Here's what you need to know...

  1. If you've never built up your single-leg strength, take 6 weeks to bring your unilateral competency up to par.
  2. You can achieve levels of joint torque and muscle activation with unilateral exercises that are similar to double-leg exercise, without all the spinal loading.
  3. Getting stronger at single-leg work will transfer over to bilateral work.

Many lifters write off single-leg exercises as "wussy exercises" because they simply haven't taken the time to get good at them. That's shortsighted. Look, a nice benefit of single-leg exercise is that you can get levels of joint torque and muscle activation that are similar to what you can get with double-leg exercise, but with less spinal loading.

Therefore, unilateral lower body exercises contribute to any good lifter's arsenal. If you're weak at single-leg training, any gains in strength and competency will transfer over to bilateral training. But with so many good exercises to choose from, which single-leg movements reign supreme? Here are the ten best.

1 – Dumbbell Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat

This exercise is an accessory movement for the squat, with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and flexibility throughout a larger range of motion.

Dumbbell Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat 1
Dumbbell Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat 2
  • Create a 2-4" deficit using boards, mats, or aerobics steps.
  • Line up in front of a bench and consider placing an Airex Balance pad (not shown) or some other type of padding on the floor to protect the knee in the bottom range of motion.
  • Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Standing on top of the platform, reach back and place the top of the foot on the top of the bench. The majority of the weight should be kept over the front foot (around 80%), with the additional weight on the rear foot (around 20%).
  • While keeping the torso mostly upright, descend under control until your knee lightly touches the pad.
  • At this point, drive through the heel of the front foot, back to the starting position. Keep a neutral head, pelvis, and spine throughout the range of motion.
  • Don't allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side. If you're prone to knee aches and pains, sit back more and maintain a vertical shin throughout the movement.

Common Mistakes:

  • Using a deficit that's too high, which alters technique.
  • Not keeping control throughout the movement.
  • Not touching the pad and skimping on range of motion.
  • Using a bench that's too high, which may cause hip flexor/groin pain.
  • Rising up onto the toes.

2 – Zercher Reverse Lunge

This is an accessory movement for the squat with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and strength. The Zercher position increases the contribution of the upper back (thoracic extension) and anterior core, along with increasing glute activation. Stepping back increases stress at the hips and decreases stress at the knees.

Zercher Reverse Lunge 1
Zercher Reverse Lunge 2
  • Start with the bar in a squat rack or squat stand set at about sternum height.
  • Some people prefer using a bar pad or towel wrapped around the bar to pad the arms. If you have access to a fat bar or axel bar, this is a great time to use it.
  • Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift. Keep the majority of the pressure centered over the front foot throughout the movement.
  • Place the bar in the crook of your arms and interlock the fingers together to create a solid base (or make fists). Unrack the bar and step back.
  • With one leg, step backwards into a reverse lunge, keeping the foot in line with your hip.Do not try to create a straight line between your feet; maintain your normal stance width.
  • Keeping the torso upright (a slight forward lean is fine), descend under control until your knee lightly touches the ground.
  • From this position, drive through the heel of the front foot and return to the starting position. Don't allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side.
  • Common Mistakes:

    • Taking too large or too short of a step backward.
    • Not maintaining control throughout the movement.
    • Not touching the ground and skimping on range of motion.
    • Rising up onto the toes.
    • Trying to keep both feet in line with each other instead of under their respective hips, causing an unstable base of support.
    • Trying to return to the start position from the lunge by pushing off the rear leg rather than keeping the majority of the weight over the front foot.

    3 – Front Loaded Forward Lunge

    This is also an accessory movement for the squat with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and strength. The arms position increases the contribution of the upper back and anterior core. Stepping forward increases stress at the knees and decreases stress at the hips.

    Front Loaded Forward Lunge 1
    Front Loaded Forward Lunge 2
    • Start with the bar in a squat rack set at around shoulder height.
    • Use an Olympic style front rack/clean grip position if you have enough flexibility, or you can use a cross-arms position favored by bodybuilders. Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift.
    • Unrack the bar and take a step back.
    • With one leg, step forwards into a lunge, keeping the foot in line with your hip. Don't try to create a straight line between your feet; maintain your normal stance width.
    • While keeping the torso upright or using a slight forward lean, descend under control until your knee touches the ground.
    • From this position, drive through the mid-foot of the front foot and return to the starting position. Don't allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side.
    • If you're prone to knee aches and pains, sit back more and maintain a vertical shin throughout the movement.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Taking too large or too short of a step forward.
    • Not maintaining control throughout the movement.
    • Not touching the ground and skimping on ROM.
    • Rising up on the toes.
    • Trying to keep both feet in line with each other instead of under their respective hips, causing an unstable base of support.
    • Trying to return to the start position from the lunge by pushing off the rear leg rather than keeping the majority of the weight over the front foot.

