Being strong and durable on one leg bodes well for all aspects of health and performance.
Whether you’re an endurance athlete who runs a lot, an athlete in a field or court-based sport, or just looking to get stronger on one leg in the gym, this information is for you.
In part 1, the focus will be on building single-leg strength with respect to the single-leg squat pattern. Then, we will tackle the single-leg deadlift (hip hinge) pattern in part 2.
The key take-home point is to progress slowly through each step. Understanding that building single-leg strength takes quality time, is an understatement. An overarching theme you will see is the constant reinforcement of controlled tempo work and mastering each sequence of every exercise progression.
PSEUDO SINGLE-LEG WORK
The first step toward building single-leg strength is mastering pseudo single-leg work.
I view pseudo single-leg work as any exercise that puts most of the weight on one leg, while the other leg assists in a minor way. Although this isn’t true single-leg work, it still represents a foot in the right direction as you build up toward that.
Let’s start off with all of the split squat variations. You can get comfortable here as the front leg does most of the work, and the back leg is only there for assistance and balance.
I would suggest going in this order:
1. DB Split Squat
I like this option best for people just starting out. It’s simple and sometimes even poses a challenge for folks who haven’t spent much time training. Take your time here; there’s truly no rush.
2. DB Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Next up, we have a position where the front foot is elevated roughly 2-4 inches off the floor. This will aid in your ability to get a bit deeper into the split squat, and will certainly challenge both hip and knee flexion a bit.
3. DB Both Feet Elevated Split Squat
Now, let’s increase the challenge some more by elevating both feet roughly 2-4 inches off the floor. This will further challenge both hip and knee flexion as you progress through these exercise variations.
4. DB Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Here is a classic exercise where the rear foot is elevated at roughly knee height. The great thing here is that this progression loads the front leg more than any previous exercise listed above, since the rear leg is gently placed on a sturdy object. Again, we are slowly increasing hip and knee flexion. The key is gradual exposure as we make gains.
5. DB Reverse Lunge
The reverse lunge is a way to dynamically challenge single-leg stability.
What I mean is that there will be times through this exercise where you will be on one leg and will be forced to balance there for a moment. Think of the moment when you are lunging in reverse, and then again when you are returning to the top position. Although this dynamic single-leg stability occurs in small spurts, it still enhances your ability to make strides in this department.
USING ASSISTANCE OR SUPPORT
There’s nothing wrong with using support or assistance to master technique and form. Let’s face it: the single-leg squat is tough, so we must respect the slow-cook approach.
Any sort of TRX or suspension strap will work here. The goal is to use as little support from the strap as possible as you get comfortable loading on one leg.
1. TRX Ecc Only 1-Leg Box Squat
I like this option first since you are focusing on the eccentric (lowering) portion only. Most people think that coming back up (the concentric portion) is the toughest. I would say that it’s the other way around. Being forced to control the lowering aspect on one leg in a slow manner is pretty challenging for most people.
2. TRX 1-Leg Box Squat
Now, let’s load the entire range of motion as you come down and then back up during each rep. Again, we’re focusing on using as little assistance as possible from the strap.
IMPLEMENTING FORWARD TAPS
I’m a big fan of using forward taps as you make progress on your road to single-leg squat mastery for a couple of important reasons.
Number 1: it exposes your knee to a greater degree of flexion (bending) than it’s used to, which can certainly be helpful from a loading tolerance standpoint as you become stronger.
Number 2: it forces you, again, to spend moments of time through each set on one leg in-between moments of being on two legs. That intermittent challenge is key as it falls in-line with our goal of gradual exposure.
1. DB Goblet 1-Leg Squat Iso w/ Forward Toe Tap
Stand on the floor as you perform this variation. The added challenge here is that you’ll be staying down there in an isometric hold on one leg as the other foot performs the forward toe taps. This is one of those “looks-too-easy-but-tougher-than-you-think” exercises. Trust me.
2. DB Goblet Elevated 1-Leg Forward Heel Tap
Elevate your foot 2-4 inches off the floor. Perform reps of forward heel taps as you stabilize on one leg the entire time. Per the theme here, we are again exposing your knee to greater degrees of bending as you built single-leg strength.
3. DB Goblet Slant Board 1-Leg Squat Iso w/ Forward Toe Tap
Think of this exercise as a combination of the two previous variations. Trust me, it’s pretty challenging but will certainly get you strong. If you don’t have access to a slant board, a couple of rolled-up towels or textbooks will get the job done.
LOADED SINGLE-LEG SQUAT
The time has finally come to test your single-leg strength while adding external load in the form of dumbbells or small weight plates. I would suggest using a sturdy object to sit your butt down and back onto, in the ballpark of roughly knee height. You may need to adjust accordingly when you’re first starting out, and then increase range of motion as it becomes easier.
1. DB Ecc Only 1-Leg Box Squat
Let’s start off with this variation by keying in on the eccentric (lowering) portion only. Really focus on staying controlled on the one leg as you lower down during each rep.
2. DB 1-Leg Box Squat
This, in my opinion, is the truest form of the single-leg squat strength and is the likely place for most clients and athletes to train at. You could certainly advance forward, but this is also a nice landing spot for the majority of people. I would always revert back to this variation in your training if you’re ever falling short of good technique with any of the progressions listed below.
INCREASE KNEE AND HIP FLEXION
As you become stronger and more efficient with your single-leg strength, you’ll notice a greater ability to increase the amount of flexion (bending) you’re capable of in both your hips and knees. Continue making progress in these areas while remaining in control of each rep.
1. TRX Skater Squat
The skater squat exercise does a really good job at challenging not only your single-leg balance, but also your ability to hit comfortable depth. Place a pad or two under the non-working leg that reaches back behind you, if going all the way down to the floor is too much of a challenge. As you get better at it, simply remove the pad(s). The TRX offers support and assistance as you begin to master this new range of motion in the hips and knees.
2. DB Skater Squat
Drop the assistance from the TRX or strap and place a dumbbell or small weight plate in each hand. Now, let’s load this pattern entirely with some external resistance. This is certainly a challenging single-leg strength exercise, but one that you can truly become strong from.
ELEVATE YOUR STANCE
This, for obvious reasons, is the hardest stage of single-leg strength. Most folks will have to begin by using bodyweight only, and that’s totally okay.
What I would suggest, is starting out by going only as low as you can comfortably. In some cases, that may mean placing a small object (i.e., yoga block) on the floor for your foot to tap down to, if going all the way down to the floor is too challenging. Once that becomes easy, attempt to load the entire range of motion and get rid of the small object.
1. DB Elevated 1-Leg Squat
The goal here is to use the counterweight that the dumbbells or small plates in your hands afford you with. By reaching the weights forward and simultaneously reaching your hips back you are essentially creating a counterweight, which aids in your ability to balance.
2. DB Goblet Elevated 1-Leg Squat
In this final exercise variation, the dumbbell is being held in the goblet position against the chest. This version will certainly allow you to go a bit heavier as the weight is now placed closer to your center of gravity.
Building single-leg strength is hard because most people skip the steps that it takes to advance and end up rushing the entire process. However, if you truly take your time at each step, you’ll make positive strides by building essential strength from one exercise variation to the next.