Previously, I discussed briefly why including single leg training is a good thing here. To me it all boils down to a significant training effect at a greatly reduced risk. The following is all about how to incorporate it and how to progress.
First, I find it’s best to classify the exercises. I break them down into two categories: Single Leg Supported and Single Leg Unsupported.
Single Leg Supported
Exercises in this category are technically not true single leg exercises. This category includes exercises like the split squat, rear-foot-elevated split squat, split stance RDL and the lateral squat plus their derivatives. There are two feet in contact with the ground or bench but they are included in single leg exercises because the majority of the work is done with one leg. SL Supported exercise are generally a good place to start and are easier to learn because of the reduced demands on balance and coordination. The great thing about them is they can also be loaded quite heavy and make excellent substitutes for any time a program calls for a back squat but someone is unable to do it.
Single Leg Unsupported
Exercises in this category are true single leg exercises as only one foot is in contact with the ground at a time. Here you will see exercises like the single leg squat, single leg RDL and the skater squat (also called the single leg deadlift). All of the work is done by one leg and the other leg is also now contributing to the load lifted. For most people SLU exercises will be quite difficult to learn due to the incredible balance demands, however, with the dedicated work most people can improve to loading if they have the required mobility.
I’m certain you could sub categorize even further but to me it’s pointless. This gives you an idea of what’s involved with each exercise and roughly how difficult it will be.
For most people the best place to start is the split squat. If someone has never exercised before this may be quite difficult, simply because of the strength and balance required. Keep in mind that your feet should remain hip width apart, not in line. If your feet are inline you will look like bambi on ice.
Generally for body weight exercises I like to program 6 reps, then 8 the next week, then 10 and finally 12. Some times I’ll skip the 6 reps and program 2 sets of 8 then the second week increase it to 3 sets of 8. It depends on who I’m programming for. This rep progression can take you quite far. Once you can do 12, add weight and start back at 6 or 8 then increase again and continue this for a few months. You’ll keep making progress and actually gain some confidence with the exercise.
If someone is having trouble with an exercise there are a few modifications I add it at bodyweight.
If stability is the issue I may do a core-activated split squat. It’s incredibly simple – press your hands together out in front of you before and during each rep – but the results are nothing short of amazing. Usually cleans it right up. I even add this in as a warm up for people who are proficient at single leg work.
If you have trouble with the patterning then I may have you start at the bottom and lift your self up, pausing at the bottom or resting completely.
If you have trouble at the bottom of the range then we may be better off shortening the range for the time being and gradually progress it down further. No matter what the issue is we can find a way to modify it so the exercise works for the person doing it.
Once the split squat is mastered I like to progress people into the rear-foot-elevated split squat. This is my go-to replacement for back squats. I’ll often come back to the basic split squat for heavy loading if I don’t want balance to be an issue but once the RFESS is mastered I use it way more often.
Most people butcher the RFESS by stepping out from the bench too far. Keep the stance short and reduce the stress on the front of the supporting hip. In the bottom position should be comfortable, not feel like you’re trying to rip your limb right out of your hip.
Depending on the person’s goals this is where we might start looking at moving towards the single leg squat through a series of eccentric and box squat progressions. We may also look at the skater squat (single leg deadlift) and the single leg RDL
The best time to learn a new skill is when you are fresh. For people that have never formally spent much time on one leg I like to have them work on these skills at the beginning before fatigue sets in. For someone who is deconditioned, the single leg work may be their entire lower-body focus for the day.
For someone that is stronger they may do some single leg practice at the beginning and then move onto a double leg exercise that will make up the bulk of their “lifting” for the day. Generally, people that are strong progress quickly in single leg work. They may have some difficulty at first but once they get the pattern down they add strength fast.
If you’re not ready to give up squatting then I at least advise you to sprinkle in some single work to balance out those hips and for your back health. Even adding in a lunge sequence at the beginning of your workout or in the warm up can work wonders. If you train lower body 2-3 times per week, even focus on single leg work for one workout and you’ll feel a difference.
Quite often the topic of single leg vs double leg squatting rises to the intensity of a “who shot first” argument. (For the record, Han shot first. Greedo didn’t stand a chance) It doesn’t have to get to this point – just take a leg away from time to time and if you find your performance improves and your pain goes away then it’s a good idea to lean that way. People fear that they are defying some great law of nature by working on one leg but let’s be real, it’s not like you’re joining the dark side… or are you…?