Situation Step Safety – Step Height

Iolani Avenue crosswalk marker

Creative Commons License photo credit: billsoPHOTO ~ Keerasel asked a question about safety in step class when a participant came in wearing Five Fingers athletic shoes. I  responded to the shoe situation on the original post but, in that there were several facets to the situation, I decided to address them here in a new post.  Here’s her question:

A woman came to my class yesterday wearing the running “shoes” that look like gloves for your feet- each toe is separate. Additionally, she had three risers under the step (she was maybe 5’6″) and since I was unfamiliar with her skill level, I asked her to remove one set of risers, which she did. I’m very safety conscious, and continuously remind my participants to be sure to place their foot completely on the bench, and put their heels down (except during lunges and repeaters). This woman (I’ll call her ‘Jo’) was bouncing a lot, obviously trying to make up for the missing risers. At one point, she grabbed a pair of hand weights, and I had to ask her to put them back ~ using them on the step at the Y is not allowed during a regular step class.

My question ~ should I allow those shoes to be worn in class? (another participant told me she wore Crocs to a class, and the instructor didn’t say a word…. I wouldn’t have let her continue). She’s very fit, but I’m uncomfortable with the three risers at her height, and concerned that she’s going to hurt herself – I’m all too familiar with the cumulative damage that can happen over time. What options can I give her to make her workout challenging for her fitness level, without injuring herself?

I really appreciate the fact that you are safety conscious and aware of proper step technique.  You mentioned that your club does not allow the use of hand weights in a regular step class.  For years now, we have been recommending that clubs develop standards for their own facility based on industry guidelines with their own clientele in mind.

With regard to injury and cases of negligence, liability can be found in either what was done or not done. If there are known risks and the instructor does what is against the club standards, liability can be found.  Likewise, if the instructor does not do what is expected of them, liability can also be found.

To that end, the question should be addressed with your group fitness director or club management to determine if this is a risk that needs to be defined.  When management defines the standards, it puts all instructors on the same page and reduces the club’s liability.  If they don’t define it as a specific risk, as a fitness professional, you may still decide, based on your assessment of the specific situation, to act or not act.

Specific to this situation, you assessed her to be ‘very fit’, but knowing the ‘cumulative damage over time’ you had her lower her step height. One factor that you didn’t mention was step speed.  If you teach a slower step class, a fit participant may feel the need to have a higher step height to get what they need out of the class.  IF your club has defined those standards, you were correct in having the participant lower the step height.  But, if your club leaves it up to you as the instructor, based on the other factors of intensity relative to your format, then making a pre-class announcement would have likely covered any liability.

In this case, I might have said:  “If you are new to my class, I teach at a tempo of ??? bpms.  Beyond 128 bpms, a lower step height of 6 or 8 inches max is recommended.  If you find that you are having difficulty maintaining proper form at your selected step height, you should stop and adjust the height to ensure a safe and effective workout.”  This statement should cover you in the event of an actual injury.

Remember, Jo had not yet taken your class so she did not know the variables that you control, which is speed and choreography.  Also, keep in mind that your concern of risk is one that is ‘cumulative’.  If she did come back to your class, you could then discuss your concerns with her one on one.  By making the general disclaimer first, you can then watch to see if her form is compromised at the height that you have identified as risky, and express your concern direct with her upon her return.  But in that she has personally elected to ignore your stated guidelines, she is assuming the risk.  If indeed she did injure herself, which is less likely with a fit participant, you would then file an incident report and have witnesses from the class attest to your warning.

Now, if you had not assessed her to be fit, or you were unsure, you may indeed handle it in a different way.  For instance, is she was wearing Keds or Crocs, you would certainly be more direct – under the assumption that risk of injury may be increased or even an imminent possibility.

If you do deem it necessary and choose to be direct, prefacing your comments with a positive statement like “You look like you are in excellent shape” or “You look like you know what you’re doing” can help diffuse what can potentially be a contentious conversation.

I’m not saying that you were wrong in the way you handled the sitution, because you were the one who was there.  I have the luxury of thinking about it long and hard in order to decide what I would do in the given circumstances. In the short and often hectic moments that precede a class, such unexpected situations can pop up and it can be difficult to determine how to handle them in the moment.  You made a decision to act on the side of safety and you really can’t go wrong there if safety and liability is your concern.

But, the result of your decision to be direct and have her lower her platform height set up a new challenge – that of the ‘aerobic heckler’.  I’ll cover that in the next post!


  1. says

    Nic I. on Gin’s Facebook: “Gin, what’s your take on the 3 risers? I’m 5 ft 4 and I let the tall girls use the risers ;)”

    Gin: “It depends on the speed and level of skill… if speed is such that reaction time is not significantly diminished, higher platforms are fine for taller people. If speed is fast, it’s difficult to fully extend the leg as you lift the body weight which leads to the groucho crouch.”

Leave a Reply