Category Archives: Single-Leg Exercises
5 Superior Single Leg Exercises
I’m a strong advocate of single-leg training for athletes. I consider them superior to their bilateral counterparts, and my years spent training countless athletes have reinforced my position.
Some of my colleagues have suggested that coaches who push single-leg movements only do so to be controversial. I can assure you this is not the case. We use single-leg exercises because they’re safer, deliver outstanding results, and make sense for athletes. It’s nothing controversial. It’s logical, old school wisdom.
Check out the page below from a 1922 issue of Strength magazine.
You may not be able to read the fine print; the top caption says, “Squatting on one leg will do more for you than squatting on the two legs together.”
Interestingly, the bottom caption says, “Just a variation of the same exercise as illustrated by the photo above.” So in 1922, the bilateral squat was “just a variation” of the single-leg squat.
What happened in the last ninety years? How did bilateral exercise evolve to make more sense than unilateral exercise?
The exercises didn’t evolve, but the industry did.
We grew up in a strength and conditioning world dominated by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters – all lifters for whom double-leg training makes perfect sense. Team sport athletes are not the same as strength-sport athletes, not by a long shot. So why argue that they should train the same?
If you’re an athlete or are involved in training them, it behooves you to drop the bodybuilding and powerlifting emphasis and start targeting the athlete’s true needs. Incorporating single-leg movements in place of bilateral movements is a great place to start.
Without further ado, here are my top five single-leg exercises.
1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat. This is our base unilateral exercise. My colleague Eric Cressey used an elevated platform and an offset load in his own Top Five Single Leg Exercises article published here. I prefer an 18″ bench or a specially designed stand, performed to a light touch on an Airex pad.
This is not a Bulgarian lunge. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the whole “Bulgarian” thing was based on the word of one coach, and the exercise isn’t a even a lunge. In a lunge, you move. This is a split squat – the feet never leave the ground.
The preferred loading is referred to as suitcase loading (dumbbells held in both hands, at the sides). This is a great exercise that’s easy to do and can be safely loaded to the extreme. A few weeks ago I had six athletes use a pair of 95-pound dumbbells for 20 reps on each leg.
I love to perform this exercise with kettlebells – it just feels better. In this clip, MBSC coach Ben Bruno does an amazing 305 pounds for 5 (90-pound dumbbells plus 125 pounds in vests).
A note about the bilateral deficit. There’s research suggesting we’re naturally stronger unilaterally. Our new lower body case studies support this conclusion. It appears that the body finds the attempts at bilateral contractions neurologically confusing. In other words, it’s harder for the brain when you lift on two legs.
2. One-Leg Straight Leg Deadlift. Many will recognize this as the Romanian deadlift or RDL. Much like the Bulgarian lunge, the Romanian deadlift was around long before the Romanian weightlifters made it popular. This is still my favorite posterior chain exercise, no matter what you call it.
If you think you have a strong posterior chain, or if you think the bilateral deficit doesn’t exist, take a look at this clip of Max Shank of Ambition Athletics doing 315 pounds for 5 with one leg.
Many of my critics have said that the bilateral deficit is a myth and that the back leg in the rear-foot elevated split squat is doing a large percentage of the work. This video clearly establishes the bilateral deficit. If you double his single-leg load, Max would be doing a 630×5 straight leg deadlift, but Max can’t do a 600-pound single in the conventional deadlift. Case closed.
This is also a great kettlebell exercise. The goal is to get to the point that the athlete has to move to dumbbells. Our kettlebells end at 32 kilograms, so after 140 pounds we need to move to dumbbells or a straight bar.
3. One-Leg Squat. If you’re looking for a great exercise for athletes, this is it. The one-leg squat demonstrates true single-leg strength, and our athletes are capable of using more than 100 pounds in this lift. I particularly love this for female athletes and ACL injury prevention.
The hardest part of the one leg squat is loading the exercise. We use a combination of dumbbells and weight vests to get the proper load.
In this clip, former New Jersey Devil Jay Pandolfo does 90 pounds for 5.
4. Slideboard Lunge. The slideboard or Valslide lunge is another great single-leg exercise, and the best part is that you get the flexibility work of a lunge with a very strong posterior chain component. If I have personal training clients and can only do one lower body exercise, this is often my first choice.
The slideboard or Valslide lunge is a “pulling” exercise that targets the posterior chain but looks very much like a lunge – think of them as walking lunges performed in place. This is a great exercise for offset loading to increase glute contribution. Kettlebells also work very well.
5. One-Leg Deadlift. The one-leg deadlift is especially good for those unable to deadlift due to back concerns. Many might look at this exercise and think that it’s a one-leg squat, however, the combination of the load in the hands and the slightly angled trunk clearly makes this a deadlift.
Loading is accomplished first in an offset manner – start by using plates, provided you’ve access to Irongrip plates that allow you to grab the rim. I like a cross body reach to again create greater glute recruitment.
Some believe in the bilateral deficit, others prefer to ignore the obvious and keep their heads buried in the chalk stand. It doesn’t matter – the power of single-leg training is undeniable.
If you’re an athlete looking to improve performance or a bodybuilder hoping to build some huge wheels, unilateral training is the answer. It’s a true back to the future idea that helps lifters get bigger, stronger, and more athletic, safely. What’s not to love?
