In your quest for developing legs that are bigger, stronger, and more powerful, chances are you've already read dozens of articles on the basic exercises. Any decent strength training routine will put emphasis on the big lifts like squats and deadlifts. While I'm not saying these exercises aren't important, a lot of times people forget about how crucial it is to develop balance between legs.

This article is designed to give you plenty of single-leg options to help you achieve all your strength and physique goals.

Why Should I Care?

I'm sure some of you will scoff at modifying your current leg-training program, but hopefully I can change your mind.  Below are just a few of the benefits of incorporating more single-leg movements into your program:

1 – Balance between legs and injury prevention

Whether you play sports, are trying to move more weight in the power or Olympic lifts, or just want to look good at the pool, chances are if you only perform bilateral exercises (exercises which use both legs at the same time), at some point you'll develop an imbalance in your legs.

The point of adding more unilateral work into your program is to make sure each leg is equally developed in strength and size when compared to the other. It should go without saying that if one leg is considerably stronger or weaker than the other, at some point in time this will probably catch up to you. It could be in the form of sub-optimal training and performance, or as devastating as a serious injury.

By focusing on strengthening each leg independently, you're working to ensure that any weak point in your chain is brought up to speed.

2 – Change of pace in your training

Even the most hardcore strength athletes can see benefits from working on single-leg strength. While most of these exercises won't be mainstays in your pre-competition cycle, they can be used following a competition or in the off-season for a change of pace.

3 – Improved balance and proprioception

Whenever you decrease your base of support from two feet to one it will increase the need for good balancing skills. Most people have trouble standing on one leg, let alone going through an active range of motion (ROM) with heavy iron! Beyond just balance, you'll also improve your body's proprioceptive ability: the ability to know where you are in space.

4 – Strengthen some of the key knee stabilizers, specifically the gluteals and vastus medialis oblique (VMO)

I could write a whole set of articles describing how important these muscle groups are, but to make a long story short, the stronger your gluteals and VMO the less chance you'll have of injuring your knees. Along with this point, it should also be noted that to fully blast these muscles you need to use a full-ROM! Several studies have shown that VMO and glute recruitment are enhanced the deeper you go, so check your ego at the door and "go deep" to build up these knee stabilizers.

5 – Destroying the "light bulb" effect

Unfortunately, I know that some of you reading this aren't currently doing any leg work in your program.  There are tons of excuses out there, but none of them are making your chicken legs look any better or improving your performance.

Single-leg training is a great way to get acclimated to the rigors of heavy leg training? and who wants to show off a huge upper body paired with legs that resemble drumsticks? You don't really want to be referred to as "top heavy" the rest of your life, do you?

The Exercises

Following are pics and descriptions of exercises that'll rocket your leg development into the stratosphere. I've also provided a pain factor rating for each exercise; that way you can't say I didn't warn you when you're limping for days to follow! We'll keep it simple here; the more stars following the exercise, the more pain it'll produce during and after training.

Enough chit-chat, let's get on with the exercises!

Lunges

Variations: Static, Dynamic, Short-Stroke, Walking, Off a 6" Box, Crossover, Lateral and Overhead

Muscle Groups Used: Quadriceps, adductors, glutes, hamstrings

Lunges are the most basic single-leg exercise. They're also one of the most punishing! Whenever I go away from these for a while and then return, my body always feels it the next couple of days.

Dynamic Lunge

Pain Rating: * * *

Dynamic Lunge 1 Dynamic Lunge 2

Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hand and elevate your ribcage (descriptions will assume that you're using dumbbells; however, you can easily increase the loading and performance by placing a barbell on your back instead).

From the starting position, take an exaggerated step forward, landing on your heel. This is an important point because when you land on your toes it's more difficult to balance. Beyond that, you also have a tendency to shoot the knees forward over the toes, increasing the shear forces on the patellofemoral joint.

Once your heel is down, lower your opposite leg until your knee is very close to (or gently) touches the floor. The key here is to make sure that you're working through a full-ROM, not stroking our ego with massive weights and partial movements. Keep the weight on the heel, lower down, and then drive back off the heel to the starting position.

Static Lunge

Pain Rating: *

Instead of actually moving the working leg forward and back, you'll start by setting the working leg in the extended position. All the same techniques apply, but now you're just moving the torso up and down. This version is a little easier for the beginner because balance isn't as much an issue.

Short-Stroke Lunge

Pain Rating: * *

Short-Stroke Lunge

Identical to the dynamic version described above, only you'll shorten the distance you step out. This version tends to put a little more stress on the quadriceps.

