Why Single-Leg Exercises Are Crucial to Building Lower-Body Strength

Here's how to develop impressive single-leg strength.

Split-Squats and Lunges are often labeled wimpy exercises.

At worst, they're deemed suitable for folks working with pink dumbbells at bootcamp classes.


Split-Squats and Lunges are often labeled wimpy exercises.

At worst, they're deemed suitable for folks working with pink dumbbells at bootcamp classes.

At best, they're considered viable options for injured trainees, particularly those with back issues, but certainly not for young, athletic males on a quest to getting strong and jacked.

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Few people understand that building unilateral lower body strength is crucial for sports performance and preventing injuries.

Even fewer realize that you can get plenty strong on single-leg exercises. For a healthy athlete, moving 200 or 300-plus pounds for reps on a unilateral lower body movement should be the rule, not the exception.

Here's how to develop impressive single-leg strength.

Build a Base of Technical Proficiency

Whenever I visit a public gym (which fortunately doesn't happen too often these days), I run into two types of trainees performing unilateral movements:

  1. Those who still Split-Squat the same 45-pounders for 3 sets of 10 that I witnessed them doing the last time I saw them eight months ago.
  2. The trainee, typically a male, who moves decent poundage but whose form leaves a lot to be desired. He overloads the movement with weights he can't handle properly, cuts the range of motion short, can't keep his knees in line with the hips and ankles and has trouble maintaining a stable base of support.

Best-case scenario?

The next time I see him in half a year, he'll have plateaued and will have moved on to other exercises, likely ones involving the leg press and leg extension machines, because single-leg barbell and dumbbell exercises "don't work" for getting stronger.

RELATED: 10 Single-Leg Exercises to Build Strength and Eliminate Imbalances

Worst case?

As the weights he keeps adding to the bar get bigger, his ROM gets smaller. Somewhere down the line, he develops knee pain, which forces him to take a break from heavy lower-body movements.

And again, we can find him over by the "safer" machines that "keep his joints healthy."

That's obviously not what we're shooting for.

As with any strength exercise, begin with a resistance that allows you to maintain textbook form. That means a full range of motion, good balance, level hips, no collapsing knees and no hyperextending the low back throughout the movement.

Depending on your training background and current strength levels, that might even mean starting with just your own body weight.

Initial strength levels don't matter one bit, so don't skip this important step.

Get it right once, so you'll stay injury-free and reap the rewards forever.

Go Heavy

Once your lifting form looks good, it's time to focus on using progressively heavier weights to build stronger legs in unilateral movements.

RELATED: How to Master the Single-Leg RDL

As already mentioned, few people realize that you can and should overload single-leg movements the same way you do bilateral lifts.

Note that the term "heavy" is completely subjective. For some of you, 100 pounds could be considered heavy, whereas 300-plus pounds could prove to be a challenging weight for a strong, in-shape athlete.

Although we occasionally drop down to singles, doubles or triples on certain Split-Squat variations with my hockey players, most of your training time should be spent working with slightly higher reps in the 5- to 10-rep range.

Prioritize Single-Leg Movements Earlier in Your Workouts

Generally, you want to do your most important exercises early in your workout while you're still fresh.

A few sets of Walking Lunges thrown in as an afterthought at the end of your training session, which is standard operating procedure for many trainees, simply won't cut it if your goal is to build impressive single-leg strength.

Perform a Split-Squat or Lunge variation as the first or second "big" strength exercise of your training session to get the most out of them.

Vary Single-Leg Exercises and Set/Rep Schemes from Phase to Phase

Waving between phases of higher volume and higher intensity produces great strength gains both in bilateral and unilateral movements. It's also the go-to method that I use with my hockey players.

Here's an example of what this could look like for a unilateral Squat variation:

Accumulation (Higher Volume) Phase

Dumbbell Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squat

  • Week 1 - 3x6
  • Week 2 - 3x8
  • Week 3 - 4x8
  • Week 4 - 4x10

Intensification (Higher Intensity) Phase

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

  • Week 1 - 3x5
  • Week 2 - 3x5
  • Week 3 - 4x5
  • Week 4 - 4x5

Combine the tips above with a smart strength training program, and watch your single-leg strength shoot through the roof.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock