If you are trying to build a pair of large, strong, athletic legs conventional wisdom has probably told you to get to the rack and back squat. However squats are not always the optimal exercise and it may even disagree with your body.
This means maintaining a neutral lumbar spine throughout the entire movement, which for some people is physically impossible, due to mobility restrictions around the hips and ankles.
The benefits of single leg training
1. Protect your back
Common knowledge is that during squatting, you’re placing the spine under a large compressive load, even if your technique is solid. The nature of the movements, and repeated high loads in multiple repetition sessions can lead to injuries. The load can be decreased in single leg movements because less weight is needed to train each leg individually
2. Fire your Stabilisers
The bigger the exercise, the heavier the load and the larger the muscle groups involved. If we reduce the base of support from two legs to one leg, we are forcing our body to recruit the stabilising muscles that we don’t usually use, to prevent us from falling over. The main stabilising muscles recruited during single leg variations are that of the Glutes. Things like recruiting the smaller muscles may prevent injury down the line.
3. Grow your Glutes
Single leg movements have a unique ability to involve the gluteal region. Strong glutes protect the lower back and maximise your explosive power
4. Horizontal Core Training
Single leg variations can be performed weighted or unweighted. These variations work by forcing your core to work overtime to prevent you from falling over!
Single leg training can add that extra core training to your sessions, and can be a real asset when transferring single leg exercises into sporting practice.
If you are squatting under heavy load with poor technique then your back will pay the consequence. Single leg training alongside the required hip/ankle mobility can have you back in that rack pushing up big numbers in no time and enable you to continue training hard and improve to beat a personal best.
Split Stance Exercises
In part one, we’ll talk through some split stance single leg exercises. Now let’s look at some of the split stance variations.
The Split SquatTake a step forward into a split position. The idea is to keep the chest up, squeeze the shoulders back and maintain a straight back throughout the movement. While keeping the weight through the heel on the forefoot, lower the back knee to around an inch off the floor. A good point for this is to try and maintain a vertical line with the back knee, hip and shoulder. It is important to think about moving up and down and not forwards and backward. This will ensure that the knee adopts and maintains a position over the forefoot. This movement can be loaded with a barbell, dumbbells or performed with bodyweight.
Rear Foot-Elevated Split SquatIf you are ready for a progression, you can perform this exercise, commonly known as the Bulgarian Split Squat. Place your foot on top of a box/bench behind you and perform in the same manner as the split squat. The box behind can be of varying heights depending on your ability and the freedom of movement around your hip. Place the top of your rear foot on a bench behind you and perform the movement in a manner similar to the split squat mentioned above. This movement has been shown to place 80% of the load on the fore foot, and can help improve flexibility around the hip by lowering into a deep position.
Front Foot-Elevated Split SquatThis progression is very similar to the previous, although the front foot is elevated. This adds a different dimension to the exercise by increasing the range of motion through the hip while making the exercise a lot harder. This will help to develop additional flexibility around the hip with consistent performance. It is important to keep the abdominals tight throughout these movements.
LungesThe lunge is a hip-extensor–dominant exercise and is used mainly to target the glutes and hamstrings rather than the quadriceps. The major difference here when compared to the split squat is the eccentric portion as the forefoot lands in the split position. The eccentric work works the quadriceps in decelerating the knee upon landing and through knee flexion on the downward portion on the lift. Greater effort is also required on the concentric upward portion on the lift to drive back into a standing position. Here it is important to drive off the heel of the forefoot, having the core constantly activated while having the shoulder kept tight and back. This driving back into position has higher muscle activation levels, not just in the lower limbs but in the upper body too!
Walking LungesWalking lunges are by far my favourite variation. With an increased muscle activation in both accelerating forward and decelerating upon landing. The metabolic effects of this movement are huge and can be a wonderful tool for those of you looking to shed those pounds. To take it to the next level you can try this loaded with a barbell or dumbbells, or you can tax the core more by holding either overhead!
Lateral Split SquatLateral Split squats are another variation, but this time along the frontal plane. This variation is great for increasing activation mainly in the Hip Adductors and Glutes. This can help with adding chunks of muscle to places you didn’t know you had, or for helping with this heavy back squats. Start with a nice wide stance, looking forward with the chest up and shoulders squeezed back. Here you can also load with a barbell, dumbbells or bodyweight. Now on the way down to the side, think about sitting back down into the corner as opposed to the side. This will prevent the knee from pushing too far forward, and will activate the desired Glutes and Hip Adductors. Then simple push back upwards through the heel of the foot into the standing position. It is important to maintain a flat back throughout! Lateral Lunges and walking lunges can also be performed.
These split stance exercises are a great addition to any program and are very easy to use at home or in the gym.
They are simple, effective and an easy introduction into the world of single leg training. In Part 2, we will summarise the singular footed knee dominant exercises that are a progression from the split stance variations above.