When training our legs, we often think of big lifts like squats, deadlifts and leg presses that work both legs. But if you look at movement in an athletic setting, work is constantly done from a single-leg position.
A football player has to plant and explosively drive off of one leg to change directions and maintain balance to elude a would-be tackler. Distance running is essentially a series of single-leg bounds done repeatedly. Even in everyday situations like stepping off the curb and going up and down stairs, we are in transition to a single-leg position. But a commonly neglected aspect of leg training is the development of single-leg strength.
Being strong and stable reduces the risk of losing balance and falling. Adding single-leg strength exercises to our routine allows us to create equal strength in both legs so we are strong, balanced and powerful in every manner in which we need to move. Need more convincing? Here are some in-depth benefits to consider for single-leg training:
▪ More overall leg strength. Single-leg training will promote greater muscle growth and strength because it works more muscles. Bigger lifts done on both legs tend to work the muscles acting as prime movers, but single-leg exercises work not only the prime movers, but also the stabilizers and neutralizers of the leg.
▪ Stability and balance. Going from two feet to one will increase the need for good balancing skills. Single-leg exercises improve our balance and our body’s spatial awareness.
▪ An alternative for those with back pain. Single-leg exercises allow you to target the legs with greatly reduced force on the spine since the overall loads are typically less than with bilateral lifts. There are fewer compressive forces, making these exercises much more lower-back friendly than their bilateral counterparts.
▪ Equal leg strength and injury prevention. It is not uncommon to develop a leg-strength imbalance. This can be a result of training, lifestyle or a past injury. Consider it a red flag if one leg is considerably stronger or weaker than the other. Adding single-leg exercises to your program will ensure each leg is developed equally in strength and reduce risk of injury.
Single-leg exercises also help to strengthen the glute complex and an important component of our quad: the vastus medialis oblique (VMO). Strengthening both of these muscle groups helps with better joint mechanics and greatly reduces the risk of injuring your knees.
Outlined below are some of my favorite single-leg strength exercises to try. You can either implement them with the bigger lifts on leg days or use them exclusively as a single-leg workout.
▪ Bulgarian Split Squat: Stand approximately 3 to 4 feet in front of a bench with a barbell on your shoulders or a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Reach back with one leg and place the top of your toes on the bench. Once you’re balanced, lower your body down by hinging at the hip until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Drive up through the heel and return to the starting position. Perform for the desired amount of reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.
▪ Single Leg Romanian Deadlift: Begin by holding a pair of dumbbells and lifting one foot off of the ground. Keeping your weight on your heel and the chest elevated, hinge at the hip until your upper body is parallel to the floor, while allowing your free leg to swing back in unison with your upper body. Your free leg should be in line with the upper body once you reach the bottom position. Unhinge at the hip and slowly return to the starting position. Try to keep the swing leg off the ground throughout the course of the set. Repeat for the desired amount of reps, and then switch sides.
▪ Single Leg Bridge: Position your heel on the ground with your knee bent at 90 degrees and bring your opposite knee toward your chest. Slowly lift your hips off the ground by pushing through your heel until your hip is fully extended. Pause for 2 seconds and slowly lower yourself back onto the mat. Repeat this move for the desired number of reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.
Note: If this is too challenging, modify by bridging with both feet on the ground. Then slowly lift one foot off the ground about an inch or two. Hold for 1-5 seconds. Repeat for the desired number of reps, and then switch sides.
▪ TRX Suspended Lunge: Position one foot in the foot cradles while positioning your leg/body approximately 3 feet from the anchor point and balancing on the opposite leg. Slowly descend into a lunge by actively reaching back with your suspended leg while simultaneously bending your balancing leg until you reach a 90-degree bend at your knee. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps before switching sides.
Note: If you have balance issues, modify by using a dowel rod for balance assistance. Also, this exercise can be replicated by holding the handles instead.
▪ Resistance Band X-Walk: Stand on a resistance band and grasp the right side of the band with the left hand and the left side with the right hand, creating an X. Beginning in a neutral stance, step sideways about 6-8 inches with one leg. Then, lift the opposite/trailing leg and return to the neutral stance position. Try to keep your shoulders and hips as horizontal as possible as you side step. Avoid tipping or rocking your body and make sure you are not “dragging” your foot on the trailing leg. Repeat in the same direction for the desired reps, and then switch directions.
Jason Wanlass is the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or championfit.net.