A common question that often comes up both with athletes, trainers, and a wide variety of other trainees is whether or not single leg work is necessary or equal to exercises such as the back squat or deadlift. Years ago, it was thought that squats and deadlifts were all that was needed to keep the lower body strong and functional.
For athletes, it was commonly thought these two exercises were all that was necessary for building strength and power for athletic movements.
With the more extensive knowledge that we have now, single leg exercises are well known to be just as efficient at helping you to put on muscle mass, while also building even more strength, functionality, and stability!
Why Do We Need to Do Single Leg Exercises?
Strength training has primarily always been on two limbs, and in the sagittal plane (moving front to back).
With increased knowledge in the area of functional anatomy over the last 10 years, training methods have changed drastically. It is now known that single leg training recruits a higher amount of muscles to be worked, resulting in greater strength, mobility, and stability.
Performing single leg exercises at least 2 days per week will also minimize the loss of muscle mass, while trying to lose fat. Although you cannot “load” single-leg exercises as heavy as bilateral exercises, the muscles will be target more specifically and efficiently.
After all, the more muscle you have, the more fat you will burn! Having muscle mass on your body naturally increases your metabolism, which is why resistance training is necessary to make big changes in body fat percentage.
Bodyweight single leg exercises are a great way to build muscular strength, and can act as a form of “bodyweight cardio;” a superior form of metabolic conditioning for fat loss.
Top 5 Single Leg Exercises
These 5 single-leg exercises are outstanding to incorporate in to your daily workouts, helping you to maximize various aspects of your training.
Stand with your right leg about 12 inches in front of your left leg, as if in a “split” stance. Brace your core and lower your body down, by bending your right leg until your thigh is parallel with the floor. Use your rear leg for balance, and support.
Push back up through the right leg until back in the original split stance. Complete all repetitions on the right side, before switching to the left side.
This is a very easy single leg exercise to begin with. Since you are staying in one stable position, there is less balance work involved. Before you go to any lunging or other further variations, you should master the basic split squat first!
Stand in front of a bench or stool about 20″ off the ground, and lift your right leg up and place your right foot completely on the bench. Step up onto the bench, straightening out your leg and standing tall.
To return to the starting position, slowly bend your right knee and step back off the bench with your left leg, until your left foot touches the ground. Keep your right foot on the bench. Without bouncing your left foot off the ground for momentum, step back up onto the bench with your right leg.
The step up is another very basic single leg exercise, and is excellent for hip, knee, and ankle rehabilitation.There are also many wonderful variations to challenge your balance, as well as add a decent amount of “load.”
I prefer to do step ups before any deadlifts or squats, since it is great for activating the hips and knees.
Step ups are also excellent to be used with “circuit” workouts, as body weight only step ups can be performed safely and quickly. Many single leg exercises cannot be performed quickly because they require too much control, but this is one which you can add some speed too!
Here is an example of lateral step ups, a variation of traditional step ups:
Lunges are another simple single leg exercise.
To do them, stand with your feet shoulder with apart and your arms at your sides. Brace your core and take a big step forward with your right leg, and bend at the knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Make sure your knee does not go further than your toes.
If it does, then take a bigger step out, as your lower leg should be almost perpendicular to the floor. Drive up through the right leg to stand back up, and return to the starting position.
Here is an example of some forward walking lunges I did while holding a medicine ball overhead. Holding a weight over your head makes the movement more challenging for your core, and your stability.
Here is a variation where I do forward walking lunges while holding only one kettlebell overhead- which is another challenging variation.
If you have tendonitis in you knees or are recovering from a knee injury, reverse lunges are one of the best single leg exercises for you! Reverse lunges are better at taking pressure off of your knee tendon, while being more stability oriented. Reverse slide lunges are my favorite lunges overall, and are absolutely great for stability and leg power.
If you’ve never seen reverse slide lunges before, here is a quick video of me performing them at home:
Using any of these lunge variations is an excellent addition to your workout plan!
Bulgarian Split Squat
Personally, my favorite single leg exercise and favorite exercise overall is the Bulgarian Split Squat.
I will take some extra time on my explanation of this movement, because of this. The Bulgarian Split Squat can be described as an exercise primarily for the legs, but it has an incredible effect on your core strength as well.
This is an essential movement for any athlete (due to its ability to increase running speed and the vertical jump), and in my opinion the best single leg exercise overall.
