by Bret Contreras January 06, 2014
“Hi Bret! I’ve got a question for you. You seem to write about single leg training quite often. What’s the very best single leg exercise out there? Thank you, Adam
First of all, the answer to this question depends on your goal and fitness levels. I’m sure you’re aware that there are many excellent single leg exercises and variations. But the various patterns are likely synergistic with one another in that you’ll get better bang for your buck by employing a few different single leg exercises rather than just one. Therefore, I wouldn’t try to narrow it down to just one. And don’t worry, with experimentation, nearly all lifters can find several unilateral exercises that suit their bodies very well.
Great single leg exercises for beginners can include bodyweight reverse lunges and bodyweight Bulgarian split squats, whereas great single leg exercises for advanced lifters can include dumbbell deficit reverse lunges or weighted-vest pistol squats.
Of course, one must consider the muscle group one desires to train. For example:
Great single leg exercises for the quads can include the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat, front loaded barbell forward lunge, and high step up.
Great single leg exercises for the hammies can include the single leg RDL, prisoner single leg back extension, and single leg gliding leg curl.
Great single leg exercises for the glutes can include the barbell walking lunge, chain-loaded single leg hip thrust, barbell single leg hip thrust, and pendulum quadruped hip extension.
One must also consider injury history. It’s hard to make blanket statements with regards to prior injuries, but I’ll provide some generalizations. Those who are prone to experiencing SI joint issues might not do well with exercises that involve considerable transfer through the SI joint, especially at end-range hip extension. These can include the single leg hip thrust, pendulum quadruped hip extension, and sometimes the single leg RDL (on the other hand, these all can be great exercises for this group of people…it all depends).
Those who are prone to experiencing knee issues might not do well with exercises that produce high knee extension moments along with considerable forward knee migration. Contraindicated exercises for this group can include the pistol squat or forward lunge (but using db’s for a counterbalance in the pistols or a long stride in the lunges might clear up any issues).
Those who are prone to experiencing anterior hip issues (FAI syndrome) might not do well with exercises that move the hip into deep flexion. Therefore this group might want to avoid high step ups, deficit reverse lunges off of a high box, and pistol squats and stick to movements that don’t go so deep into hip flexion.
Sled pushing is probably the most well-tolerated single leg exercise, and skater squats with a counterbalance (doing db front raises during the movement with light dumbbells) are pretty well-tolerated as well.
Finally, we have the issue of transfer of training to consider. This is tricky as there aren’t many studies to help us out in this regard, so we have to rely on logic and anecdotes. This is where analyzing joint ROM’s, force vectors, and torque-angle curves comes into play. For example, take the case of hip range of motion and examine the pictures below. The full squat and high step up exhibit the greatest hip ROM’s (and knee ROM’s), whereas the lunge exhibits the least hip ROM. One could stand on a block/step in order to increase hip (and knee) ROM if seeking maximal transfer to a full squat.
One can only speculate as to what transfers best to sporting movements and bilateral exercises. For transfer to acceleration sprinting, it could be the Bulgarian split squat or single leg RDL. For transfer to maximum speed sprinting, it could be the shoulder and feet elevated single leg hip thrust or prisoner single leg back extension. For transfer to squatting and deadlifting, it could be the B-stance squat or B-stance deadlift. Again, these are just hypotheses. In case you aren’t aware of these variations, here are some videos for you to watch:
As you can see, there are plenty of great single leg exercises. I recommend that you pick three of them to include in your training each month: a single leg squat variation, a single leg hip-hinge variation, and a single leg bridge variation. One example could be the barbell walking lunge, single leg gliding leg curl, and single leg hip thrust. Another could be the B-stance squat, B-stance deadlift, and barbell single leg hip thrust. If you liked this article, you’ll probably like THIS article as well. In case you’re looking for a reference for single leg exercises, my book Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy includes descriptions and illustrated pictures of most of these exercises (without additional load).
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