Single Leg Training
If single leg exercises aren’t an important component of your training then you’re missing a very big trick. This article will provide you with a short summary of why single leg training is important and outline the types of exercises you can include in within your programme.
Benefits of Single Leg Training
Single leg training serves two ultimate functions: injury prevention and improved performance. Here’s why:
As the majority of sporting movements occur off a single leg (think running, cutting, lunging, most jumping, etc.), you can probably grasp the importance of single leg strength to an athlete. Squats and deadlifts are fantastic exercises but we need to include specialised single leg training too, this is because strength on two feet is not a strong predictor of single leg strength. If athleticism is the goal then being strong in single leg movements actually more important.
Poor proprioception is related to many different injuries, particularly at the ankle and knee. Effective training needs to be about counteracting potential instability on a stable surface, not hopping about on an inflatable ball. Single leg exercises challenge balance because they reduce the base of support that you are able to use; the smaller the base of support, the greater the challenge. If you’ve not performed any single leg work before then prepare to be humbled the first time you give them a try.
Whenever the instability of an exercise is increased, so too is the demand on the core musculature. We often think about the ‘core’ as just being the abdominals but in reality it’s so much more. All of the muscles around the torso and the pelvis have to work exceptionally hard to keep you upright and prevent you from falling over. Single leg exercises test your core stability from all angles.
Training in deep knee flexion (think about touching your calves with your hamstrings) is a crucial component of knee stability. The problem, however, is that many individuals will struggle to achieve this depth on two legs because it requires extremely good flexibility. This depth is easier to obtain in most single leg exercises and therefore facilitates strengthening in this important range. The quads, hamstrings and glutes are all challenged by these exercises, also a big thumbs up for knee stability.
Chances are that you’ll have one leg stronger than the other. Whilst a little discrepancy isn’t a big problem, large imbalances increase the likelihood of several injuries and will stall potential improvements in bilateral activities. If you only perform bilateral exercises then you can’t really address this problem. For recreational trainers and most athletes, discrepancies in strength, size and power should be no more than 5%. For ‘one-sided’ athletes, such as fencers and badminton players, these differences should be less than 10%.
Single leg exercises provide much the same training stimulus to the legs as bilateral exercise but with a significant reduction in the weight used. Having to support less weight on the back makes these exercises a much friendlier option for the back and shoulders. Research soon to be published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that single leg exercise may also elicit a similar hormonal response to bilateral exercise, this is important for strength and growth.
‘Single Leg’ Exercises
Now, not all ‘single leg’ exercises are truly single leg, the term is used equivocally to encompass any exercise which emphasises one leg over the other. There are three basic categories of unilateral exercise, this is a better term to encompass all the possible exercises, and these are defined by the type of stance used.
Split stance exercises are the best starting point for ‘newbies’ to unilateral work; these exercises have the largest base of support and are therefore the most stable. Also as a consequence of the relative stability, split stance exercises will allow you to use the heaviest weights. Start with split squats because you only have to set yourself once per set. Get yourself a good degree of stability in the split squat before moving on to lunging movements.
The idea of elevating the rear foot is to make it more passive during the exercise; this places an additional emphasis on the front leg. Stability is slightly less than with split stance exercises and will therefore have an implication on the weights you’ll be able to use. The ‘standard’ option is to elevate the rear foot directly behind you, this is great for dynamically stretching the rectus femoris. Another variation is to elevate the foot out to the side of the body (note: the right foot would be elevated to the right of your body and vice versa for the left), this will provide a similar stretch for the adductor muscles.
This is the least stable of the three categories so you’ll require the least amount of weight. Indeed, these exercises will require a pretty good level of strength and stability before you can even think about loading them up. Pay close attention to the position of your back during these movements, it’s very common to get lazy with the upper body because you’ll be focusing hard on the legs. Remember, a rounded back is never good. A quick note if you’re working towards ‘pistol’ squats, performing single leg squats from a box or a bench is a slightly easier variation and can help you build towards them.
Whilst these are the key compound exercises that we should all have in our single leg repertoire, that’s not all she wrote. Pretty much every ground- and machine-based exercise can be performed single leg, nine times out of ten it’s the better option too. Glute bridges, back extensions, hamstring curls – all prime candidates for the single leg treatment.
Single leg training has a potential application for every type of trainer and is well worth the initial investment. The first few sessions will be difficult but please stick with it. Get a grounding in single leg training and you’ll be all the better for it. Power to the single leg!
Sean Maloney MSc., ASCC, CSCS, CES
Sean is a strength and conditioning coach, lecturer and writer based in Milton Keynes. Sean runs his own strength and conditioning training company, Maloney Performance and has worked with a wide range of athletes – from Olympic and world medallists right down to primary school children. He has previously interned with the English Institute of Sport.
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