Make the Most of 3 Key High-Low Moves

Adjust tempo, direction and other variables to turn basic moves into exercise variations that help you build fun “new” routines quickly.

by Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA

Bring it UP! Turn the much-used step-touch into a step-knee, and give your workout routine a leg up.

As group fitness instructors, we want our high-low classes to be fresh, fun and easy to follow. Yet it’s hard to offer creative content week after week, class after class. And while some members may be choreo-challenged, others may be chomping at the bit for some new moves. Fortunately, adding in variations on a few base moves can help us succeed in all these goals—without spending too much time and energy on choreography.

By brainstorming options, we can milk these base moves till the cows come home, and we’ll be the teacher everyone follows and enjoys.

To illustrate this concept in action, let’s look at three popular high-low moves: squat, step-touch and mambo. Each of these distributes or transfers weight differently. Understanding weight transfer gives us ideas and options. But we have more to work with to really get our creative juices flowing. You can apply these same principles to any base move!

Base Move: Squat

Weight transfer: None. Weight is evenly distributed between both feet. There is no lead leg.
Whether you cue a squat with a wide or narrow stance or a half-time or double-time (pulsing) tempo, your weight is equally on both feet. Because weight is balanced, you can lead left or right out of this base.

“Hinge back at the hips instead of forward at the knees.”

Mostly, you will be varying rhythm, impact or direction with your squat choreography, as described above. To mix things up, vary stance or tempo, travel or leap. Examples:

  • Cue a wide or narrow stance.
  • Change tempo to half-time or double-time (pulsing).
  • Travel the squats R and L.
  • Do a half or quarter turn every 4th repetition (so class faces a different wall).
  • Add a plyometric lift off every 4th or 8th repetition or any countdown squat.
  • Jump from a wide squat to clicking your heels together in midair, adding intensity and impact.
  • Do jumping jacks or air jacks from a narrow-stance squat. Jacks also come from a balanced, two-legged weight-loaded base, making them a natural variation on this theme.
  • Slow the jacks (above) to a half-time tempo (4 counts per rep versus 2 for a regular jack).

Base Move: Step-Touch

Weight transfer: Weight shifts from one leg to the other on every odd count by changing the lead leg.

From a balanced (marching) stance, the lead leg steps sideways (R or L) and weight shifts to that leg, then the other leg steps toward the lead leg to touch (tap) the floor beside it. (Weight does not shift to the tapping leg for that second count.) On the next (in this case, third) count, the tapping leg steps back to where it was, becoming the lead leg. Weight now shifts to that leg, then the other leg steps toward it and taps. (So, L leg steps L, R leg taps L, R leg steps R, L leg taps R.)

“The foot to tap is the next foot to lead.”

Many step-touch variations rely on direction and rhythm changes to keep the move interesting. By also varying plane of motion, impact or intensity, you can really get creative with this common move. Examples:

  • Angle the step-touch forward and back on a zigzag.
  • Quarter-turn each step-touch every 2 counts to create a box.
  • Step-touch single, single, double (rhythm change).
  • Zigzag forward 8 counts and back another 8 counts with that single-single-double rhythm.
  • Change which way you’re facing: Step-touch 4 times (8 counts total), adding a half turn (to face the opposite wall) on counts 3 and 7. So, you’ll face the front of the room, then the back, then the front again. (You’ll come back to where you started on the 8 count.)
  • Change the plane of motion, step-touching forward and back in the sagittal plane instead of the frontal.
  • Move in the sagittal plane, but instead of the touch, do a kick (Charleston), a hamstring curl, a hip extension or a knee lift. (For example, to step-kick, you’ll step front L leg, kick front R leg, step back R leg, kick back L leg.)
  • Add impact or intensity, turning step-touches into step-hops from R to L or front to back.
  • Go asymmetrical with a regular frontal-plane step-touch, sitting low on counts 1 and 2 heading R, then step to the L with the R leg, lifting into abduction as you extend the arms and reach up. Add impact by pushing off and going airborne on count 4. Sit low and bend to the R, then reach high and long to the L (again, be sure to switch sides to lead a sequence starting L).
  • Do step-crosses: Tap the second leg behind and across the midline for 4 counts (to the R and L sides), then do the same to the front, step-tapping across the midline.
Give members a different view: Take those squats in a circle, with a quarter turn to the left on each count.
Take your mambo in a new direction: Up and onto a bench with the lead leg. It’s simple but it mixes things up without confusing exercisers.

