it is practiced.

Here are a few major points:

  1. Steps should be alternated each step and the foot switch is to be made at the top of the box with full hip extension. This technique mimics a natural gait pattern as when we walk or run our steps are alternated and the hip is in extension.
  2. The entire foot should be placed on the box/step platform. Be mindful NOT to step on the edge of the box (making contact with your mid-foot). Step through the heel and drive your chest up, imagine stepping through the platform in order to attain full hip extension.
  3. The knee should always track the toes with each step. This follows the StrongFirst standard for performing any kind of squat. There should be no internal rotation of the knee, thus ensuring the muscles of the hip are being properly engaged and the knee is protected.
The proper step-up leg alignment
  1. The arms should be kept at the sides of the body with minimal arm swing, if any at all. Training the lower body and posterior chain muscles are the focus of this exercise, any added momentum from the arms “helping” to get to the top of the step would be equivalent to kipping when performing a strict pullup.

HRST Training Session Procedures

NOTE: HRST is a heart rate (HR) based protocol. A sports watch is needed to accurately monitor your heart rate throughout training. Those who do not have a HR monitor and wish to try out this protocol can do so by using an interval timer and following the *italicized instructions below.

  • Measure your RHR in the morning of each training session and calculate your 55% THRR and 88% THRR.
  • Start your sports watch and begin stepping to the tempo of a metronome app set for 19 beats per minute. Be attentive to keep pace with the tone of the app using correct stepping technique.
    • *Start the interval timer set for 4:00min intervals and 1:30min rest periods.
  • Continue stepping for the entire 4:00min interval. When the interval time elapses, immediately stop and push the lap button on your watch to begin the rest period.
    • *Stop and begin the 90-second rest period.
  • Stay active during the rest periods. Walk around and breathe exclusively through your nose, shake the tension from your legs with “fast and loose” drills. Pay attention to your watch and keep an eye on your heart rate, as soon as your HR drops to 55% THRR, immediately start the next interval. If you meet or exceed 88% THRR, stop training. (More stop signs to help you maintain safe training are listed below.)
    • *Actively rest for the entire 90 seconds and begin the next interval as soon as the rest period has expired.
  • Be sure to push the lap button on your watch when starting the next interval.

The maximum number of intervals per session is 15 which would be 60 minutes of work in the above 4-minute interval example. HRST work intervals vary in length and can be as long as 12 minutes. Here is an overview of the entry level protocol built around 4-minute intervals:

HRST training
Click on the image to enlarge.

It is important to note that this is not an all-out glycolytic session. Only go as far as your HR will allow.

Stop Signs

If you come to any of the following stop signs, immediately stop the session.

  • Your HR does not drop to 55% THRR before the rest period cut-off time.
  • Your HR reaches or exceeds 88% THRR at any time during the training session.
    • *You must be able to pass the talk test at any time during training and strictly adhere to the interval times and rest periods. A sure-fire way to ensure this is to tape your mouth shut and breath exclusively through your nose.
  • Tempo slows down. For example, you have only completed 72 steps during a 4:00min interval instead of 76.
  • You start to breathe through your mouth.
  • You feel the need to swing your arms and/or push off with the trailing leg.
  • The maximum number of intervals for the protocol have been successfully completed.
Kenneth's winter HRST training


Now that you have the ingredients for my “secret sauce,” try adding some to your current training plan and spice it up a bit. If you would like to get the full recipe and learn all the details with in-depth instructions about how to combine training like this with other Strong Endurance protocols, sign up and attend an All-Terrain Conditioning course and prepare yourself for your next unforgettable outdoor adventure.


Training Heart Rate Range (THRR)

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Kenneth Bolyard
A native of West Virginia and a military veteran who served eight years in the U.S. Army, Kenneth Bolyard is a StrongFirst certified SFG II and SFB instructor located in Darmstadt, Germany where he owns and operates Mountaineer Athletics. Kenneth is an avid outdoorsman who spends much of his free time hiking, backpacking and mountaineering. Kenneth has been coaching since 1996 and working with kettlebells since 2002. He works with clients of all ages from all walks of life including police officers and military personnel, teenagers, corporate executives, and professional athletes. He specializes in mountain adventure training and strength training for triathletes with a philosophy that incorporates elements of Plan Strong, Strong Endurance and All-Terrain Conditioning. He offers in-person training for small groups and individuals as well as online training and does so in both English and German.

10 thoughts on ““Step Up” Your Adventure Training

  • This sounds like a great style of training.

    Would it be helpful to have an incline on the box, mimicking the steepness of a trail? (vs. a flat surface)
    And how can this be progressed? More weight? Faster pace?

    Thanks a lot.

  • great article!
    Do you think the same template could be applied to roundhouse kicks on a heavy bag, or you need some movement that’s more grindy then ballistic?

  • Really great article! Thanks for your insights and outlining such a great programm!

    • Kenneth,
      Thanks for putting all the work in to make this a really accessible program. Derek Toshner was kind enough to share the program in his ATC course, and a couple clients of mine have taken to it. A question: One client is working within a limited time frame, so we can’t go much beyond 4 sets. No time to do it on her own. She stays within the parameters listed, and so we’ve gone to the next level. (It’s listed in the program, but I don’t think I’m at liberty to say here, except that it’s the 6-minute table in the chart.) She cannot maintain pace at the new level. Would you advise working up to the new level? Meaning her pace slows, stop the set. Rest, then maybe resume the previous level; the original 4-minutes? My instinct is not to complicate the system, so there’s probably an easy solution that’s not apparent. – Marc

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