What’s the Best Single Leg Exercise?

“Hi Bret! I’ve got a question for you. You seem to write about single leg training quite often. What’s the very best single leg exercise out there? Thank you, Adam

Hi Adam,

First of all, the answer to this question depends on your goal and fitness levels. I’m sure you’re aware that there are many excellent single leg exercises and variations. But the various patterns are likely synergistic with one another in that you’ll get better bang for your buck by employing a few different single leg exercises rather than just one. Therefore, I wouldn’t try to narrow it down to just one. And don’t worry, with experimentation, nearly all lifters can find several unilateral exercises that suit their bodies very well.

Fitness Level

Great single leg exercises for beginners can include bodyweight reverse lunges and bodyweight Bulgarian split squats, whereas great single leg exercises for advanced lifters can include dumbbell deficit reverse lunges or weighted-vest pistol squats.

Muscle Group

Of course, one must consider the muscle group one desires to train. For example:

Great single leg exercises for the quads can include the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat, front loaded barbell forward lunge, and high step up.

Great single leg exercises for the hammies can include the single leg RDL, prisoner single leg back extension, and single leg gliding leg curl. 

Great single leg exercises for the glutes can include the barbell walking lunge, chain-loaded single leg hip thrust, barbell single leg hip thrust, and pendulum quadruped hip extension.

Injury History

One must also consider injury history. It’s hard to make blanket statements with regards to prior injuries, but I’ll provide some generalizations. Those who are prone to experiencing SI joint issues might not do well with exercises that involve considerable transfer through the SI joint, especially at end-range hip extension. These can include the single leg hip thrust, pendulum quadruped hip extension, and sometimes the single leg RDL (on the other hand, these all can be great exercises for this group of people…it all depends).

Those who are prone to experiencing knee issues might not do well with exercises that produce high knee extension moments along with considerable forward knee migration. Contraindicated exercises for this group can include the pistol squat or forward lunge (but using db’s for a counterbalance in the pistols or a long stride in the lunges might clear up any issues).

Those who are prone to experiencing anterior hip issues (FAI syndrome) might not do well with exercises that move the hip into deep flexion. Therefore this group might want to avoid high step ups, deficit reverse lunges off of a high box, and pistol squats and stick to movements that don’t go so deep into hip flexion.

Sled pushing is probably the most well-tolerated single leg exercise, and skater squats with a counterbalance (doing db front raises during the movement with light dumbbells) are pretty well-tolerated as well.

sled push

Transfer of Training

Finally, we have the issue of transfer of training to consider. This is tricky as there aren’t many studies to help us out in this regard, so we have to rely on logic and anecdotes. This is where analyzing joint ROM’s, force vectors, and torque-angle curves comes into play. For example, take the case of hip range of motion and examine the pictures below. The full squat and high step up exhibit the greatest hip ROM’s (and knee ROM’s), whereas the lunge exhibits the least hip ROM. One could stand on a block/step in order to increase hip (and knee) ROM if seeking maximal transfer to a full squat.

Joint Angles II

One can only speculate as to what transfers best to sporting movements and bilateral exercises. For transfer to acceleration sprinting, it could be the Bulgarian split squat or single leg RDL. For transfer to maximum speed sprinting, it could be the shoulder and feet elevated single leg hip thrust or prisoner single leg back extension. For transfer to squatting and deadlifting, it could be the B-stance squat or B-stance deadlift. Again, these are just hypotheses. In case you aren’t aware of these variations, here are some videos for you to watch:

B-Stance Squat

B-Stance Deadlift

B Stance Squat

B Stance Squat

B Stance Squat

B Stance Deadlift

B Stance Deadlift

B Stance Deadlift

B Stance Deadlift

Conclusion

As you can see, there are plenty of great single leg exercises. I recommend that you pick three of them to include in your training each month: a single leg squat variation, a single leg hip-hinge variation, and a single leg bridge variation. One example could be the barbell walking lunge, single leg gliding leg curl, and single leg hip thrust. Another could be the B-stance squat, B-stance deadlift, and barbell single leg hip thrust. If you liked this article, you’ll probably like THIS article as well. In case you’re looking for a reference for single leg exercises, my book Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy includes descriptions and illustrated pictures of most of these exercises (without additional load).

