When your Squat and Deadlift begin to stagnate, there’s another way to add strength—single-leg exercises.
But let’s face it, single-leg work is some of the toughest stuff out there. Most avoid it because, put frankly, it’s hard to do. You might not feel balanced or in control, or worse, you can’t lift anywhere near as much weight as with two-legged exercises.
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However, you need to be as strong in single-leg movements as you are in their double-leg counterparts. Single-leg strength is essential for performance in sports that reguire moving on a single leg in multiple directions. Training on a single leg can correct weaknesses and cause your other lifts to skyrocket.
With that said, here’s my solution to fixing single-leg exercises to make them feel more natural so you can begin to add serious strength to these movements.
Fix 1: Single-Leg Box Squat
Although it’s not my favorite, the Single-Leg Box Squat has good things going for it. For one, it begins concentrically (like the Deadlift), teaching you to apply force into the ground and recruit more muscle fibers, since you’re without the stretch-reflex.
Second, the box allows you to adjust the height of the Squat depending on your ability. It also helps you learn your end range of motion, ideally with your thigh parallel the ground, which can carry over to other lifts.
- Avoid a rounded back as best as you can.
- Position your torso with a slight forward lean off the box to use proper squatting technique.
- Avoid shrugging your shoulders to initiate the movement.
- Squat on the very edge of a box so you can keep your elevated leg under your torso.
Fix 2: The Stork
Everything changes when you’re on one leg, because you have to keep your body stable. For example, you might be performing a Squat, but to maintain stability, a slew of other muscles must be activated compared to a traditional Squat.
The gluteus medius is particularly important here. It’s critical to strengthen this muscle to improve control of single-leg exercises.
However, a simple solution doesn’t always mean a simple fix. Besides being a hip abductor, the gluteus medius has other jobs (internal and external rotation), which this can make it tricky to train. Unfortunately, lying on the floor and performing rep after rep of Side Leg Raises may not make it fire any better during single-leg training. You must train the muscle in the way that you intend to use it—standing up.
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My favorite way to effectively train this muscle is with the Stork. This exercise is performed standing on one foot. It activates the gluteus medius in a way that carries over to single-leg training. It can burn so badly after the third or fourth rep that you will hesitate to continue!
- Perform the Stork with a Swiss ball placed between a wall and your non-working hip.
- Raise your inside leg to 90 degrees and allow the working hip to collapse.
- Drive your working foot into the ground and restore a tall hip position.
Fix 3: Strengthen your hamstrings
Discomfort in the low back and the knee often keep people from sticking to single-leg work. At this point, I’d like to quote D.L. Holdsworth from SWIS 2015 when he said, “Strength solves a lot of problems.” In this case, we are talking about the hamstrings.
The hamstrings help stabilize the pelvis, hip joint and knee. If you get any knee or back discomfort, strengthening your hamstrings should be your first plan of attack.
The solution for better hamstrings: Bridge and Curl variations. This is one of the best movements for improving your entire hamstring muscle group. They are challenging to perform but give a big return on your investment. These exercises operate on the principle of co-contraction, meaning the hip and knee do opposing actions at the same time. This teaches the hamstrings to contract at your knee and hip independently of each other.
RELATED: How to Master the Single-Leg RDL
- Lie on your back with your feet elevated on a Swiss ball and your hips bent about 110 degrees.
- Extend your hips while curling the ball toward you by flexing your knees.
- When you have achieved a full hip extension, flex your hip and return to the ground while rolling the ball away with knee extension.
- Progress to the single-leg variation to increase the difficulty.
Fix 4: Hip rotation in the hinge
By far the most commonly troublesome single-leg exercise is the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift. This is a fantastic movement. It reigns supreme among lower-body exercises, but it is very challenging to perform.
The biggest problem with the execution of this movement is unwanted hip rotation. People have trouble keeping their hips square and end up twisting through the repetition. This chews up the lower-back muscles on the working side of the body.
Regressing the movement with a Mini-Slideboard Bird Dog is a great solution. It provides an inherent trio of checks and balances against poor mechanics, providing a feedback loop to drill better proprioception into the nervous system, which will help you maintain better control on your Single-Leg RDL.
- If your hip rotates externally, your foot will come off the slideboard. To keep this from happening, brace your core and stabilize your hips.
- Place a ball on the nook of your lower back. Maintain a neutral spine so it doesn’t roll off.
- If the ball rolls left, it means your hip is rotated to the left and you must adjust your pelvis to the right. If the ball rolls right, it means you must adjust your pelvic position to the left.
Another great tip is to shorten your back leg by bending the knee during the Single-leg RDL, which you can see here. The farther away a joint is from the body, the more challenging it is to control. So, by pointing the sole of your non-working foot directly to the ceiling, you can bend your knee and shorten the lever of the hinge, thereby making the exercise easier to control.
- Neurokinetic Therapy, An Innovative Approach to Manual Muscle Testing, David Weinstock.
- Glute Medius, Strength and Conditioning Research.com, Chris Beardsley.