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4 Single-Leg Exercises You Definitely Haven’t Tried

If you’re looking to improve your overall performance, health, or aesthetics, single-leg exercises should be a key component of your workout program.

Single-leg training delivers some pretty amazing benefits including:

  • Glutes, glutes, glutes! We often hear that glutes are a product of squats and deadlifts, but really, single-leg exercises play a key role in helping build strength and adding muscle. In fact, single-leg training will not only produce stronger and more developed glutes, it also improves the strength and development of your quads, hamstrings, and lower leg muscles.
  • Greater strength in your squat, deadlift, and hip thrust. While this is fairly straightforward, performing single-leg exercises will have a positive carryover effect to double-leg exercises. Adding in some single-leg squatting, lunging, hinging, and thrusting movements will improve your ability to squat, deadlift, and hip thrust.
  • Improved sports specific performance and athleticism. Most of the movements that occur in sports, and for that matter, in everyday life, are unilateral (involving one limb at a time). Some examples of these types of athletic movements include: jogging, sprinting, striding, jumping, hopping, bounding, planting, tackling, and kicking.
  • Better balance and stability. People often try to improve their balance and stability by training on unstable surfaces like the Bosu or a wobble board, but one of the most effective ways to improve your balance and stability is to perform single-leg exercises on a stable surface. 1,2
  • Reduced risk of injury. Many injuries occur due to an imbalance in strength (and often mobility). Performing single-leg exercises will address these imbalances and make the body more resistant to injury.
  • Training around injuries. When you’re injured, you can often still improve your strength with single-leg exercises while avoiding more stressful bilateral exercises. This is especially useful if you’ve sustained a back injury and need to avoid exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts while you recover. Also, if you’re injured and can’t train one limb, some studies have shown that performing strength training exercises on the opposite limb will help slow down muscle and strength loss on the injured side.3,4,5
  • Improved symmetry. From an aesthetic standpoint, performing single-leg exercises can help you achieve better muscular symmetry.

Inarguably, there is a tremendous amount of benefit to be gained from single-leg exercises,yet single-leg training is often neglected, as many people focus exclusively on more conventional (and perhaps ego-boosting) double-leg exercises like squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts. Since most movements in everyday life and sport are unilateral in nature, in order to reap the benefits listed above, as a general rule, I recommend including single-leg lower body exercises as a key element in a well-rounded training program.

Single-leg exercises can be categorized into squatting, lunging, hinging, and thrusting movements. Here are four of my favorites that I encourage you to try:

Skater Squats

The skater squat, as the name implies, is a squatting movement. This extremely underrated and under-utilized exercise strengthens and develops the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. The skater squat requires a combination of stability, strength, and mobility.

Equipment needed:

Depending on which variation you choose, you will need nothing more than your own bodyweight, a weight plate, or dumbbell(s).

Coaching Cues:

  1. Start out with just your bodyweight.
  2. Stand on one foot with a slight bend in your knee. Keep all of your weight over the middle/back of your foot, keeping your toes down and spread (particularly your big and baby toe). This will dramatically improve your stability and ability to improve this exercise.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, brace your core, and gently tuck your rib cage down towards your hips (close the space in your midsection).
  4. Simultaneously perform a single-leg squat with your standing leg as you stride back with your inactive leg, extending both of your arms ahead of you to create a counterbalance, which will make the exercise a little easier to perform.
  5. Take three full seconds to lower yourself down in a stable and controlled manner. You can stride back with your inactive leg (hence the name “skater” squat) or keep it bent at about 90 degrees.
  6. Your front knee should never collapse inward or outward. This will likely take some practice, but once you are able to achieve this stability, your glutes and quads of the front leg will be working big-time.
  7. You can touch the knee of the back leg down to the floor, or stop when it’s a few inches above the ground (the latter will make the exercise significantly more challenging).
  8. Contract your glutes to return to the starting position, exhaling through the movement.
  9. Reset and repeat before each rep, until you have performed the desired number of reps, then repeat with the opposite leg.

Regression:

You can make this exercise easier by touching your knee of the striding leg down to a pad/mat.

Progressions:

Once you are able to perform six or more properly executed reps with just your bodyweight, you can progress to holding a dumbbell or plate and extending your arms forward as this will help with your balance. You can make it more challenging by holding the weight close to your chest as this removes the counterbalance assistance.

For an additional challenge, hold two dumbbells down by your sides, perform this exercise with a barbell in a front- or back-loaded position, or stand on a box/step and do deficit skater squats.

Single-Leg Band Pull-Throughs

This single-leg exercise is a hip hinging movement, and strengthens and develops the muscles in the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings). You can also use this exercise as part of your warm-up before you any deadlift variation.

Equipment needed:

You will need a resistance band and a secure post, column, or rack on which to fasten the band. The thicker the band, the more challenging the exercise will be.

Coaching Cues:

  1. Fasten a resistance band around a secure structure, such as a squat rack, at a height between your shin and your knee.
  2. Stand on one foot with slight bend in your knee. Keep all of your weight over the middle/back of your foot, keeping your toes down and spread (particularly your big and baby toe).
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, brace your core, gently tuck your rib cage down towards your hips, “screw” your arms into your armpits.
  4. Hinge your hips back, reaching back with one leg. Imagine that you are trying to push your glutes into a wall behind you. Make sure your hips or torso don’t twist when you are hinging your hips back, and keep your spine in neutral alignment for the duration of the exercise.
  5. Return to the top by driving through the middle/back of your foot and squeezing your glutes and hamstring, exhaling through the movement.

Tip: Contract your lats to “screw” your arms into your sides (pretend that you are crushing something in your armpits), and brace your core to lock out, but avoid hyperextending your back or flaring your rib cage.

Regression:

You can make this exercise easier by performing the double-leg variation until you gain the necessary strength and stability to perform the single-leg variation.

Progressions:

You can make this exercise more challenging by using a thicker band, so long as you are able to perform it correctly. You can also perform negative reps, taking three full seconds to hinge your hips back.

Hanging Single-Leg Hip Thrust with Leg Curl

The hanging single-leg hip thrust with leg curl involves both, a single-leg hip thrust and a single-leg hamstring curl. This exercise strengthens and develops the hamstrings and glutes, and strengthens the muscles in the upper body and the anterior core. I often perform this exercise after I have performed some heavier compound movements for the posterior chain muscles, like deadlifts or hip thrusts.

Equipment needed:

You will need a bench or box, and a barbell that is set up in a squat rack. A Smith Machine, TRX or rings will also work.

Coaching Cues:

  1. Set up a barbell in a squat rack at about belly button height, and position a bench in front of the barbell.
  2. Sit on the floor between the bar and the bench, facing the bench, and place the middle (or the heel) of one foot on the bench. Reach up and grab onto the barbell with either a pull-up or chin-up grip, engage your lats and pack your shoulders (keep them packed throughout the entire movement).
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, brace your core, and gently tuck your rib cage down towards your hips.
  4. Drive through the foot on the bench and contract your glutes to raise your hips up, exhaling through the movement. Engage the glute of the inactive leg as well to prevent your pelvis from tilting or rotating.
  5. At the top of the hip thrust, transition into a single-leg curl and really squeeze your hamstring. Your leg should remain stable, and your knee should never collapse in or out.
  6. Return to the starting position in a slow and controlled manner. While still maintaining a neutral spine, drop your hips as low as possible. Reset and repeat.

Tip: Maintain a neutral spine the entire time. Lock out at the top of the hip thrust by squeezing your glutes, not by hyperextending your lower back or flaring your rib cage.

Regression:

You can make this exercise easier by performing the double-leg variation until you gain the necessary strength and stability to perform the single-leg variation.

Progressions:

You can make this exercise more challenging by pausing at the top of the hip thrust for three to five seconds and squeezing your glutes, or by performing negative reps and really challenging your muscles eccentrically, taking three to five seconds to lower the hip thrust.

Single-Leg Isometric Glute Bridge With Leg Abduction And A Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Hold

The is one of my favourite glute exercises as it delivers a tremendous bang for your buck. This exercise involves an isometric glute bridge, while simultaneously abducting the opposite leg, and performing a bottoms-up kettlebell hold. The isometric hold strengthens the glutes, the leg abduction movement forces the body to resist rotation and targets the anterior core and obliques, and the bottoms-up kettlebell hold develops shoulder stability.

Equipment Needed:

You will need a kettlebell.

Coaching Cues:

  1. Set yourself up as you would for a regular single-leg glute bridge. Make sure that your shin is relatively vertical, or else your hamstrings will take over.
  2. Keep your hips elevated by squeezing your glutes.
  3. Pack your shoulder, and keep the kettlebell in line with your shoulder the entire time.
  4. Tuck your rib cage towards your pelvis and brace your core to prevent your rib cage from flaring and prevent hyperextension of your lower back.
  5. Exhale as you actively tuck your rib cage towards your pelvis, and move your free leg away from the midline of the body, without allowing your pelvis, spine, or ribs to rotate. Inhale as you bring the leg back toward the midline. Reset before starting the next rep.
  6. Focus on engaging both glutes even if you’re bridging on only one leg to prevent your body from twisting and your pelvis from collapsing toward one side.
  7. As you become more proficient, you can increase the range of the lateral leg movement, and use a heavier kettlebell.

Regressions:

You can make this exercise easier by performing it without the kettlebell until you gain the necessary strength and stability to incorporate the kettlebell. You can also drop your hips down to the floor between each rep, or shorten the range of the leg abduction.

Progression:

Once you can perform this exercise properly, you can make it a little more challenging by replacing the bottoms-up kettlebell hold with a bottoms-up kettlebell press.

 

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References

  1. Soderman, K. et al. Balance board training: prevention of traumatic injuries of the lower extremities in female soccer players? A prospective randomized intervention study. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 8(6):356-63. 2000.
  2. Cressey, E. et al. The effects of ten weeks of lower-body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance. J Strength Cond Res. 21(2):561-7. 2007.
  3. Lee, M and Carroll, T. Cross Education: Possible Mechanisms for the Contralateral Effects of Unilateral Resistance Training. Sports Med. 37(1): 1-4, 2007.
  4. Carroll, T, Herbert, R, Munn, J, Lee, M, and Gandevia, S. Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms. J Appl Physiol 101: 1514-1522, 2006.
  5. Munn, J, Herbert, R and Gandevia, S. Contralateral effects of unilateral resistance training: a meta-analysis. J Appl Physiol 96: 1861-1866, 2004.

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About Mehmood Esmail

Mehmood Esmail
Hi, I am Mehmood Esmail, there have been severe health issues in my family, like cancer, heart attacks, stroke, kidney stones, IBS, etc. Where we live, in Africa, health facilities are basic. Thus it becomes imperative that we hnow what is happenining to us and how to look after ourselves, and where possible, how to prevent serious illnesses.

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