Base Move: Mambo

Weight transfer: Constant lead leg, with weight transfer alternating from R to L with each count, or beat.

A mambo is essentially a march or walk in place with 4 beats, or counts. Weight transfers with each beat from R leg to L. The difference between a march and a mambo is one of direction. Count 1 (R leg) steps away from the body (say, forward), while on count 2, the L leg stays under you. Count 3 brings the L leg back under you, while the L leg again steps in place for count 4.
One could also argue that a mambo adds a rhythm change, because it emphasizes stepping out on the odd counts—typically 1 and 5.

“A mambo is simply a march with the lead leg adding a direction change. If you get lost, come back to a march, then step back out and in with that lead foot.”

Thinking of the mambo as a march helps you take your class on a mambo journey, mixing and matching mambo variations for at least 5 minutes. Let’s assume a R lead for the following (but of course, start a later sequence with a L lead, for balance):

  • Mambo R lead leg 2 times to the front (8 counts), 2 times to the side, 2 times to the back, then 2 times to the side again, for a full set of 32 counts.
  • Mambo once in each of these directions: front, side, back, side again (for 16 counts total), using repetition reduction. You can reduce repetitions even more by cutting the “return” step: Instead of 4 counts for each mambo, drop to 2 and mambo directly to the front, side, back and side without returning the lead leg to the middle (under your body).
  • Mambo and travel: Mambo front on the 1 count, walk back for counts 2, 3 and 4, then mambo back on the 5 count. Angle this walk in any direction. For another variation on mambo travel, turn the hip to the front on the 1 count (quarter-turn the lead foot to the L); then, on count 5, open out the hip a quarter turn the other way (quarter-turn lead foot to the R) as you mambo back. Alternatively, turn count 5 into a hitch kick with the L leg kicking up and front as you transfer weight back to the R leg.
  • The mambo X-step relies on a 6 or 12 count, so you will have to march in place for 2 counts at the end (or do a jack or squat or any other 2-count move) to realign with the 8 count. Some progressions: When you mambo front, step across yourself to the L with the R foot on count 1, then step across yourself to the R with the L foot on count 4. Then take the mambo behind yourself, stepping back and across to the L with the R foot on count 7, and lastly mambo behind yourself to the R with the L foot on count 10. Visualizing an X pattern makes it easier to teach the move. Remember, you are always marching (not tapping) and transferring weight from R foot to L with each beat. The only thing that changes is the direction.
  • Jazz square progressions: A mambo can easily segue into a jazz square—again, only the direction changes. On the 1 count, step across yourself to the L with the R foot, then step back a bit with the L leg, then step R and wide on the 3 count, and step together with the L to close on the 4 count. To add impact, swing the first leg across yourself so you land on it (like a hop or jump) instead of walking it into place. Or make a full revolution, turning in a jazz square for those 4 counts by “walking” around yourself. Turn L when leading with the R leg.
  • Mambos are also essentially pivots. Do 4 R-lead mambos, with one each to the north (front), west (side), south (back), then east (side), quarter-turning L every 4th count for a total of 16 counts in one “revolution.” Progressions for this: Do the same NWSE sequence, but remove the return step to the middle, pushing off the R foot to do a quarter turn on every odd beat (completing a 4-point pivot in 8 counts). Or remove the side (west and east) pushes and do a full-pivot turn: Mambo front, half-turn to the back, mambo facing back, and half-turn to the front.
    No doubt you are more than familiar with pivots. But have your participants thought of them as a mambo or as a marching variation? You’ll note that we haven’t even had to whip out the ubiquitous mambo-cha-cha yet.
    Once you distill the mambo to its fundamental move—a march with emphasis on direction and rhythm—class members can more easily follow or modify the move as you progress it. Plus, you can really take this one move to many places. Get your passport out and start to travel

Ready to Step Up?

Have you gleaned at least two or three twists on these tried-and-true moves that inspire you to revisit the mambo, step-touch and squat in your classes? And we’ve explored just one movement type at a time. Imagine combining all three into patterns. Then you’ll really be off and running—and walking and stepping and squatting and dancing. And leading fun, smooth, successful high-low classes.

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Williams-Evans Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA has groups that are so chatty she has to flick the lights to get their attention to start class. She blogs at and teaches in Santa Barbara, California.

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