Single-leg exercises are an important part of anyone’s exercise program – especially field athletes, runners and those who want to work on their balance and stability.
What makes single-leg work so important?
1) Increased Leg and Knee Stability
Often times with a new trainee, before progressing to barbell movements such as the bench press, it is best to begin using dumbbells. By making the arms work independently of eachother, greater stability is required and greater range of motion can be achieved, both of which carry over into more complex barbell exercises. The same principle applies to lower body exercises such as the squat, or even to something as simple as running! Greater stability in the knee joint and mobility in the hips, both of which are increased with single-leg motions, helps almost everyone in any fitness goal they may have.
If it’s an athlete, greater knee stability will decrease chances of injury as well as making for quicker, more effective cuts. This is an important point for endurance athletes as well – running is after all a prolonged single-leg exercise! Having stability in the knee and proper mobility in the hips will allow for proper and pain-free strides. If you want to lift more weight in general, having a stable base will certainly help you get there. Simply doing squats and deadlifts does not guarantee stability, so single-leg exercises in supplement to those is extremely beneficial. A single-leg exercise reduces the base of support our body has to stay upright, making these knee and hip stabilizers have to activate and work harder than usual to keep you standing, so single-leg exercises are great for those who want to increase balance as well! Want to build more muscle? As mentioned, single-leg exercises work knee and hip stabilizers, such as the gluteus medius and leg adductors, to a greater degree than two-leg exercises such as the squat.
2) Correct Lower Body Imbalances
Most of us realize if one side of our body is stronger than the other. It comes out a lot in an exercise like a dumbbell bench press, or a lunge. It is very important to correct these imbalances (or at least get on the road to doing so) before moving into double-leg exercises such as the squat or push press or powerclean. This will help in everyday life as well – imbalances can cause issues in the hips and knees and make simple tasks such as walking up stairs painful. For an endurance athlete this is very important as well – taking thousands of steps with more power from one leg than the other is a good way to end up injured.
So now that we know why we should include single-leg exercises in our training, here is an example of an exercise and a few progressions to get you started.
How to Perform a Split Squat
1) Begin with straight hips
One thing that is seen with many people is something called “Anterior Pelvic Tilt”. This is caused by tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings and inactive glutes. Having the hips tilted this way can cause low back pain and incorrect posture and form in many exercises. So before we even begin trying the split squat, we should make sure that the hips are straight and in line.
As well, make sure your feet are the appropriate length apart. You can be sure of this by thinking about making 2 90 degree angles with your knees. You can see this in the example picture of good form above! The angle my legs make when bent are both roughly right angles.
2) Keep an upright torso
We should think about our entire trunk, hips and abdomen included, as a straight line. Our chest should be up and the hips and torso should move up and down like a piston. Take a look at the picture below to get an idea of what NOT to do!
Anterior pelvic tilt and forward lean
3) Push up through the heel, maintaining neutral hips, upright torso and stability
This will be hard to master at first. It’s very easy to lose balance and stability when just beginning the split squat. Look in the mirror to make sure your hips are staying level, without one dipping to the side or tilting. Making sure to push through the heel is very important for keeping our knees happy while performing this exercise! Pushing through the heel puts much less stress on the knee, using your glutes and hamstrings to get yourself up rather than your quads, which become more active if you push through your toes.
Good positioning – note the difference in the hip tilt between this picture and the example of bad form below.
4) Lower yourself, keeping the weight on your heels and the knees behind the toes.
Make sure that you’re not coming far forward with your knees on the descent – this will put a lot of pressure on them and cause pain in the long run! Remember to think of your torso as a piston, moving straight up and down. Keeping the weight on your heels will help with this!
Knees over the toes in the above picture, causing the torso and hips to have to tip forward as well. Keep the knees well behind the toes – you’ll have to keep your glute and hamstring taught the entire way down!
Variations on the Split Squat
While there are a lot of different single-leg exercises that can be progressed from the split squat, the one that we’ll focus on is called the “Bulgarian Split Squat,” or a “Rear Leg Elevated Squat,” whichever long, hard to remember name you prefer!
The Bulgarian Split Squat has the same general motion and the same principles as the split squat, except you don’t have the rear leg nearly as stable and able to help with your balance. The torso still needs to remain upright, and your knees should still stay at or behind the toes. You’ll want to stand 2 to 3 feet away from the bench when you perform these.
These are much harder than regular split squats, so be warned!
Still looking for a bigger challenge? Try using holding dumbbells to the side when performing either the split squat or the Bulgarian split squat. For a more unique challenge, try holding a barbell in the front or back squat position!
Putting it all Together
Take a look at the video of these two exercises HERE, and make sure to include some single-leg training in your routine!
B.S. , NASM-CPT