The Single Leg Programming BlueprintMay 02, 2022
You’d be hard-pressed to find a program that does not include single-leg work. In fact, the list of benefits for single-leg work is lengthy, to say the least, but we can narrow down those benefits to a few key areas: function & aesthetics.
Here's what you need to know:
Single-Leg Work can:
- Improves Muscular Imbalances: If you were to ONLY prioritize performing bilateral movements (believe it or not many people do this) strength deficiencies may not be as apparent. Single leg exercises will help you to be more strategic and pinpoint limitations.
- Hypertrophy: Unilateral work is a great tool to bring up lagging muscle groups as well as add lean tissue to an otherwise lacking muscle groups.
- Carryover To Bilateral Movements: A combination of the two benefits mentioned above will aid in increasing your numbers in both your squat and deadlift variations.
- Train Around Injury: Single-leg variations exercises are a great option to train around injury while aiding in the rehabilitative process.
- Transfer To Field Of Play: Unilateral strength gains have a direct carryover to field sports; running, jumping, and cutting.
- Core Stability: Unilateral exercises bring about a different demand for core/trunk stability.
Caveat: I've included some videos that are variations on the single-leg variation that's mentioned to spark some programming creativity on your end!
DB Split Squats
No list of single-leg exercises is complete without a split squat, and the basic yet fundamental dumbbell split squat is important to learn and master. Even though dumbbell split squats are often considered remedial, they have a ton of value because they offer the ability to progress in terms of the range of motion (ROM), loading capacity, and implements (dumbbells versus barbells) so you can consistently make progressions when needed.
Even the most basic exercise variation can offer a massive return on investment, and dumbbell split squats do not disappoint. Don’t skip this exercise simply because the loading capacity is lower than using a barbell; these still have their place in proper program design for the lower body.
Sets: 3-4 Reps: 8-10 each side. Rest 60s.
The Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
The rear-foot elevated split squat, also known as the Bulgarian split squat, is a tough single-leg exercise, to say the least, and is a progression to the common split squat. While many associate “harder” exercises with progress, this typically isn’t the case; more often it means that certain motor patterns must be dialed in first for safety and effectiveness.
Much like dumbbell walking lunges, this exercise can be classified as quad-dominant, but the degree of stress placed on the glute complex is still high, so expect to experience high levels of DOMS in your glutes 48 to 72 hours after performing this exercise. This exercise is without a doubt the king of single-leg exercises and is often regarded as the be-all and end-all of single-leg strength.
But again, what may be a great variation for one individual might be a mismatch for another.
3-4 x 6-8 each. Rest 90s.
The Barbell Split Squat
As we advance up the single-leg training pyramid, any time we opt for using a barbell, loading capacity will be significantly higher. With an increased ability to load your body comes higher demand systemically, as well as higher levels of requisite skill. (Higher loading capacity also brings higher levels of risk if you’re not moving with great motor patterns, to begin with.) Using a barbell in the back rack position to perform split squats increases loading capacity drastically, because the load is farther away from your center of mass.
4-5 x 5-6 each. Rest 90s - 2:00
The Barbell Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
To perform the rear-foot elevated barbell split squat, follow the same mechanics as previously described, but place the top of the back foot on a 16-inch (40 cm) bench behind you and lower yourself until your back knee is 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) off the floor (see figures a and b).
This variation of the rear-foot elevated split squat will give you the highest level of loading capacity of any rear-foot elevated split squat, so it’s important to master all other variations first.
4-5 x 4-6 each. Rest 90s - 2:00
The Landmine Lateral Squat
This exercise maintains constant tension on the adductors and quadri- ceps as all repetitions are performed in a squat position. This exercise is a frontal plane lateral squat that also focuses on the anterior core. Single-leg variations performed in the frontal plane are often low-hanging fruit for individuals since they are trained a fraction of the time compared to their sagittal plane counterparts. Although the benefits are comparable the execution and stress on inner thigh musculature are different.
This variation also is a great way to add variety in regard to single-leg frontal plane work but with higher loading capacity since you’re using a landmine which offers an added level of stability that a dumbbell or kettlebell cannot (the landmine attachment point equates to a higher level of stability thus heavier loads are more likely).
2-3 x 8-10 each. Rest 60s.
Forward Sled Drags
The forward sled drag is an exercise that emphasizes the musculature of the hips, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps, with the majority of the forward leg drive powered by the glutes and hamstrings and unbeknownst to many, is a unilateral exercise. This exercise is an incredible way to train this musculature without eccentric loading and high amounts of tissue breakdown; it can therefore have a massive carryover to bilateral movements like squats and deadlifts with a very low risk of overtraining.
Much like backward sled drags, forward sled drags are low-skill and beneficial at all training levels. Forward sled drag variations deliver more stress on the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors and can be used in multiple scenarios, such as strength, conditioning, and recovery-based sessions. They are easy to recover from, making them a great fit to help athletes maintain high levels of strength and aerobic fitness within their season of play.
This exercise can have a wide variety of applications in program design. There aren’t many tasks the sled couldn’t be useful for.
For strength purposes, for instance, heavier loading with shorter distances can be implemented 6-10 sets × 40-60 yards. Conversely, for strength endurance, the sled can be used for longer distances 3-4 sets × 100-200 yards and if recovery is the goal or the sled isn’t being used to bridge the gap between training sessions, distances of up to 1 mile with light loads can be used.
Single leg work is a mainstay in any great program. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find many (if any) training modalities that do not utilize single-leg variations on a consistent basis. The reality is that single-leg work is beneficial on a variety of levels so whether you’re a coach working with athletes, bodybuilders, or just general population clients, single-leg work has tremendous value.
The degree of difficulty for the variations you choose will likely be the biggest differentiator from one subset of the population to the next though which is why I’ve included both low-skill & high-skill requisite movements in this article.
Thanks for reading!
If you're interested in learning more about Conjugate & Energy Systems development, check out my Playbook here.