Squats and deadlifts are a leg day’s bread and butter, with single leg work typically an afterthought. The general (albeit, misconstrued) consensus labelsunilateral exercises as nothing more than light accessory work. That said, single leg strength training offers a myriad of benefits.
Benefits of single leg exercises:
1. Minimal stress on the spine. You don’t have to load a barbell behind your neck and squat to grow bigger, stronger legs. With the average lifter not having the prerequisite mobility to perform barbell squats, the lower back often suffers.Many single leg exercises bypass the low back and put all (if not, the majority) of the load directly to your legs.
2. Correct imbalances. You’re always going to have imbalances to some degree. While bilateral lifts like squats and deadlifts allow you to see imbalances, unilateral exercises allow you to address or correct them. You’ll typically favour one side during a bilateral lift, thus placing more stress on your dominant side. This expands the strength gap between limbs andfurther exacerbatesthe imbalance.Single leg or unilateral exercises allow you to put the same amount of stress on each leg, every rep of every set. Thus overtime, “evening out” your imbalances.
3. Balance/coordination. Minimizing your base of support (i.e. standing on one leg vs. two) challenges your balance and proprioception.
4. More loading potential to your legs.The ceiling of loading potential (how much weight your legs can handle) is higher to a certain degree given the fact that the common limiting factor during lower body lifts is the lower back. With the limiting factor disassociated, you can load more potential weight directly to your legs.
5. Mobility. Single leg training increases your strength and mobility simultaneously. Just the act of doing single leg exercises will make your mobility better overtime.
3 Single Leg Exercises You Should Be Doing
It’s common to develop a love/hate relationship with these movements. You’ll love the gains, and probably hate actually doing them. Then again, anything worth gaining is worth earning.
Here are three single leg exercises you should be doing.
1. Single Leg Squat
You can think of the single leg squat as a really strict step-up. The difference is you’re placing all of the emphasis on one leg with no assistance from the other.
During step-ups, it’s common to “spring up” with the back leg and use a bit of momentum to step onto the box. With single leg squats, you stand on top of the box and “squat” down with your top leg. As you reach the bottom of the movement, tap your heel to the floor merely for depth indication and push solely with your top leg.
How to do it:
• Stand on a box or bench or other riser. Be sure to stand near the edge of one side to allow your free leg to reach the floor.
• Hold two dumbbells or a plate.
• Keep your left leg straight and off the box to the side.
• Squat down with your right leg and bring your arms forward to shoulder-height.This adds an element of core work and helps you counterbalance.
• Tap your left heel on the floor and push back up to your starting position using only your right leg.
• Do 6-12 reps and repeat on the left leg.
I prefer single leg squats over the infamous pistol squat for a number of reasons:
i) You don’t need to keep your free hanging leg parallel to the floor (which has no added benefit at all and usually encourages poor posture during the exercise)
ii) It’s easier to maintain a neutral spine throughout your set
iii) You can overload the movement to a higher degree than pistol squats
2. Skater Squat
The skater squat is basically a reverse lunge on steroids. Rather than bringing your back foot to the floor, you keep it elevatedand tap your knee to ground before squatting back up.
How to do it:
• Hold two dumbbells and stand on your right leg with your left leg bent.
• Have a balance pad underneath your left leg (you can use a pillow or yoga block if you don’t have one).
• “Squat” down with your right leg and raise your arms to shoulder-height to counterbalance and engage your core.
• Tap your left knee to the pad and squat back up using only your right leg.
• Do 8-12 reps and repeat on the left leg.
As with some of the more advanced single leg progressions, the skater squat can initially have a steep learning curve. That said, you can scale it back using some upper body assistance as shown below.
3. Single Leg RDL
The RDL or Romanian Deadlift has been long been regarded as one of the primary lifts to strengthen the posterior chain (low back, hamstrings, and glutes). The single leg variation adds to it’s awesomeness by increasing glute and hamstring involvement.
Typically, you would perform the single leg RDL holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand while balancing on the opposite leg (this is called contralateral loading). That said, you have an array of variations at your disposal.This is just one of many.
How to do it:
• Stand with a kettlebell or dumbbell in your right hand.
• With your left leg slightly bent, hinge forward while reaching back with your right leg.
o Quick tip: Your back leg and torso should be one straight line and move as one unit to avoid hyperextending the lower back. Think hinging in unison as opposed to just kicking your leg back.
• Have your left arm out to the side to counterbalance.
• Reach straight down with your right arm (as opposed to reaching forward past your feet).
• Squeeze your left glute by applying force through your heel and come back up to your starting position.
Single leg exercises are more than just light accessory work after your squats and deadlifts. Load them heavy for bigger, stronger legs sans the nagging low back pain that can often be associated with the barbell lifts.