Single-leg training has been a hot topic for some time now. Many agree it is a staple to lasting strength and lower-body development and also places minimal stress on the low back. Yet, others remain convinced bilateral exercises are the only way to go.
The funny thing is—both work! I love both and program both single-leg and bilateral training into my programs. Is one more valuable than the other? Mike Boyle would tend to favor unilateral work in terms of relatable strength and development for athletes, which he found when comparing Bilateral Back Squats to the Bulgarian Split Squat. There is plenty of research that backs how effective single-leg work is and how it can benefit everyone from the recreational gym goer to the elite athlete.
From the standpoint of someone who has been in the industry for over a decade, I would have to argue that those neglecting single-leg work are setting themselves up for hip, knee or back pain, since a lack of single-leg strength clearly elicits an instability in these areas.
Arguably the most popular single-leg exercise is the Bulgarian Split Squat, alternatively referred to as the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat. It is my personal favorite single-leg exercise, as I detailed in this STACK article on the movement. A person might be able to knock out sets of bilateral Back Squats with 315-plus on the bar, but hand them a pair of dumbbells equating to their body weight and ask them for 6 good Bulgarian Split Squat reps, and they turn into a wet noodle. If you can work up to doing your body weight for 4-6 solid reps on each leg, that’s a great benchmark of single-leg strength and athleticism.
Although it’s likely the most popular single-leg weight room movement of this era, the Bulgarian Split Squat is far from the only single-leg exercise worthy of a role in your routine. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four awesome single-leg exercises you’ve likely never tried.
1. The Swing Lunge
This one takes my gold medal when it comes to overall benefits. The Swing Lunge, which is essentially a Forward Lunge done directly into a Reverse Lunge and then vice versa, is known for its high demand of metabolic stress while also hammering the musculature of the legs. Not to mention it accomplishes this while exposing the low back, hips and knees to relatively little stress.
When done correctly, the Swing Lunge can increase demands from the lungs and sympathetic system with very little external loading. My favorite part of this exercise is the amount of “perceived instability” it offers. When going right from the Forward Lunge to the Reverse Lunge, your brain is rapidly firing and your neuromuscular system is working overtime to help you stabilize. This ultimately recruits more muscles to engage, protect and assist in completing the movement. We like to call this phenomenon “synergistic dominance.”
One of my favorite aspects of this exercise is its ability to pump the heart rate relatively quickly. You don’t need to be a superhero to see this happen, and even a set of 8-12 reps per leg with your body weight can get you breathing heavier than the set of sloppy Burpees you did the day before (that’s a story for another day).
Programming this in the 6-12 rep range (with one Forward Lunge and one Reverse Lunge constituting one full rep) will do just fine, and I find gradually increasing the weight until you find yourself working hard to maintain good form (but not going so heavy your form actually breaks down during those final reps) is a great way to overload and tax the lower-body and lungs.
2. The Barbell Front Rack Reverse Lunge
One thing I often see with clients and athletes performing Reverse Lunges with dumbbells is a pronounced “hunching” as they allow the weight distribution to pull into poor mechanical positions. Doing full sets with shoulders rounded is never a good idea.
The Barbell Front Rack Reverse Lunge eliminates this problem. The front rack bar position forces you to keep your core and upper-back muscles engaged so you maintain an upright torso throughout the movement.
Another great benefit from the Barbell Reverse Lunge is the loading capabilities. Sure, dumbbells and bands can be great for unilateral work, but they can only go so far. The bar allows for external loading far greater than the sets of dumbbells you’ll find in most gyms.
Some common mistakes with this exercise include:
- Taking too large or too short of a step forward
- Not maintaining control throughout the movement
- Not touching the ground and skimping on range of motion
- Rising up on the toes
- Trying to keep both feet in line with each other instead of under their respective hips, causing a narrow and unstable base of support
- Trying to return to the start position from the lunge by pushing off the rear leg rather than keeping the majority of the weight over the front foot
3. Single-Leg RDL (Rack Assisted)
Young lifters haphazardly going through Single-Leg Kettlebell RDLs with speeds as if they were racing in the Belmont, carelessly descending through the exercise without properly engaging hips, core and their t-spine. I see it more and more!
While the Single-Leg RDL is one of the most commonly butchered exercises, it’s also one of the most effective. Rather than abandoning the exercise, I find a great way to program it is to use the squat rack for assistance!
This takes balance out as the limiting factor, which often leads to exponentially better form and allows us to better target the prime movers. It also allows us to use heavier loads and is often friendlier on the low back.
Another variation is to lighten the load a bit but add an isometric hold at the bottom of the movement. Here’s how to set up for the Rack-Assisted Single-Leg RDL:
- Stand next to a squat rack or other vertical stable object that you can hold onto during the movement.
- Start with the dumbbell or kettlebell in the hand that’s on the same side as the leg that’s going to stay in contact with the ground. Hold onto the rack with the opposite hand and use this hand to lightly assist the movement. Don’t use a death grip if you don’t need it.
- Start the movement by reaching rearward with the opposite leg, trying to touch the wall behind you (sit back just as you would in a bilateral Romanian Deadlift.)
- Keep the toes of the rear foot pointed toward the ground and keep the rear leg in line with the torso (keep the hip extended on the rear leg). Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift.
- Stop the eccentric portion of the movement when the load touches the ground or as far as your range of motion allows while keeping proper form.
- Make sure the dumbbell or kettlebell stays close to the body and doesn’t drift too far outward.
- Return to the start position by pulling with the heel of the front foot into the ground.
4 . Sled Pushes
Wait, what? Sled Pushes as a single-leg exercise? Yep—bear with me here!
When you think about it, when you see someone pushing a sled, they frequently only have one foot on the ground—as when you are sprinting.
It may be the most simple, yet most overlooked single-leg exercise out there! That is why it hits my list! Very few clients I train have the stability, ROM and motor control for more advanced single-leg exercises like Skater Squats, Slider Lunges, Reverse Hyper Quadrupled Hip Extensions, Pistol Squats, etc….BUT everyone can push a sled!
That accessibility is a big reason it makes this list! The loading capabilities and lack of eccentric stress help take pressure off the knees and low back while punishing your quads and hamstrings. The Prowlers teach hip separation to a great degree and the best part about them is the simple fact that they can be used for speed work, metabolic conditioning work or even strength depending on the load!
Next time you start thinking about your 6-8-week cycle for strength, do not shy away from unilateral work. Add it to your programs and watch you break weak points, plateaus and even add strength to your “big” bilateral lifts.
One study showed that a 15% or greater variance in closed-kinetic chain strength (or movement control in single-limb performance) between the right and left leg is a good indicator of increased injury risk. Meaning, if one leg is significantly stronger or more controlled than the other, you’re at a greater risk of injury.
Since many of us tend to be weak when it comes to single-leg strength and even have imbalances from one leg to another, it is important to add some of these exercises to your weekly routine to prevent injury and enhance athletic performance.
Photo Credit: Maksym Azovtsev/iStock