    4 – Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift with Brace

    This one is an accessory movement for the deadlift with the added benefit of increasing single-leg stability and strength in the hamstrings while sparing the spine. The "braced" position allows for a greater load to be used (and greater prime-mover muscle activation) and prevents balance from being the limiting factor of the movement.

    Single-leg Romanian Deadlift with Brace 1
    Single-leg Romanian Deadlift with Brace 2
    • Stand next to a squat rack or other stable object that you can hold onto during the movement.
    • Start with the dumbbell or kettlebell held in the hand that's on the same side as the leg that's going to stay in contact with the ground. Hold onto the rack with the other hand and use this hand sparingly to assist during the movement.
    • Start the movement by reaching rearwards with the opposite leg, trying to touch the wall behind you (sit back just as you would in a bilateral Romanian deadlift).
    • Keep the toes of the rear foot pointed towards the ground and keep the rear leg in line with the torso (keep the hip extended on the rear leg). Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift.
    • Stop the eccentric portion of the movement when the load touches the ground, or as far as your range of motion allows while keeping proper form.
    • Make sure the dumbbell or kettlebell stays close to the body and doesn't drift too far outward.
    • Return to the start position by pulling with the heel of the front foot.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Using the "brace" hand to assist in the lift rather than to just keep stable.
    • Not maintaining control throughout the movement.
    • Skimping on range of motion.
    • Rising up on the toe of the front foot.
    • Allowing the toe of the rear foot to drift out to the side, which in turn opens up the hips and releases tension on the lateral hamstrings.

    5 – Bottoms-Up Single-Leg Foot and Shoulder-Elevated Hip Thrust

    This exercise is an accessory movement for the squat and deadlift with the additional benefit of increasing end range hip extension strength and increasing single-leg stability.

    The shoulder-elevated and foot-elevated position increases the movement's range of motion, leading to greater hamstring activation and strength throughout a larger ROM. The "bottoms-up" position refers to starting the movement from the floor, which allows the lifter to be more comfortable and "reset" before each rep.

    You'll need two objects of about the same height and a surface that won't allow slipping (benches and boxes are often used). The distance between the two objects will vary depending on body type and foot position used. Foot position can be set by personal preference – with mid-foot placed on the corner of the bench or with heel placed on top of the bench.

    Bottoms-up Single-leg Foot and Shoulder Elevated Hip Thrust 1
    Bottoms-up Single-leg Foot and Shoulder Elevated Hip Thrust 2
    • Start with the butt resting on the floor, shoulders/upper back resting on the rear bench, with arms resting out to the sides to increase stability and prevent sliding, and foot placed on the bench in front.
    • Start the movement by driving through the heel and squeezing the glute until full hip extension is reached.
    • Upon reaching full hip extension, pause for 1-2 seconds and return to the starting position.
    • Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift. Keep the opposing hip flexed and knee bent throughout the movement.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Not setting the benches at a proper distance from each other.
    • Excessive arching of the lumbar spine and anterior tilting of the pelvis.
    • Not maintaining control throughout the movement and not pausing at end-range.
    • Skimping on range of motion; not reaching full hip extension.
    • Not driving through the heel of the front foot.

    6 – Single-Leg Prisoner Back Extension

    This is an accessory movement for the deadlift, with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and flexibility. The majority of stress is on the hamstrings and glute of the stance leg.

    This variation doesn't require additional load. Placing the arms in the prisoner position increases the torque loading at the hip by increasing the lever length of the torso's center of mass.

    Single-leg Prisoner Back Extension 1
    Single-leg Prisoner Back Extension 2
    • Set up inside a 45-degree hyper and lock only one leg into the foot pad, with the other leg resting on top of the other side.
    • The upper body should have a neutral spine and tucked chin, with no excessive arching of the low back.
    • Hinge at the hips and lower the upper body without rounding the spine until a stretch is felt in the hamstrings.
    • Ensure that no rotation occurs at the torso throughout the movement.
    • Use the hamstring to pull the torso back in line with the legs and finish with the glutes.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Using spinal flexion and extension instead of hip flexion and extension.
    • Allowing the torso to twist throughout the range of motion.
    • Not finishing with glutes and instead arching the low back excessively to finish off hip extension.

    7 – Pistol Squat with Countermovement

    This is an accessory movement to the squat, with the added benefit of building single-leg stability, strength, and coordination. It places the majority of stress on the quads of the stance leg.

    The "countermovement" aspect makes the movement easier to perform by shifting the center of mass forward, which increases the lever arm of the hip and decreases the lever arm of the knee.