16 Comments

  • Clare says:

    Such a great variety of exercises and thorough explanations as well as videos! I’ll be sure to share this, many yoga practitioners could benefit from these types of exercises to help increase strength and stability in their standing one leg postures. Awesome, thanks again!

  • Loving these B-stance variations Bret.
    Training the general population with single leg movements can be difficult due to balance issues a lot of time more than anything. being able to keep that bilateral base of support is huge and the fact that they can be axial loaded without the threat of the balance will definitely be a great tool in my tool box.

  • Joseph Story says:

    Hey Brett. We spoke on FB re: upping my quad emphasis recently. Thanks for the advice. I’ve added in (Peterson or) Poliquin step up variations to my routine. I’ve replaced the slanted board in the poliquin step up with Oly shoes and I can really feel the movement in my quads. I think as a re-hab exercise or a quad emphasis exercise for those who need it and don’t have access to a lot of equipment that these are worth a look. What are your thoughts? Too much fwd knee movement or do you think this is acceptable? I’m doing this at a given height with BW, then with a 20kg KB in rack position (at the shoulder of the working leg) then increasing the height slowly and progressively until I regain the stability and strength in my right knee. I’m doing these after parallel front squats in my oly shoes.

  • Joseph Story says:

    PS – love the gliding leg curl.

  • This was so helpful!! Right now I am loving me some front-loaded reverse lunges 🙂

  • Jeremy D says:

    Oh, i don’t like your low-back placement during the deadlift,bret, it’s unusual. =)Otherwise, another good post after the “90% microbe”, i like the B-stance for transition (2 legs to 1 leg).
    Thanks Bret and best wishes for the new year !

  • Rob says:

    Shout out to Bryce Lane. Do you have any experience or insight to “the best” single leg exercise for hikers, particularly with heavy packs?

    Thanks! Great post as always

  • Cedric (France) says:

    Just in case you don’t know, they talk about hip thrust in the last Mark Bell Supertraining Powercast “Fueled by caffeine in 2014”. Needless to say it’s not as dithyrambic as the comments I usually read on your website. Recording a podcast with Mark Bell would be so much fun and target a bunch of powerlifters.

    Cedric, France.

  • melissa says:

    I have an off topic question, I recently had sold my entire home gym so I cannot to my squats, bridges, lunges, ect .. my question is how can I keep my glute size with no heavy weights? Any way I can be creative and use something else? Can’t afford gym membership!

  • Steve says:

    The gliding leg curl.is excellent..Thanks so much to showing. I do get nervous seeing someone hanging on a bar like that after seeing an accident when the bar came off of the rack once. I might suggest using something like a TXT instead.

  • Shane McLean says:

    Brett, your stuff is always so good. Great post with takeaways for trainers and gym goers alike.

  • Eric says:

    Good stuff Bret.
    One question: On your zercher high step-up it look like your missing full hip extension.
    Any reason in particular? Nature of the zercher?

  • jeb says:

    What does the “b” stand for in the b-stance deadlift/squat?

    What would be the pro vs con towards this exercise versus say romanian deadlifts?

  • Hi, Bret.

    I just wondered if it just wouldn’t be safer to keep your feet as normal in the b-stance squat and b-stance deadlift, but emphasizing one leg?
    When you put one foot behind you, pelvic and lumbar rotation will follow and have its say on the spine as a whole (keeping the barbell straight and your pelvis rotated). If you set up like in a normal squat or deadlift, you’d avoid this problem.
    What’s your thoughts on this?

  • Cristian says:

    Hola bret tengo un problema de desequilibrio muscular me inclino mas a la derecha en la sentadillas espero que el trabajo a una pierna me ayude en esto que opina ud?

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