5 Single Leg Exercises for Strength and Athleticism

The squat, deadlift and Olympic lifts (or weightlifting if you’re a purist) have rightfully taken the spotlight in most training we can’t ignore the fact that single leg work is extremely powerful. 
For most trainers unilateral work is what you do during rehabilitation or as some accessory work to your main lift of the day and typically this works. The main problem lies when things become one size fits all and those who really shouldn’t be loading a bar are doing so from the advice from a well-intentioned coach. 
Back issues, lower body mobility, and imbalances can all lead to more serious ailments if ignored. Just because you’re going heavier and progressing with the “big lifts” doesn’t mean anything if you’re just becoming a more imbalanced lifter. Unilateral work is not only a way a good way to increase coordination and balance, but also strength while taking the pressure off the old spine.
When it comes to loading single leg work with a kettlebell you also have to take into account where the load is being held. Racked, hanging, bottom’s up and overhead are all ways to add variation to the same movements so it really depends on what the focus is. 
  1. The Racked position is going increase upper body and abdominal engagement while still allowing you to go moderately heavy.
  2. The overhead position is going to put the greatest demands on the shoulder girdle and upper body. Since it requires the most mobility it’s best to use this as part of you warm-up until you feel completely comfortable in the position. 
  3. The bottom’s up position won’t allow you to go very heavy, but will require the greatest grip strength and control. I also love how much tension is required with this position which creates more stability throughout the upper body.
  4. The hanging position will allow you to go the heaviest and should be the main one used for any strength work. 

They all have their place, but it’s important to realize what the focus of the session is on and who the client is. 
Another thing to note is what actually IS a unilateral exercise. Most people think of lunges and cossack squats as unilateral movements, but technically they’re not. A true unilateral exercise means your non-working foot is off the ground entirely. Pistols, step ups and skater squats are better examples, but for the purposes of this article any movement that puts the majority of the stress on one leg will be classified as such.
Here are 5 exercises that you can incorporate to build strength with single leg work:
  • Split Stance Squat - This movement is going to allow you to go the heaviest and apply the most equal force from the front and back leg. View here.
  • Rear Foot Elevated - With the RFESS (lots of letters there) you the extra stretch will increase glute activation and add a balance component. This is by far one of my favorite variations. View here.
  • Front foot elevated Split Stance Squat - This variation will build glute and adductor strength while giving you a nice stretch. View here.
  • Skater Squat - The skater is going to require the most balance as it’s the truest single leg exercise of the group. Because of the shin angle greater ankle and hip mobility is required. This movement puts a ton of emphasis on the quads as well as soleus compared to other unilateral movements. View here.
  • Cossack Squat - Moving laterally will give your adductors and hips a greater challenge and is a great one to add into kettlebell combos and flows. View here.
When it comes to single work studies have shown that when single work is progressed on they have a substantial ability to increase lower body strength and sprinting abilities (1). This allows for more options for a team or gym setting when other factors limit one’s abilities with bilateral movements. Since a greater load will cause greater stress this is fantastic for overall strength and hypertrophy gains, but not the best for someone with back issues. 
With unilateral exercises not only was greater ground reaction forces found compared to bilateral movements, but because of the nature of the load there was similar muscle activity of the hamstring, calf, hip and abdominal muscles as the bilateral movements. (2). 

One size rarely fits all and when it comes to the huge amount of variables we see as coaches. Remember that there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to lower body training with a kettlebell. Start adding these variations in and attempt to progress with them the same way you would for the squat or deadlift to give your back a break and still see some fantastic gains.
Marcus Martinez
Master Kettlebell Coach 

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