If there is one single exercise that is most commonly butchered across the millions of gyms worldwide, it is the Squat. The Squat can almost literally make or break your training program. Why do we fight through the pain if our Squat technique isn't spot on? What if there were ways to increase the likelihood that our Squat technique would be perfect without performing a single maximal weight Squat?
By performing single-leg (or unilateral) exercises, you can actually correct many common Squat mistakes, reinforcing technique and helping you safely get stronger. The main benefits are threefold:
- Better technique allows you to lift more, which provides better strength gains.
- Most sports skills are played off a single leg, making this type of exercise extremely functional to your sports performance.
- Single-leg movements done correctly will reduce the likelihood of injury by correcting imbalances in the hips, glutes, hamstrings and core.
Whether you're looking for a new PR or simply want to never again say, "Squats hurt my knees," these three movements will fix your Squat.
Deficit Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squat
Often called the Bulgarian Split-Squat, the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squat is probably the most common single-leg exercise. Adding a deficit by placing your front foot on a box makes the exercise even more challenging, conferring four main benefits:
- Increases hip stability, glute strength and quadriceps strength and improves lateral control.
- The elevated foot forces the ankle into a deeper dorsiflexion than is required in a Back Squat. It also increases the angle of the top thigh to create more range of motion and mobility at the hip.
- Stronger glutes, hamstrings and adductors will help you in your battle against knee valgus (knees dropping inward) and the infamous Butt Wink.
- The rear leg gets a hip flexor stretch worth its weight in gold. Tight hip flexors cause a forward lean in the Squat, which can wreak havoc on your entire backside. When you're at the bottom of the movement, as long as your hips are forward and your knee-hip-shoulder-ear line is intact, you get a stretch that counteracts the day you just spent sitting in the car and at your desk.
For some, especially those just starting out or folks with extremely tight hip flexors, the regular version of this is enough to help. But if your Squat still stinks, add lift to your training to reap the benefits.
Single-Leg, Straight-Leg Deadlifts
There are many variations of this exercise. Since you're trying to improve your Squat, hold a dumbbell in the hand opposite the foot that's on the ground. This forces you to keep your torso square, strengthening your hips and core to prevent rotation and firing many of the small muscles that are dormant during the Back Squat. It also is a hip hinging movement, focusing on strengthening the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors. Stronger and more active glutes will ultimately lead to a better Squat.
Make sure the movement comes from your hips, not your knees. Drive your rear heel out as if reaching toward the wall behind you. And don't swing your rear leg forward to help you stand up. Use kettlebells or dumbbells, and choose a moderate weight. It's an accessory move, not a max-strength exercise.
Box Single-Leg Squats
This is a lesson in control. If you can perform this exercise correctly, you'll have no problem keeping your knees aligned, hips mobile and back neutral during a heavy Squat. I too often see people doing this move horribly wrong, usually indicated by a rounding of the lower back. Or they go deeper than they should and bounce back up with lack of control.
To perform Box Single-Leg Squats, stand with one foot on a knee-high box and your other leg hanging off the box. Squat slowly, pushing your hips back and keeping your knee behind your toes, chest up and back flat. Touch the foot of your leg that's off the box to a pad on the ground. At this point, pause, then drive up through your hip and knee to stand up. Don't push through the heel that's on the pad. If the depth is too much, increase the height of the pad.
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