Single-leg work has been a pretty controversial topic lately.
Some folks say that it’s the only safe way to train the lower body for the long haul and that bilateral exercise is the devil. Others insist that you can’t possibly build size relying on unilateral lower body exercises and that they’re a cop-out for those who don’t want to squat and deadlift heavy.
What’s my take?
I think that people just like to be controversial.
The truth is that I think single-leg work is fantastic and I include it in a ton of the programs that I write. I experienced great improvements in some of my bilateral lifts when I made a dedicated effort to improving my single-leg strength. I’m also convinced that including unilateral lower-body lifts in my programs has helped me to stay healthy. These are benefits I’ve seen in our athletes and clients as well (and Mike Robertson covered these benefits in great detail in Single-Leg Supplements).
That said, unless we’re talking about an individual who has some injury history that renders squatting and deadlifting dangerous, I think it’s a mistake to build programs purely around single-leg exercises. In other words, the bilateral work will always be the meat, but the single-leg stuff is the potatoes.
In other words, for most lifters, single-leg work tends to be the first or second lower-body exercise in a training session. For those with some type of injury that makes that heavier bilateral work a problem, we do our single-leg work first and follow it up with whatever bilateral exercise (e.g., pull-throughs, glute-ham raises) they can handle.
With all that in mind, not all single-leg exercises are created equal, so I thought I’d use today to outline my top five.
1. Barbell Reverse Lunge – Front Squat Grip
This is an awesome exercise to help educate folks on how to stay upright during just about any lower body exercise, as the front squat grip forces good posture during the drill. Conversely, it’s much easier to “slump” when holding dumbbells – and the last thing you want to do is execute the entire set with the shoulders rounded.
Using the front squat grip during a the barbell reverse lunge also works well with athletes dealing with shoulder problems (excluding AC joint pain), as it keeps the shoulders in a pain-free position while still offering the benefits of axial loading. It’s also more knee-friendly than forward lunging variations, as there isn’t a whole lot of deceleration taking place with the athletes stepping back rather than forward.
2. Barbell Forward Lunges
This strength exercise might be the granddaddy of all single-leg drills for me simply because it’s the one that allows for an appreciable amount of loading, but is also combined with two factors that make it especially effective. First, lunging forward increases deceleration demands and, in turn, eccentric strength. Second, positioning the bar on the upper back raises the center of gravity farther away from the base of support, which adds to the stability challenge.
The only people for whom it isn’t a good fit are those with poor shoulder mobility and/or with anterior knee pain. If you’ve got stiff shoulders, stick with the front squat positioning. If you’ve got knee pain, find a drill with less deceleration demands.
3. DB Reverse Lunge to 1-Leg RDL
This exercise actually looks pretty “foo-foo,” but the truth is that it will likely make you sorer than any movement you’ve ever done before in your training career. And, because each rep takes longer to do, those whose spines may not handle compressive loading very well can still get a great training effect without lugging really heavy weights around. I’ve seen guys with squats over 400 pounds humbled with 3×8/side using 50-pound dumbbells on the reverse lunge to 1-leg RDL.
Additionally, this is a great addition to metabolic resistance training medleys because of the minimal loading needed and larger excursion of movement. The only people who may want to stay away from it are beginners whose form may break down as the set goes on and fatigue accumulates.
4. 1-Arm DB Bulgarian Split Squats from Deficit
When I see this exercise in my program, I usually just want to cry. Then, after I wind up doing it, I feel a hell of a lot better about myself. Here’s the scoop…
When you hold the dumbbell on the same side of the trailing leg, you have weight pulling your support leg into adduction and internal rotation (as your hip flexes). In other words, positioning the weight in this fashion forces your hip external rotators, abductors, and extensors to work harder eccentrically.
What externally rotates, abducts, and extends the hip? The gluteus maximus.
What do most people suck at using? The gluteus maximus.
Try it without shoes to increase the difficulty and work on ankle mobility and function of the muscles of the lower leg and feet.
5. Sled Pushing (or pulling, or dragging, or side-stepping, or whatever)
I know what you’re thinking: sled pushing isn’t a lunge, split-squat, pistol squat, 1-leg RDL, or step-up – so it can’t be a single-leg exercise, can it?
Well, watch someone push a sled and – as is the case with sprinting – there are always points in time where only one leg is in contact with the ground.
So you could make the argument that sled pushing is the most basic, stupid-proof single-leg exercise out there, yet it’s still quite effective.
It teaches hip separation (one hip extends while the other flexes).
It allows you to load someone without making them sore, as there’s no eccentric stress.
It’s so basic that anybody can do it – no matter how uncoordinated they are.
It can be used for everything from metabolic conditioning, to speed training, to strength work.
You can push it (high or low setting), drag it backwards, or do side sled-drags. You can do farmer’s walks and pull it with a harness behind you. The options are near limitless – but regardless of what you do, you’ll still be in single-leg stance. It’s a beautiful thing.
These five options might be my favorites, but they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. We use 1-leg RDLs to increase our posterior chain emphasis and allow those with anterior knee pain to still improve their balance. We use step-ups with beginners who need extra practice in single-leg stance without getting ridiculous soreness. The options are limitless, but the message is clear: single-leg training is a valuable tool in your toolbox, even if it isn’t top dog in your strength and conditioning program.