Single-leg work has been a pretty controversial topic lately.
Some folks say that it's the only safe way to train the lower body for the long haul and that bilateral exercise is the devil. Others insist that you can't possibly build size relying on unilateral lower body exercises and that they're a cop-out for those who don't want to squat and deadlift heavy.
What's my take?
I think that people just like to be controversial.
The truth is that I think single-leg work is fantastic and I include it in a ton of the programs that I write. I experienced great improvements in some of my bilateral lifts when I made a dedicated effort to improving my single-leg strength. I'm also convinced that including unilateral lower-body lifts in my programs has helped me to stay healthy. These are benefits I've seen in our athletes and clients as well (and Mike Robertson covered these benefits in great detail in Single-Leg Supplements).
That said, unless we're talking about an individual who has some injury history that renders squatting and deadlifting dangerous, I think it's a mistake to build programs purely around single-leg exercises. In other words, the bilateral work will always be the meat, but the single-leg stuff is the potatoes.
In other words, for most lifters, single-leg work tends to be the first or second lower-body exercise in a training session. For those with some type of injury that makes that heavier bilateral work a problem, we do our single-leg work first and follow it up with whatever bilateral exercise (e.g., pull-throughs, glute-ham raises) they can handle.
With all that in mind, not all single-leg exercises are created equal, so I thought I'd use today to outline my top five.
1. Barbell Reverse Lunge – Front Squat Grip
This is an awesome exercise to help educate folks on how to stay upright during just about any lower body exercise, as the front squat grip forces good posture during the drill. Conversely, it's much easier to "slump" when holding dumbbells – and the last thing you want to do is execute the entire set with the shoulders rounded.
Using the front squat grip during a the barbell reverse lunge also works well with athletes dealing with shoulder problems (excluding AC joint pain), as it keeps the shoulders in a pain-free position while still offering the benefits of axial loading. It's also more knee-friendly than forward lunging variations, as there isn't a whole lot of deceleration taking place with the athletes stepping back rather than forward.
2. Barbell Forward Lunges
This strength exercise might be the granddaddy of all single-leg drills for me simply because it's the one that allows for an appreciable amount of loading, but is also combined with two factors that make it especially effective. First, lunging forward increases deceleration demands and, in turn, eccentric strength. Second, positioning the bar on the upper back raises the center of gravity farther away from the base of support, which adds to the stability challenge.
The only people for whom it isn't a good fit are those with poor shoulder mobility and/or with anterior knee pain. If you've got stiff shoulders, stick with the front squat positioning. If you've got knee pain, find a drill with less deceleration demands.
3. DB Reverse Lunge to 1-Leg RDL
This exercise actually looks pretty "foo-foo," but the truth is that it will likely make you sorer than any movement you've ever done before in your training career. And, because each rep takes longer to do, those whose spines may not handle compressive loading very well can still get a great training effect without lugging really heavy weights around. I've seen guys with squats over 400 pounds humbled with 3x8/side using 50-pound dumbbells on the reverse lunge to 1-leg RDL.
Additionally, this is a great addition to metabolic resistance training medleys because of the minimal loading needed and larger excursion of movement. The only people who may want to stay away from it are beginners whose form may break down as the set goes on and fatigue accumulates.
4. 1-Arm DB Bulgarian Split Squats from Deficit
When I see this exercise in my program, I usually just want to cry. Then, after I wind up doing it, I feel a hell of a lot better about myself. Here's the scoop...
When you hold the dumbbell on the same side of the trailing leg, you have weight pulling your support leg into adduction and internal rotation (as your hip flexes). In other words, positioning the weight in this fashion forces your hip external rotators, abductors, and extensors to work harder eccentrically.
What externally rotates, abducts, and extends the hip? The gluteus maximus.
What do most people suck at using? The gluteus maximus.
Try it without shoes to increase the difficulty and work on ankle mobility and function of the muscles of the lower leg and feet.
5. Sled Pushing (or pulling, or dragging, or side-stepping, or whatever)
I know what you're thinking: sled pushing isn't a lunge, split-squat, pistol squat, 1-leg RDL, or step-up – so it can't be a single-leg exercise, can it?
Well, watch someone push a sled and – as is the case with sprinting – there are always points in time where only one leg is in contact with the ground.
So you could make the argument that sled pushing is the most basic, stupid-proof single-leg exercise out there, yet it's still quite effective.
It teaches hip separation (one hip extends while the other flexes).
It allows you to load someone without making them sore, as there's no eccentric stress.
It's so basic that anybody can do it – no matter how uncoordinated they are.
It can be used for everything from metabolic conditioning, to speed training, to strength work.
You can push it (high or low setting), drag it backwards, or do side sled-drags. You can do farmer's walks and pull it with a harness behind you. The options are near limitless – but regardless of what you do, you'll still be in single-leg stance. It's a beautiful thing.
These five options might be my favorites, but they're really just the tip of the iceberg. We use 1-leg RDLs to increase our posterior chain emphasis and allow those with anterior knee pain to still improve their balance. We use step-ups with beginners who need extra practice in single-leg stance without getting ridiculous soreness. The options are limitless, but the message is clear: single-leg training is a valuable tool in your toolbox, even if it isn't top dog in your strength and conditioning program.