The Step Speed Issue – Again

For the last decade – at the very least – we’ve been contacted by frustrated instructors and program directors for information on the issue of step speed.  Truth is, while Gin Miller is well-known as the creator of step, she doesn’t exactly considered herself as the arbiter of what’s ‘right’ or that the final word belongs to her, even though she’s deemed to be the expert who started it all.

Step grew way beyond Gin – and way beyond the purview of Reebok.  Reebok University, who first commissioned the research and set the initial guidelines, last weighed in on the issue in 1997 pushing the top limit to 128 bpms, up from 126 bpms.  And then Reebok University quietly dissolved.

My recent conversation with Julie Upton covered several aspects of the topic.  What prompted the discussion was that she had been told that AFAA had upped the high end speed of step to 135 bpms, a fact that I have since confirmed with Kathy Stevens (former Reebok Master Trainer, now associated with AFAA, pictured above w/ Gin):

Based on research provided over the past decade, here are the recommendations AFAA has listed in their updated training materials:

Step aerobics: 118–128 bpm (up to 135 for advanced, highly-skilled participants)

The original guidelines were developed when step was a vertical climbing activity and typically performed at a much slower pace than today’s classes – relatively speaking, alot slower.  Intensity was provided by step height (participant controlled), levers and range of motion (participant controlled), power options (participant controlled), sequential patterning (instructor controlled), and music cadence or tempo (instructor controlled). 

Thru adaptation and evolution, step height came down as music tempo increased – or vice versa.  Whichever was the cause and effect, step became less of a vertical climbing activity as step height decreased and tempo increased beyond 128 bpms – the speed that had been determined in the original guidelines to be the threshold between low impact and high impact.

No doubt the AFAA materials will cite sources for the research, but I decided to do a little of my own with a recently discovered tool called “Google Scholar“.  By using the terms “step aerobics speed“, I reviewed articles on at least 10 pages of results.  The frustrating thing about trying to research something on your own is that many of the results require you to sign up or pay to read much more than a brief summary on a paper.  Understandable, of course, but it takes time to find anything that is accessible to the average inquisitive instructor.  Second challenge, if you do find a full article,  is trying to understand what it means!

Here’s what I found. 

First, you can read the first page of an article Michele Scharff Olson, Ph.D. and Henry Williford, Ed.D., FACSM did for ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal back in 1998, where they cite the 1993 study about the expenditure and impact levels associated with various step heights and the increase in expenditure with the addition of arms.  (Content is clearly labeled as ‘not for reuse’ so I’m being vague here.)  One can safely assume, based on the date, that the study is the same one done at the aforementioned slower speed.  Nevertheless, the information about impact associated with various step heights is good foundational knowledge.

I also ran across an article published by American Fitness (AFAA’s magazine) in 2001 written by Jonna Hayden Robinson called “Speed Demons – Step Aerobics” :  

“Excuse me … Please stop teaching this step aerobics class right now!” I demand from the doorway of the gym, official badge in hand. The instructor and her students look at me with puzzlement as the music pounds in the background. She asks, “Who are you? And what is my offense?” I reply, “I am a member of the Step Speed Patrol–and you were speeding! My job is to ferret out step aerobics instructors who are conducting classes at speeds faster than the recommended industry standard of 128 BPM.” The step aerobics instructor frowns and says, “But my students are demanding a better workout! I have to speed up the tempo to give them what they need.”

Yes indeed, that article is a classic.  So now, in that AFAA has officially given instructors permission to up their speed, let me skip the research stuff and just talk some common sense.

Provide variety: If your step classes are all the same or perhaps the numbers are dwindling, consider that new members may find it difficult to learn step at today’s faster speeds.  Think about providing a variety of types of step and clarify the classes for the potential participants.  Since few want to be considered ‘beginners’ and everyone wants to be ‘advanced’ or at least attempt the ‘hard’ class, try labeling classes by types such as ‘basic, athletic or vertical step’, ‘moderate choreographed hi/low step’, or ‘fast & fancy high impact step’.

You can’t be all things to all people:  If you have someone who is complaining or rudely hinting that you need to pick up the pace, make your general recommendations for how the individual can increase their intensity with step height, impact or levers, and from there, focus on the rest of the people who are there because your class fits their needs.  Same goes for program directors.  Thank the complainer for their input and kindly suggest a different class or instructor.

Have the courage of your convictions: For the last decade, we’ve tried to encourage program directors to consider who they have as members and determine their needs.  Everyone wants to know the final word on what is right, but you have to look at your demographics to determine what is right for your club. If you have predominantly young 20-somethings, your program offerings will likely differ from a club with an older population or mixed membership.  The same goes for individual instructors.  Assess, determine and decide – YOU are the expert!

To summarize, arm yourself with knowledge, apply good common sense, stick to your guns – but keep in mind WHO the workout is for… or perhaps who most NEEDS to be participating.  If they are not, don’t be afraid to ask why.  The answer may surprise you.


Below, I’ve listed some articles to save you some time in clicking the same links that I visited – although you may wish to try some different keywords in your own research – some are full articles, and others you can glean at least a little insight:

Metabolic Cost of Aerobic Dance Bench Stepping at Varying Cadences and Bench Heights – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.  2002.  This may be worth paying for access – abstract says:

In conclusion, it appears that bench height is more of a factor than cadence in increasing metabolic cost of ADBS. Results from this study provide information about the energy cost of ADBS at the common bench heights and cadences used in this study and, therefore, may be used to help aerobic participants select the proper bench height and cadence combination to control body weight and develop cardiorespiratory fitness safely and effectively.

