My Favorite Single-Leg Exercises

Single Leg Squat on Box

Out of all the single leg squat variations, this is probably my favorite.  They require a ton of stability in your ankles and knees, and they are perfect for developing balance and coordination.  I use a standard 12″ plyo box, but a flat bench works fine too.  A good way to counter-balance yourself if necessary is to hold two very light (5 lbs or so) dumbbells or weight plates in front of you.

Really try to sit back and get good depth here, a little bit of forward lean is okay.  If you want to make them even harder, add load in the form of a weighted vest or racked kettlebell, or hold a pause at the bottom.  Your quads will hate you but you know what’s best for them more than they do!


Bulgarian Split Squat

Apparently we were doing these in America before the Bulgarians picked up on them, but I don’t really know nor do I really care because they’re simply an awesome strength developer.  Plus it sounds cooler and takes less time to call them this than “Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats” even though the latter is actually much more descriptive of what you’re supposed to do.

Bulgarian split squats are not a true unilateral movement because there will be at least some (although minimal) form of assistance from the elevated leg.  The assistance is almost negligible, however.  Here’s a demonstration:

There is a large variety of ways to load this exercise.  Personally, I think the bulgarian split squat is a movement that is safe to go pretty heavy with and therefore I like to use a barbell.  Placing the bar in the front position will make the exercise more difficult, and it’s fine to keep it on your back as long as your keep your spine vertical.  Dumbbells, kettlebells, or a weighted vest can all be used to load the movement too, but you’ll probably get the most bang for your buck with a barbell.

You’ll want to play around with different bench/box heights to find the most comfortable position here.  Resting your foot on a flat bench might be uncomfortable at first but I encourage you to stick with it.  In a perfect world every gym would have a split squat stand, but another way to setup is to wrap a bar pad around a smith machine bar.  Then you can place your foot and ankle on a round and padded surface which will be very comfortable.

We get a lot of the same benefits here that we do from single leg squats, but the big advantages to the bulgarian split squat in particular are 1) you can load it very heavily and 2) you get a nice little hip flexor stretch in the elevated leg.


Snatch Grip Single Leg RDL

So now we get to target the backside of the body with some good ole RDL’s.  As the name implies, there are two major differences from the standard Romanian or Straight Leg Deadlift:  they’re done on one leg and you take a much wider grip.

Check it out:

Performing this exercise unilaterally allows you to get a really deep stretch in your hamstring, and the snatch grip will hit your upper back and lats very hard.  Keep a soft bend in your knee throughout the lift, you don’t want it completely straight.  You’ll want the bar to stay close to your body, and push your heel through the floor during the concentric motion.  As always, maintain a flat back and do your best to control the movement.  If you try to move too fast you’ll lost your balance right away.

And also, put a lot less weight on the bar than you want before you give these a go.  This exercise is humbling and is much more about effectively loading the posterior chain rather than pulling big weights.  It’s not such a bad idea to use straps here either so your grip doesn’t give out too early.


Single Leg Single Dumbbell RDL

This one is very similar to the snatch grip single leg RDL, but it has a completely different feel to it.  Here, you’ll be using one heavy dumbbell and holding it in the hand opposite of the working leg.  This is what it looks like:

At first it’s going to be annoyingly difficult to stabilize during this movement.  Although things usually don’t work this way, the heavier you go here, the easier it will be to balance.  Just like the previous exercise, keep a soft bend in the knee and keep the dumbbell close to your body while pushing your heel through the floor.

Both of the RDL variations I’ve mentioned force you to control and stabilize in all three planes of movement.  As you flex and extend the hip joint, you’re working in the sagittal plane.  As you center the load over your foot to maintain stability, you’re working in the frontal plane.  And as your hips internally and externally rotate during the movement, you’re working in the transverse plane.  Brilliant!


Honorable Mentions

I’ve got a few more goodies that didn’t make the list that I think are worthy of some attention.

  • Walking Lunges – I would have put these in the list if it wasn’t for the fact that they are done while walking.  I think they’re great because you have to decelerate yourself as your body moves forward and then immediately propel yourself into the next lunge.  The only drawback is that they require a lot of space, and I know most folks in commercial gyms aren’t going to have a good free area where they can walk with a barbell on their back.  But if you can find a way to do them, I strongly encourage it!
  • Single Leg Back Extensions – Brutal on the hamstrings, easy on the spine.  Avoid hyperextending your lumbar spine at the top, you want to focus on moving at your hips rather than your low back.
  • Single Leg Hip Thrust – Awesome move primarily for the glutes.  Once again, don’t allow your lumbar spine into hyperextension.  Move your hipsnot your back.


Single leg training can make your workouts a lot more effective and a lot more interesting.  Try implementing some of these exercises into your sessions and you’re bound to see some drastic improvements.  Have fun!

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