    Pistol Squat with Countermovement 1
    Pistol Squat with Countermovement 2
    • Stand on one leg while holding two light dumbbells (5-10 pounds) at the sides.
    • Sit back onto the heel of the stance leg. The foot should remain flat on the ground and the hip of the free leg should be flexed so it doesn't touch the ground.
    • Get as low as possible while simultaneously raising the dumbbells as you would a front raise, with the goal being "ass to grass."
    • Once the lowest position is reached, drive through the heel and return to the start position.
    • Keep a neutral spine at the top and for the majority of the movement. Some lumbar flexion will likely occur at the very bottom, but try to keep the chest tall and prevent excessive lumbar motion.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Rising up onto the toe of the stance leg rather than staying on the heel.
    • Not going low enough.
    • Rounding the low back excessively at the bottom of the movement.

    8 – Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension

    This one is an accessory movement for the squat and deadlift with the added benefit of increasing end range hip extension strength and core stability.

    Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension 1
    Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension 2
    • Set up underneath a reverse hyper in the quadruped position. (I realize that not many lifters have access to a reverse hyper, but this movement is amazing so I felt obligated to include it.)
    • Place both hands on the bottom rails of the reverse hyper and place one foot on the pendulum so that the middle of the foot is on the plate loader.
    • Grip onto the bottom rails tightly to increase core stability through "irradiation.".
    • Make sure the body is shifted rearward so that the knee of the working leg stays bent while it extends rearward (this is bent-legged hip extension, not a donkey kick), which increases stress on the glutes.
    • Maintain a neutral spine and braced core throughout the motion along with a packed neck – look downward at the floor.
    • Drive the foot on the plate loader back and finish with the glute. Don't go so high that you feel this in your lower back.
    • Control the descent back to the starting position. Don't allow the spine to flex during this portion of the movement.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Substituting back extension for hip extension.
    • Going too heavy and not feeling the glutes as primary hip extensors.
    • Not controlling the weight and using momentum.
    • Extending the lumbar and/or cervical spine excessively.

    9 – Dumbbell Step Up

    This is an accessory exercise for the squat with the additional benefit of building single-leg strength, stability, and coordination. It places stress primarily on the quads and glutes of the stance leg.

    Dumbbell Step-up 1
    Dumbbell Step-up 2
    • Grab two dumbbells and hold at the sides. Maintain tension in the scapulae and don't allow the weight to pull the shoulder blades down passively.
    • Place the stance leg completely on the step so that the heel is on the step.
    • The ideal step height is approximately knee height. (Higher step ups are incredible too and don't require much loading.)
    • Maintain a neutral spine and keep the weight primarily on the top leg. Drive the heel into the step until the leg is straight, finishing with the glutes.
    • On the descent, control the body until the foot touches the ground (don't just free fall downward).

    Common Mistakes:

    • Relying on the rear leg excessively for the production of momentum.
    • Going too heavy and losing alignment or allowing the hips to hike during the movement.
    • Failing to adequately control the descent.
    • Not fully extending the hips at the top and failing to finish with the glutes.
    • Allowing the knee to drift inward during the ascent or descent.
    • Rocking the torso, shrugging the shoulders, and/or raising the hips first to start the motion rather than driving through the heel.

    10 – Dumbbell Skater Squat With Countermovement

    This is an accessory movement for the squat with the benefit of building single-leg strength, stability, and coordination. This variation is easier on the knees than pistol squats and may be used in place of them for those with sensitive knees.

    The "countermovement" aspect makes the movement easier to perform by shifting the center of mass forward, which increases the lever arm of the hip and decreases the lever arm of the knee.

    Dumbbell Skater Squat with Countermovement 1
    Dumbbell Skater Squat with Countermovement 2
    • Stand on one leg while holding onto two light dumbbells.
    • Bend one knee to 90 degrees so that one foot is behind you.
    • Sit back on the heel of the stance leg and lean forward slightly, then begin the descent. Go as low as possible, touching the back knee to an Airex Balance pad or something of similar thickness while simultaneously raising the dumbbells as in a front raise.
    • Maintain a neutral spine while driving through the heel of the stance leg and return to the start position.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Going too heavy and allowing the hips to hike.
    • Rounding the back or leaning forward excessively.
    • Allowing the back leg to drift to either side, causing excessive rotation.
    • Reaching for the ground with the dumbbells rather than maximizing range of motion at the hips.

    Unilateral Kick to the Head

    Most powerlifters need some time away from heavy bilateral lifting throughout the year, so if you've never built up your single-leg strength, take 6 weeks to bring your unilateral competency up to par. Avoid the temptation of going too heavy at first. Pay close attention to form and stability and your strength will rapidly increase.