The Ten Best Single Leg Exercises

Bilateral leg training gets all the glory. Most of us lifters love our squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, leg presses, good mornings, and back extensions. But if you’ve never taken the time to develop your single leg strength, then you are missing out! Once upon a time, I could perform:

  • 20 steps of walking lunges (10 steps each for leg) with a 225 pound barbell on my back
  • 5 reps of single leg RDLs with a 275 pound barbell
  • 3 reps of Bulgarian split squats with a 205 pound barbell on my back, and
  • 5 reps of single leg 45 degree hypers with a 100 pound dumbbell

I believe that taking the time to develop this single leg strength helped improve my form on bilateral lifts and allowed me to grow some additional leg muscle. Make no mistake, single leg training is brutal, which quite frankly is why I tend to avoid it these days. However, I’ve paid my dues, having spent years training single leg lifts very hard, and so should you (assuming you haven’t already). If you’re a mostly squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts type of lifter, I think it’s a good idea to switch your training focus from bilateral to unilateral for a few weeks twice per year and then flip back. As to what exercises you should perform…

CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT I FEEL ARE THE TEN BEST SINGLE LEG EXERCISES (though there are plenty other great one’s too!)

Best-Unilateral-Exercises

14 Comments

  • Shamiya says:

    Hi Bret,

    Back when I was training at a gym that was better equipped I could use a squat rack and follow your Strong Curves program exactly as it was written. But now there’s one rack at my new gym and there’s always dudes hogging it to endless sets of curls :/. I can still hip thrust and deadlift since there’s a free barbell that’s usually not being used but no cage. Could I just do single leg squatting movements or leg presses instead?

  • Marvin says:

    Hi Bret,

    I really appreciate your work!

    I’ve got a few questions concerning the performance of Bulgarian Split Squats.

    Due to the fact that i have relatively long legs, i’m a bad squatter, and i really dislike the exercise. My back would have to have a huge forward leaning, or i would have to use an ultra-wide stand.
    But since I train for bodybuilding-purposes, i feel and thus i like the bulgarian split squat much better.

    But i suffered from a (mild) disc herniation (L5/S1) about 5 years ago. In the last few weeks i really started all over my training and i also started to do the above mentioned split squats.
    So for so good…

    Would you recommend doing them in my case, since due to the fact, that it’s a unilateral movement they create a lot shear forces on the lower back, right?!

    How can I prevent my rear foot from pushing to much?

    What about depth; is an angle slightly lower than 90° enough?

    Do you think they could replace squats, in combination with the leg-press?

    Many thanks in advance!

    Marvin

  • Alex says:

    Brett
    It’s a great area for your research questions.
    Aside from saving the lower back, are single leg exercises the best way to:
    strengthen the obliques way?
    strengthen the abductors / adductors?
    to train for fast cutting while sprinting?
    to train for punching / kicking / martial arts?
    to train for twerking?
    Did that Derek dude hack my post on the last question?

    Cheers,
    Alex

  • Stew says:

    I do add in Bulgarians, single leg thrusts, HAKB RDL’s, lots of single leg rope jumping and some others.
    The feeling of pump and other telltales are quite marked. Especially with a decent weight.

    I do have some of my clients perform single leg work, but mostly with just bodyweight as their skill levels vary so much, it’s more important for them to get the movement down rather than add weight to it. When I tell them it’s just bodyweight for a while, usual impressions are that I’m just taking their money and running, but they soon get it.

  • Rob Panariello says:

    Just a word of caution as many websites, coaches and trainers proclaim that single leg work is “safer” for the low back during training. When developing a program design for training we shouldn’t assume that an exercise is “safe” for our athlete/client unless an in-depth medical history and training history is recorded. All exercises place stress upon the body as stress is necessary for “adaptation” to occur. If too inadequate a stress is placed upon the body during training, adaptation is not likely to occur and the valuable time spent in training is lost. The key is that the exercises selected for the athlete/client to perform are appropriate for them. The thought that the “split squat” type single leg exercises are “safer” than bi-lateral leg exercises i.e. the squat, is dependent upon the individual being trained.

    The back squat may place increased stress upon the lumbar spine yet the “split squat” type exercise will place greater stress upon the SI joint due to the split leg stance. The SI joint is responsible for approximately 30% of all low back pain, so are split squat type exercises really safer than bi-lateral leg work? That is dependent upon the medical and training history of the individual for whom the training program is being designed. How does a coach know what exercises to prescribe for their athlete and client? That is part of the “art” of coaching.

    Another training consideration is that twice as many exercise repetitions are needed to be performed with single leg work compared to bi-lateral leg work as each leg is exercised separately. Therefore not only the legs (i.e. the rear leg is still active during split squat work) but other body parts supporting the load are involved with twice the amount of reps/duration of time during exercise performance. Exercise volume induces fatigue and fatigue does not assist in the proficiency (technique) of exercise performance.

    I am an advocate of single leg/split squat work when deemed appropriate but the question remains, are split squat type exercises really safer for the low back? That depends upon the specific individual being trained.

    Just my opinion
    Rob Panariello

  • Trev says:

    A great recommendation that I see for unilateral exercises is diagnostic. Strength imbalances that might hide away during bilateral exercises, perhaps only coming to light when the load is high are all too apparent when each leg is isolated.

  • Hey brother, always digging your insight and sharing of knowledge. Just two curiousities…You listed Bottoms-Up Single-Leg Foot and Shoulder-Elevated Hip Thrust: (damn brau…I had to copy and paste that bitch…lol) -a closed chain…strong movement with plenty of juice to the glutes- and It’s open chain twin, Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension: open chain…with for some reason transfers some relatively weak juice to fire up the glutes. 9/10 of the movements you listed are closed and from my experience would be keepers for both off bi-lateral but still strength building phases and as accessory movements during standard bi-lateral strength building phases. 1. Is there any reason to have PQHE on the list…maybe a population that would get some benefit from it (rehab?) 2. Is the reverse hyper in your vid fom ROGUE? Would you recommend it or i there another RH piece you would rather have?

    You always deliver great stuff, Brett!
    Keep Crushin’ It

    Thank & Peace-
    Matt Jennings

    • Bret says:

      Matt…not true at all!!! Open chain movements are HYOOOGE for the glutes. Reverse hypers and pendulum quad hip ext (and pend donkey kicks) elicit huge activation from the glutes. Mine is from Westside. I like the pro model, not the roller models. Google “ACE Glutes to the Max” and see how effective a simple qhe maneuver is even without load. Great question!

  • Jon Contos says:

    Hey Bret
    Your ten best single leg exercises is very timely. I am incorporating all of the exercises as my quads have lost so much strength due to arthritic knees. Bret any advantage holding any isometric position in the deep lunge position or just focus on the eccentric phase of the lift be best. And if I am weak especially at point bottom of the lunge should I go full range at first or say 3/4 depth. And last do these exercise cover all the planes like saggital transverse etc. Thanks Jon

  • rahul says:

    hey I have been doing plyometrics upper and lower body exercise but not getting my speed can you help. I do superman flying pushup 360 push ups death and drop jumps standing broad jumps etc lunges etc

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