Efficiency of Walking and Stepping: Relationaship to Body Fatness– Obesity Research (2004): Especially good if you want to target the market that needs help the most – lots of letters and numbers in this full research article pdf!

Effects of Ballates, Step Aerobics, and Walking on Balance in Women Aged 50-75 Years– full pdf article from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Science (2006).  (Especially good if your class members tend to be of an older population.)

International Journal for Consumer perceptions of injuries sustained in aerobic classes: “The conclusion of the study is that the intensity or nature of step classes may be contributing to overuse symptoms. Beginners may have to be monitored so that they progress gradually in program frequency.”  Australia, published 1996 (Interesting because this is about the time that step height started to come down.)

Osteogenic index of step exercise depending on choreographic movements, session duration, and stepping rate – July 2006 – Just the abstract, but you have options to investigate further.

If you run into other research articles using different keywords, please let us know by making a comment below – and as always, your comments are appreciated!


  1. chaskell says

    I submitted on Facebook – but hey this is how I feel and I’m stickin to it. To me the only difference as I saw it then & now between Beg/Intermediate/Advanced is the choreography. The speed should have nothing to do with it. I’ve seen Gin many times give options and believe me I never saw or heard her once pause to speed up the music! I rest my case! Personally AFAA backing that up disturbs me because especially in older adults who still love step – they probably should not be even trying that speed!

    I’m staying with the old favorite & I’m even pushing it at 130 TOPS!

    crickett haskell

  2. stepgirl4efr says

    I agree with you Crickett 100 percent. In all the years I’ve been teaching step I haven’t felt the NEED to turn up the speed. However, I have had to pitch it up somewhat so that people don’t walk out of my class in droves because everyone else is going so much faster…

    I also agree with you on being disappointed in AFAA’s decision to up the guidelines. I think all that’s going to do is allow everybody to push the speed even further. If instructors are already going 135 when the guideline says 128…now they’ll be able to go 140 and above…after all, that’s just like going 5 miles over the speed limit, right???

    I’m glad there are still instructors out there that want to step correctly for their members…that’s the group I want to be associated with!!

  3. MFJB says

    I don’t think that turning up the speed is the issue, it comes to the type of music the instructor choose to use in his/her class. Personally, instructors needs to take the time to listen to their music before the class, and organize which one will be used for their classes. Hence, replying to one of the discussions, increasing the speed (BPM or Beat) of the music to achieve a harder workout isn’t always necessary, but to know how to do Steps correctly at the standard speed.

  4. shane says

    Patterns. It’s the way step has been taught 99% of the time. Teach A, then B, do A-B …teach C. Repeat over and over. Get bored and resort to speeding up the music…. Next class, same thing…and the next. I believe the majority go a month with a routine and then it’s time to pull out the pen and paper and write out a new routine.
    If you want easy change, to keep the interest of the participants, save yourself a ton of headache writing up new routines and not have to resort to speeding up the music “to please the participants”, then learn to cue a full class. If you can cue, you don’t need patterns…or if you like patterns, stick with them somewhat but don’t commit to any pattern. Teach the participants to LISTEN for your cue, rather than remember A-Z. Teach them to not have to watch you. Teach them the vocabulary, preferably the “once” standardized step reebok terminology. Teach them to never expect the next move coming…..your cues will guide them. You’ve now grabbed their attention…they don’t have time to think about anything because they are focusing on your cues. And watch the class fly by! Like putting them in a trance for the duration of your stepping portion. I’ve seen it termed as freestyle. The only thing I don’t like about that word is that it may seem like there’s no effort to make sure you balance what you do leading with the right or left. That too comes with experience. My suggestion would be to cue every 4 count move….if possible….(other than something like a repeater) Let’s take for example, “around the world” =16 counts. That’s a pattern and you’re committed. If you can’t cue “single knee/straddle, single knee/travel, single knee/straddle, single knee/travel” then maybe that’s why your teaching patterns. But if you could cue it, you could change it and never allow the participants to know what’s next, thereby keeping their attention constantly. Some students who are used to patterns will never like this. But I’m only here to tell you that most will love this style of step and thank you for saving them from quitting step if they haven’t already. Learn to cue and you’ll be slowing down your music too…because you can’t cue every 4 count move at 134 BPM. Practice it…play with it…become creative. You’ll end up with a much more interesting class and definitely a safer one. If you like your patterned style classes, are confident that it’s a safe one and your classes are packed and people are asking for more step classes on the schedule, by all means, stick with what your doing. But sadly, I’m seeing step die off….one club after another. On top of the boredom of repeating over and over, too many have walked away from step with injuries or aching feet with all the bouncing involved. Watch the heels of steppers and you’ll often find they never have time to touch the ground because the music is so fast. Personally, I don’t even teach patterns to beginners because I don’t want them to become accustomed to it. I want them to learn to listen and to expect change. After teaching step and ONLY step for 21 years, I still look forward to every class. No class is ever the same….I just make it up as I go. Good luck!


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