Three Things to Understand About Single-Leg Strength Training
- Start with working on your balance by doing a split squat. Practice these until you can add dumbbells or do an overhead split squat.
- Build stabilizer strength by doing single-leg clam shells and hip bridges.
- Work on strength and stability by doing my favorite single-leg straight-leg deadlifts.
If you are an everyday athlete, single-leg strength training is one of the best ways to build hip and leg stability, strength, and durability.
While squats and deadlifts are useful for building hip and core strength, cycling and running are, in their essence, single-leg activities.
Besides building strength in your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and other hips muscles. single-leg strength training helps develop stabilizer muscles in your hips like your gluteus medius.
Plus, single-leg, or unilateral, exercises help endurance athletes build balance and prevent injury.
I’ve been using Mike Boyle‘s book Functional Training for Sports for years as a guide to helping my athletes – and myself – get stronger. (There is a new edition that I just ordered from Boswell Books!)
Start Single-Leg Strength Training With Split Squats
The first step, no pun intended, in doing single-leg strength training is the split squat.
Since this exercise also involves your balance, you might have a chair or the wall nearby for help.
Start by stepping forward with one leg.
Your front knee will be over your front ankle and your back knee will be on the ground.
Keep your chest up, and sometimes putting your hands behind your neck helps maintain this position.
Stand up so your legs are straight and repeat.
Single-Leg Strength Options
Once you have the split squat figured out, you can add to it and challenge yourself.
- You can add dumbbells in either hand or even in just one hand to challenge your core.
- Do an overhead split squat by holding a dowel or bar above your head, elbows locked.
- Use a slider to do a reverse lunge or a side lunge.
- Do step ups with a high box to minimize pushing off with the bottom foot and utilize your glutes more.
- Try a Bulgarian split squat. You’ll use the same positioning as the split squat, but put your back foot on a bench. Keep your front knee over your shoelaces to avoid stressing your knee too much. You can add dumbbells or a barbell for Bulgarians too.
Single-Leg Strength Training Stability Options
Often, doing single-leg strength training will reveal weaknesses or deficiencies in stability, balance, and/or strength.
For example, the glute medius, located about the concave spot on your butt cheek, is often undeveloped in cyclists and runners.
(A physical therapist once told me mine was atrophied! This was after a summer of long miles on the bike.)
Doing clamshells, by lying on your side with your knees bent and raising one knee without moving the spine.
I also find that doing sumo deadlifts helps activate the medius.
Often, issues that come up with leg strength often originate in the hips.
So building hip stability one at a time helps build strength and balance.
If you have a “hyper-extension” machine or a Roman Chair at the gym, use that to build glute and hamstring extension. Hook your ankles behind the cushion, and position your hips so that you’re able to hinge at your hips. Try holding the top position with your glutes, building up to one minute.
Alternatively, doing a Locust yoga pose and concentrating on using your glutes will stimulate the same muscle groups.
You can also try hip lifts and glute bridges with one leg.
Put one foot on an exercise ball or medicine ball while lying on your back. Contract your hamstrings and raise your butt off the ground.
Doing single-leg strength training will help you build stability in your hips and core.
Single-Leg, Straight-Leg Deadlifts
These are by far my favorite single-leg strength training exercise to build strength and balance.
Plus you can build additional movement into the exercise to provide stress for your back.
Start with a staggered step with one foot in front of the other. Put your weight on the front foot and use your back foot only for balance.
With the front knee slightly bent and your back straight, push your butt back until you reach the end of your hamstring movement.
It’s important to keep your knee bent and back straight to focus the work on your glutes.
Once you master the motion, you can:
- Push your butt back while raising the back leg off the ground so your body is in one straight line.
- Hold a dumbbell on one or both hands while hinging.
- While holding one or two dumbbells, hinge so you’re parallel to the floor, then do a row.
- Do a Warrior 3 yoga pose with the back leg straight out and both arms reaching forward. Hold for as long as you can.
- Hold the dumbbell(s), hinge, then pull the weights up to your shoulders as you come back up. This is a modified clean.
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