Bulgarian split squats effectively activate and strengthen muscles of the lower body, increases flexibility of the hip and quadriceps, increases balance, and reduces the risk of nearly all lower body injuries.
Increases Hip Flexibility and Balance:
The Bulgarian Split Squat increase the flexibility of hips and improves your balance, since the natural motion of this movement involves a substantial stretch of your quadriceps muscle and hip flexor. Without a doubt, it is one of the best exercises for reducing hip flexor pain when performed consistently and correctly.
This effect can be even further enhanced by placing your front foot on an elevated surface as well.
Often, I will work multiple range of motion’s in just one session of Bulgarian Split Squats.
Overall, you will work to create much more mobile legs, while also building strength and mass.
One of the most underrated keys to building muscle mass is to use a muscle over a longer range of motion, making it work for longer under tension; which is why single leg exercises such as the Bulgarian Split Squat are so effective, even if most people do not know!
The Bulgarian Split Squat takes advantage of this training effect!
If traditional Bulgarian Split Squats are easy for you, you can add some additional range of motion by placing your front foot higher as well. For example:
Helps Athletes Reduce the Risk of Injury:
The Bulgarian Split Squat helps athletes reduce the risk of a lower body injury in two prime ways.
First, as mentioned above, you will increase your mobility and flexibility. Similar to doing yoga consistently, consistent work with the Bulgarian Split Squat will build strong legs that are also more “free” in their pattern of movement, helping drastically to reduce injuries.
Second, the Bulgarian Split Squat puts a tremendous amount of work on your hips, knees and ankles; three common areas of injuries. By efficiently training the stabilizers around these joints, you will be much less likely to become injured in sports. This movement is a necessity for athletes!
Increase Training Load Without Spinal Pressure:
This here is a huge factor which makes the Bulgarian Split Squat more effective for athletes than the squat or deadlift. Since you are working in a mechanically disadvantaged position, a light load can work your muscles extensively. Doing so, does not require you to load hundreds of pounds on a barbell on your back.
Simply holding 25-30-pound dumbbells will make a huge difference in this movement! You can absolutely use a barbell for this movement if you would like, but the load is much less than necessary for a traditional back squat.
Similarly, deadlifts still cause extensive spinal compression when lifting heavy weights. The Bulgarian Split Squat is far more efficient at working muscles, while also being a safe exercise.
The Bulgarian Split Squat works your core in incredibly unique ways, and can be altered to change the difficulty and effect of core training easily. This is highly functional training, and is excellent for athletes looking to produce results in their sports.
The most difficult version of a Bulgarian Split Squat I have ever performed is with my foot elevated in front of me, and with a barbell being held overhead as well.
Although I didn’t need any more than 5 additional pounds on each side of the barbell, the stability and core strength necessary to complete this movement was incredible.
This is definitely the most advanced single leg exercise, and should only be practiced once you have mastered the above movements.
I haven’t been able to do a pistol squat in about three years, but I hope to be able to do them again in the future!
When I was in college, I would routinely be able to do 5 pistol squats per leg; even using them as a super-set with back squats!
This is one movement than can pack size on to your legs quickly, and increase your athletic performance fast! Definitely take your time when learning this exercise, but know that being able to perform even one pistol squat is a huge accomplishment!
Concluding Thoughts – The Best Single Leg Exercises
By doing these single leg exercises you’re without a doubt developing a stronger, more functional, set of legs. Don’t forget- your legs make up half of your body, and they are solely responsible for carrying you around every day!
Very little in life, or sport, happens with two feet on the ground. With almost all movements, there is always one foot on the ground, and one in motion. Simple walking is even a case of a single leg movement!
When performing double leg exercises, we are using only the prime movers mainly (quads, gluteus maxiumus, hamstrings). Working these bigger muscles is obviously necessary, but it does not promote a well-rounded spectrum of training, especially in preparing for athletic competition.
With single leg exercises, the stabilizing muscles (glutes medius, adductors, or abductors) and spinal stabilizers, must all come into play to maintain a stable pelvis.
Furthermore, you will work the stabilizing muscles around the joints more efficiently, promoting a wide range of benefits!
Resistance training is one of the best methods of exercise to build muscle, as well as burn unwanted body fat. Single leg exercises are a great choice to do just that.
Training with single leg exercises compared to bilateral exercises can have an extensive amount of benefits for athletes and all trainees, and should be incorporated every leg day!