Do you always train with both feet on the floor? Have you ever delved into the world of single-leg exercises?
Single-leg exercises can seem intimidating at first. You don’t have to dive right in with a pistol squat, though. There are lots of ways you can practice single-leg movements to improve your balance and work your way up to more advanced exercises.
Explained below are some of the benefits of prioritizing single-leg exercises. I’ve also included a list of some of my favorite exercises to incorporate into my lower body workouts.
Benefits of Single-Leg Exercises
There are lots of reasons to include single-leg exercises in your workout routines on a regular basis. The following are some of the greatest benefits they have to offer:
- Identify and correct muscle imbalances (which can lead to increased strength when performing two-legged exercises)
- Improve balance and stability (without having to do squats on a BOSU ball ;))
- Improve core strength
- Make bodyweight training more challenging (especially while gyms are closed and we’re all working out at home)
Single-leg training can be very functional, too. Think about it. It’s not like we always spend our lives with both feet flat on the floor. Whenever we walk, for example, we have one foot lifted off the ground. The same goes for when we’re climbing the stairs or playing sports.
My Favorite Single-Leg Exercises
There are tons of different single-leg exercises you can incorporate into your workouts. These are some of my personal favorites:
I love split squats! They’re great for targeting the quads and they challenge your balance without being too overwhelming.
They can actually be a good regression for a two-legged squat, too. I’ve found that they help you get comfortable with the lowering motion and aren’t quite as taxing on the knees.
To do a split squat, start by standing with your feet together. Take a big step backward and lower until both legs are forming 90-degree angles (if you can’t get that low, that’s ok — just go as low as you can) and your back knee is hovering an inch or so above the ground. Keep your back straight and your head lined up over your shoulders.
When you’ve lowered as far as you can, push into the ground with your feet and rise back up. As you’re rising up, don’t arch your lower back. Keep your glute engaged and avoid “popping” your back knee to straighten it.
Imagine there’s a pole going through you running from the top of your head to your pelvis and think about sliding up and down that pole as you’re lowering and rising.
Lunges are a step up from split squats in difficulty and intensity. You can do all kinds of lunges to improve your functional single-leg strength, but reverse lunges are my favorite, especially for beginners. They’re not quite as challenging as front luges or walking lunges, but they still require good core engagement and stability. They place a little more emphasis on the glutes, too, which I appreciate.
To do reverse lunges, start by standing with your feet together. Take a big step backward and lower yourself down like would in a split squat. When you rise back up, though, step forward and bring your feet back together.
Do your best to keep your back straight as you’re stepping back and standing back up. Try not to lean too far forward.
I don’t see lateral lunges in workout programs as often, but they’re an awesome lunge variation and can be quite challenging, especially since most of us aren’t training in the frontal plane as often as is ideal.
To do a lateral lunge, stand up straight with your feet together. From here, with your toes facing forward, take a big step out to the side and bend at the knee to lower into a squat-ish position while keeping your back straight and chest lifted. Press into the foot of the extended leg to rise back up and return to the beginning position.
Single-Leg Toe Touches
Single-leg toe touches are a good option for strengthening the back of the body without adding any weight. They really challenge your balance and foot stability, too.
To do a single-leg toe touch start, you guessed it, by standing up straight with your feet together. From here, lift your left foot off the floor a few inches. When you feel stable, hinge at your hips and send your left leg back toward the wall behind you.
As you do this, keep your back straight as you reach down with your left hand and try to touch the top of your foot (if you can’t reach this far, try to touch your shin or knee instead). Hold on the wall or a chair with your opposite hand if you need extra support.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are super challenging (that’s why they show up toward the end of this list), but they’re great for the quads and glutes.
A lot of people make the mistake of standing too far away from the bench or chair when they do these. The problem with that, though, is that you’re not able to squat as low, and you end up placing a lot of tension on the quad without getting as much glute activation.
To set up for a Bulgarian split squat, I like to start in a sort of quad stretch position. I begin kneeling on the ground with my back foot on the chair or bench behind me. Once I feel stable in this position, I push into the ground with my front foot and rise up. Then, I lower back down like I’m doing a regular squat, let my knee just barely touch the ground before rising up again.
Pistol squats are another very challenging lower body exercise. It takes a lot of strength, stability, and mobility to be able to do them properly. before you attempt a pistol squat, I want you to promise me that you’re going to master these other, less difficult single-leg exercises first. I don’t want anyone getting hurt out there.
If you do feel ready to tackle a pistol squat, start the same way you would for a single-leg toe touch, with one foot hovering a few inches off the ground. When you’re balanced, lower down into a squat while extending the hovering foot out in front of you.
It helps to start by lowering down onto a chair or bench in this position before going all the way to the floor. This makes it easier for you to get a feel for the exercise, and you’re less likely to topple over.
Single-Leg Exercise Video Breakdown
Here’s a video demonstrating each of the exercises listed above:
What’s Your Favorite Single-Leg Exercise?
Of course, there are plenty of other single-leg exercises you can do to improve your strength, correct muscle imbalances, and maximize your core strength. What are your favorites? Comment below and let me know!