Walking Lunge

Pain Rating: * * * *

If you didn't get enough pain out of the original dynamic lunge, this one should take you to new levels of whimpering!

Performance is the same as the dynamic version, except instead of driving through the heel and back to the starting position, you're going to drive your body forward into your next lunge. This version definitely takes the pain level up a notch!

Lunge Off a 6" Box

Pain Rating: * * * * *

Lunge Off a 6 Box 1 Lunge Off a 6 Box 2

I'm sure only the true masochists in the crowd are still reading! Warning: This version isn't for the faint of heart. Your body will be feeling the effects of it for days to come, I promise! I'd like to thank my first mentor, Justin Cecil (who's also the model for the photos), for showing me this excellent exercise.

Place an aerobic box in front of you (yes, they really are good for something), just short of where you'd normally land for a standard dynamic lunge. Performance is identical to the dynamic lunge, except now you'll be landing on the box in front of you.

Full ROM is a must! Remember what I said about going deeper increasing recruitment of the VMO and glutes?  If you don't believe me, just do a few sets of these, then curse me in the morning!

Lateral Lunge

Pain Rating: * * * *

To give my boy Eric Cressey a shameless plug, you need to check out his article Construction by Adduction to get a better idea of the functional anatomy of the adductor muscles. This variation is excellent if you're interested in developing your hip abductors and adductors.

Lateral Lunge 1 Lateral Lunge 2

Set-up as you normally would, except instead of stepping forward, step directly to your left side. You're probably getting tired of hearing me say these cues, but force yourself to land and place your weight on your heel and keep your chest up throughout. Let your hips sink back and down, and then drive off your heel to the starting position. Hopefully your adductors don't feel like they've been cut with a scalpel the next morning!

Crossover Lunge

Pain Rating: * * * * *

Crossover Lunge 1 Crossover Lunge 2

Let's add another abductor/adductor blaster into the mix. With the chest-up, lunge across the body. Land on the heel, drive off the heel, and don't let your ego take over. This version (or the overhead version that follows) are probably the toughest of all with regards to coordination and performance.

Overhead Lunge

Pain Rating: * * * *

I'm going to give this exercise four out of five stars simply because you can't load up the weights like you can on some of the previous versions. Don't get it twisted, though, this version is extremely difficult. If you thought overhead squatting was difficult, wait until you try this out!

Overhead Lunge 1 Overhead Lunge 2

Load a barbell and extend the arms as if you're performing a behind-the-neck-press. From this position, perform as you would the other forward lunges. I'll let you choose whether you lunge back into the starting position, or perform the walking version (but I'd start with the former if I were you!). Focus on keeping the core tight throughout, even more so than in previous versions.

Bulgarian Squats

Variations: Regular, Short-Stroke, Off a 6" Box

Muscles Used: Quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, gluteals

Bulgarian squats are very similar to regular lunges in the fact that they'll punish your entire leg. Lunges and Bulgarian squats both have pros and cons; I think the best thing about Bulgarian squats is that once you're set up, all you have to do is move your body up and down. For this reason, I find it easier to start loading the weights up on Bulgarians versus lunges. But, I digress. On with the descriptions!

Regular Bulgarian Squat

Pain Rating: * * *

Regular Bulgarian Squat 1 Regular Bulgarian Squat 2

Stand approximately three to four feet in front of a bench with a barbell on your shoulders or a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Place your weight on one heel, and with the opposite leg, reach back and place the top of your toes on the edge of the bench.

Note: If you're having problems with the set-up, use an incline bench to "pin" your foot in and prevent it from moving around.

Once you're locked in, "screw" your heel into the ground and elevate the rib cage. Lower your body down to a point where your opposite knee is very close to or lightly touches the ground, then drive up through the heel to the starting position. Perform for the necessary number of reps, then repeat on the opposite side.

Short-Stroke Bulgarian Squat

Pain Rating: * *

This version is identical to the first, with the exception that your front leg will be closer to the bench. Again, this will put slightly more emphasis on the quadriceps.

Bulgarian Squat Off a 6" Box

Pain Rating: * * * * *

For those that didn't derive enough pain from the lunges off a box, this version again extends the ROM to put a thorough beatdown on your wheels. Dust that aerobic step off and place it about three feet in front of the bench.  All the same rules apply to this version as the standard one, and don't forget that ROM is both your best friend and your worst enemy here. During performance, chant this mantra: "Pain is good; extreme pain is extremely good!"

Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Pain Rating: * * *

Muscles Used: Hamstrings, gluteals, adductors

While plenty of people may know about this exercise, it's rare I see people using it. Not only does it strengthen the hamstrings to a high degree, but it works on dynamic balance, dynamic flexibility and strengthens your adductors as well. I wouldn't suggest getting too crazy with the load though, because this exercise is way harder than it looks!

Romanian Deadlift 1 Romanian Deadlift 2

Hold a dumbbell in front of your body and raise your same side foot slightly off the ground. The weight should be on the heel and the chest elevated. From this position, keep your free leg straight and swing it back while lowering the dumbbell down to the top of your opposite foot. Return to the top and repeat.

When you get good at these, strive to keep your swing leg off the ground throughout the course of the set.

Step-ups

Variations: Standard, Standard with Hold, Lateral, Step-Down

Muscles Used: Quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, gluteals

Step-ups are a simple exercise that can take your single-leg strength and development to new levels. Beyond the standard version, there are several variations to keep your body growing for months to come!

Standard Step-up

Pain Rating: * * *

Start with a pair of dumbbells in your hand and one foot up on a bench. The toes of both feet should be raised to ensure that you're using your entire leg musculature to shoulder the load and not just your quadriceps. Place the brunt of your weight on the "up" heel, then squeeze the glute and drive the heel through the bench. Drive up to where your opposite foot can rest on the bench, then return to the starting position.

Standard Step-up with Hold

Pain Rating: * * *

Standard Step-up with Hold 1 Standard Step-up with Hold 2

Performance is identical to the previous version, except instead of just bringing your swing foot up to the top, continue to swing it up until your opposite thigh is parallel to the ground. This version not only improves the initial drive, but also develops strength and proprioceptive ability around the ankle joint.

Lateral Step-up

Pain Rating: * * * *

This version is very similar to the standard, except now instead of facing the bench you'll be standing next to it.  This version will put an increased amount of stress on the hip abductors and adductors.

Step-Down

Pain Rating: * * * *

Stand with both feet on a bench like you've just completed a step-up. Take one leg and let it hover behind you off the bench and shift your weight to the heel of your planted leg. From here, sit back as far as possible and lower under control until your free leg lightly touches the ground. Squeeze the glutes and drive the heel through the bench to return to the starting position. Once you get these down, feel free to hold a plate in front of your chest to increase the loading.

King Deadlift

Pain Rating: * * *

Muscles Used: Adductors, hamstrings, gluteals

King deadlifts (named after the Australian strength coach and T-Nation contributor Ian King) are very similar to the step-down discussed before. The primary difference here is that King deadlifts are performed on the ground, while step-downs are performed standing on a bench.

In the King deadlift you'll have the free leg bent at the knee. Put the weight on the heel and sit back as far as possible; don't worry about having a ton of trunk lean because this will increase the recruitment of the gluteals.  Sit back until your free leg's knee and shin are almost touching the ground and then return to the starting position.

Single-Leg Squat

Variations: Off Bench, Pistol

Muscles Used: Quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, glutes

Off Bench Single-Leg Squat

Pain Rating: * * * *

This last exercise is what I consider the crème-de-la-crème of single leg movements. Not only does it take incredibly strong legs, but it requires you to have a great deal of dynamic flexibility and balance to perform it correctly.

Off Bench Single-Leg Squat 1 Off Bench Single-Leg Squat 2

Begin by holding a pair of light dumbbells in your hands at hip level. The chest should be up and the weight should be on the right heel. Performance is very similar to a traditional squat: sit back and force the chest up. As you're sitting back/down, raise the dumbbells in front of your body to counterbalance yourself. Sit as low as you can, then drive the right heel into the box while simultaneously squeezing the right glute to return to the starting position.

Pistol

Pain Rating: * * * * *

The free-standing single leg squat is even more demanding than the off-box version. First off, you'll need tremendous flexibility in your hamstrings. This is because instead of letting your free leg hang down, you'll hold it out in front of you! Performance is very similar to the off-box version described above, but obviously it's much more difficult.

There have been numerous articles written on the proper performance of pistols, so I won't go there again in this article. However, if enough of you get to the point where you can bang out three sets of 6-8 reps each leg on the off-box version, let me know and I'll write up a full article on how to pop pistols like a .44 Mag.

Conclusion

It takes a serious trainee to add more single-leg training into his routine. If you haven't done it before, you have no idea how brutal this kind of training can be until you go at it full bore. Don't get me wrong, it's not the be-all, end-all of leg training, but it's most definitely something that can help you improve your body.

Whether your goals are improved strength, more mass or simply not having to hide your legs every time you hit the beach, give some of these exercises a shot and see what they can do for you!