These single leg exercises may make you cry at first, but in time they’ll help you build muscle, gain strength, and improve your athletic performance.
Leg strength is vital to develop in any sports performance program. It’s why squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and more recently weighted hip thrusts are all used to increase strength, power, and agility. But while squats and deadlifts have for years been the foundation of my programs, the downside is they never work one leg at a time.
So what’s the big deal about single leg training? Well, for athletes, and even those simply trying to look better, it will help improve any asymmetries you have while developing strength in more sport specific positions. Activities like running, hopping, bounding, cutting and penetration steps, and throws for combat sports all require single leg strength and stability.
Which is why, to take your training to the next level, you’ll need to use a combination of the single leg exercises found below.
The split squat is the foundation of all single leg training. Strength coach Mike Robertson calls this the 90/90 split squat because of the upright torso, shin angles, and vertical tibia. You can see that in a proper split squat, the front and back legs both form 90 degree angles. The vertical shin reduces stress on the knees, and recruits more glute and hamstrings into the movement (see the picture above for a visual) Just make sure to force your knees out so they stay in line with your ankles during this exercise, as this will prevent any knee injuries that you might be susceptible to.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Once you’re comfortable with the split squat, elevate the back leg on a bench to increase the difficulty of this lower body exercise. The Bulgarian split squat is one of my favorite exercises for improving strength while gaining hip mobility on the back leg. The first loading pattern I like to use is the goblet position (show in the picture above) with either a kettlebell or dumbbell. This will help you stay upright and drop down into the correct position. In addition to kettlebells however, I like to use a safety squat bar or giant cambered bar to increase the weight. Should you not have those, a regular bar, or front squat position, work fine too. When training for strength, 3-5 sets of 5 reps is a great place to start.
The reverse lunge is the first exercise we use for our lunge progression. By stepping behind you don’t need to decelerate as you do in a forward lunge, making the movement much more knee friendly. These can be heavily loaded once you’re comfortable with the movement. Start out with a front squat grip when introducing barbell reverse lunge in order to keep a good upright posture, but I also love the slide board Reverse Lunge.
The slide board Reverse Lunge is a great when short on time, for it blends hip and knee dominant exercises. Since you must actively stand up and pull your leg through, it recruits a lot of glutes and hamstring, as well as quads. We like to use a variety of loading patterns here, such as offset Kettlebells and sandbags.
The forward lunge should be further on the single leg progression spectrum, as I see this far too often cause knee pain for athletes not ready for it. You must actively decelerate the motion as your body weight shifts forward. This is an important skill, as it will help you improve your ability to cut and change direction on the field.
The step up is a great lower body exercise because it gives you the strength and balance needed to start working toward single leg squats and free standing pistol squats. I like to load this exercise with sandbags in the Zercher position (bag in crooks of elbows as seen in the picture below) to load the core more and help keep the athlete more upright, but dumbbells and barbells can be used as well.
Again 3-5 sets of 5 reps is all you need if you’re going heavy.
Single Leg Squat
The single leg squat is the king of all single leg knee dominant exercises. It’s great for strengthening the quads and preventing any future knee injuries. That said, it’s important to ensure you keep your heels on the ground the whole time in order to maximize the benefits and prevent injury.
A good way to start these is with a high box and work downward. The box will provide some support and security in the beginning, but once you’ve mastered the form feel free to load this with weight vests, chains, or light dumbbells. If you’re feeling crazy, try using two kettlebells in the racked position.
Listen as I’m sure you know by now that single leg strength is crucial for all athletes. It will help to correct any imbalances in your body, and provide functional strength and stability that carries over into all sports. While bilateral exercises are still important and should be a foundation of any general strength program, single leg exercises are more specific to sports and thus should be a staple in all sports performance programs. You now have no excuse not to incorporate them into your program… so stop reading, and go get after it!
To maximize your gains using these single leg exercises 1R would recommend the following supplements: