5 Single leg movements you need to be doing! Danny Hague ASCC
There has been some controversy over the use of single leg training among the strength and conditioning and personal training community. Some debate that the use of single leg training limits the load you can use, and others throw out bilateral (double leg)leg exercises such as squats, deadlifts altogether in favour of single leg training as the safer approach.
My view is there should not even be a debate here, both bilateral and single leg exercises should be used and be programmed into a well balanced strength and conditioning program. To put it in the words of fellow coach Eric Cressey the bilateral work (squats, deadlift and their variations) will always be the meat but the single leg work is the potatoes.
Single leg training is an absolute must, and should be programmed into every strength program. The industry has moved forward in the knowledge of functional anatomy, we know that everything changes when the body is on one leg as opposed to two. Bilateral squats and deadlifts are very sagittal plane dominant (straight up and down), but the body functions in a 360 degree environment, which must be able to produce, control and reduce forces within. From a common sense point of view most functional movements in life and sport occur off of one leg or from a split stance (walking, running, jumping, change of direction etc), so it makes sense to train the body to be mechanically efficient at controlling forces from single leg positions.
When we stand on one leg we engage the lateral subsystem, which consists of the glute medius, the adductor group and quadratus lumborum, which all act as pelvic stabilisers. These muscles get neglected from the bilateral movements which mainly train the prime movers. The key to the lateral sub system is to train the muscles mentioned above to be more efficient as stabilisers, so the body can maintain structural integrity, which will result in an increase in functional strength, structural balance, injury reduction and performance.
So as you can see single leg exercises must be included into a well rounded strength and conditioning program alongside the king kong movement’s squats and deadlift variations, to ensure a positive transfer to the athletic field, whatever the sport.
There are many single leg exercises to use, however below are the top 5 that I am currently using in my athletes/clients programs:
1) Barbell Split Squat
These are a great starting point as they are a static and not a dynamic movement. You can use a decent load with the split squat and get very strong in a split stance while reducing the load on the spine.
- Place bar on the upper traps just below the 7th vertebrae (the bony bit), hands as close as comfortable to maintain thoracic extension.
- Take a good split stance so you feel a slight stretch on the hip flexor of the back leg.
- Chest out shoulders back and down, elbows tucked in tight
- Brace the core, maintaining upright posture descend slowly until back knee lightly touches the floor, then forcefully drive through the heal of the front leg back to start position. That is one repetition.
2) DB Offset Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
This exercise is very humbling to say the least. Holding the dumbbell in the hand of the trailing leg forces the working leg into adduction and internal rotation as the hip flexes. In turn this forces the hip external rotators, abductors and extensors to work harder eccentrically. The glutes are a very important muscle group and often an underdeveloped area. This exercise takes care of that nicely. You also get a nice dynamic stretch of the trailing leg hip flexor, and the body’s core musculature must kick into to resist any lateral flexion from the offset DB loading.
- Place DB in opposite hand to working leg. Then reach back and place trailing leg on bench, plantar flex the foot so that the laces of your trainer are in contact with the bench.
- Step forward with working leg so that you get a light stretch in the hip flexor.
- Chest out shoulders back and down, descend maintaining upright posture until the back knee touches or until the working leg top of thigh just breaks parallel.
- Drive through the heal of the front leg back to the start position. That is one rep.
3) 1 Arm 1 Leg Stiff Legged Deadlift
This exercise is great for developing the powerful hip extensors of the posterior chain. It develops the integration of the glutes and hamstrings as hip extensors while stabilising in all three planes due to the single leg stance, which increases knee stability. This exercise is awesome for developing eccentric strength of the hamstrings to decelerate hip flexion, which is of upmost importance for injury prevention and performance enhancement. Due to the DB held in the opposite hand to the working leg, this exercise recruits the posterior serape (thoracolumbar fascia), which connects the shoulder girdle to the opposite hip to resist rotation. This interaction between the latissimus dorsi and opposite glute maximus is what transfers rotary force through the body during sprinting, throwing, punching etc…
- Place dumbbell in opposite hand to the working leg
- Pack your shoulder back and down and lift your chest
- On the working leg flex the knee slightly and maintain this throughout
- Hinge from the hip and lower the dumbbell close to the inside of the foot of the working leg.
- Make sure your back remains flat and your shoulders and hips are square, prevent any twisting.
- Lower until you feel a stretch on the hamstring then extend from the hip back to the start position making sure to contact the glute hard on completion. That is one rep.
4) Single Leg Unsupported Squat
This exercise is an all star for single leg strength. There are different ways to perform this exercise. I am performing it from a box which allows the trail leg to drop naturally without having to worry about hamstring flexibility. The unsupported nature of this exercise stresses the lateral subsystem the most which will develop the stabilising muscles of the hip extremely well. I would get proficient in the above movements first before attempting this one. From an injury prevention and performance stand point this exercise is an all star.
- Stand on the edge of a box with the working leg.
- Holding some light dumbbells in both hands (4kg) to act as a counterbalance. Lift your chest and sit back and down while maintaining a flat back and lumbar arch.
- Descend under control raising dumbbells out and up in front of your head. Avoid knee collapsing inward and lower until the top of femur just breaks parallel. If back posture is lost before this depth, reduce depth.
- From the bottom drive through the heal and stand back up, finishing while a strong glute contraction.
5) Sled Push
The sled push is one of my favourite single leg exercises. It is basic locomotion with weight, which is simple to coach and easy to execute, while producing some of the best results. The sled teaches hip separation (one flexes as the other extends) and can be used to enhance a number of physical qualities from conditioning, max strength, explosive strength and power. I believe the sled push transfers these qualities extremely well to the athletic field, and I use it frequently with my athletes/clients.
- Adopt a position that positions the body at a 45 degree angle.
- Keep arms straight and locked and pack your shoulders.
- Apply force back and down into the ground as hard as possible, ensuring full hip extension.
- Drive the knee forward to enhance recovery of the leg
- Apply force into the ground quickly and forcefully to propel the sled and body forward.
So there you have it these are my top 5 single leg exercises that I am currently using the most in my athletic programs. Instead of debating whether bilateral or single leg exercises are better, use both in your programs and reap the benefits of a well rounded comprehensive strength and conditioning program that will increase your structural stability, strength and movement quality.
As always guys let me know what you think, feedback would be much appreciated.
Danny Hague ASCC, MMA-CSCC