I was definitely was one of those people. Sure, I believed in single leg exercises but they fell WAY after deadlifts and squats. The truth is I wasn’t all that great at single leg exercises so I found ways to demean them. Like so many, as time went on my philosophy changed because I started to realize my lack of attention to single leg exercises was not only limiting my progress, but not addressing true functional fitness.
I knew single leg exercises were good, but they felt like balancing acts and I was missing the MUCH larger picture!
Aren’t squats and deadlifts “functional”? Absolutely, but unlike so many times where we think going heavier and heavier makes them MORE functional, single leg exercises give us a very different view point of what it means to be strong and “functional”. Don’t get me wrong, functional training IS a thing and more importantly a system of training (heck, I did a 2 hour webinar HERE).
Why is going heavier and heavier in squats and deadlifts not as functional as going to more single leg exercises? It goes back to the many times that I have pointed out that in fitness and performance training we overlook the very important movement pattern of locomotion. While we point to squats, hip hinges, and more, we totally tend to ignore locomotion and it how impacts how our body is designed to move and what that means to what we should be doing in our training.
It is odd that locomotion is what our bodies are most specifically designed to do and yet most in fitness know the LEAST about it.
While most would point to the fact that 60-70% of our time walking is on single leg (ALL of our time running is on single leg, really what differentiates the two) as the reason we need single leg exercises that is a bit oversimplified. What does being on single leg mean? Physical therapist and DVRT education director, Jessica Bento, has written quite a bit on something as simple as a single leg stance test (you can read HERE) as an easy screen for stability, balance, and multi-planar strength.
Being single leg doesn’t allow us to cheat anything. We can’t try to lift with our low backs, we can alter our position to develop leverage, it might be one of the truest measures of lower body strength and stability. Single leg exercises force us to both produce and resist force at the same time which not only builds great real world strength, but also activates the need to use more muscles in our body.
The stability, the multi-planar strength, and carry over to real life are all great reasons to use single leg exercises, but the issue for so many is that such drills are just SO advanced for so many people that they can’t ever get to these awesome benefits. So, what do we do? Here are 3 solutions to help people benefit more from single leg exercises.
Around 2004 I was so frustrated with not being able to help people be successful at single leg exercises that I knew there had to be another solution. Then I had the slap you on the forehead moment. Just like we would make the weight we lift or the number of repetitions we use be incremental, we needed to do the same thing to the level of instability we introduce to people. That is what led to our Sprinter Stance. Initially, I used the term staggered stance, but I realized it was too nondescript for people. So, I wanted the image of a sprinter coming out of the blocks to be more of the image of foot position and where we are putting the weight of our body.
The sprinter stance will feel foreign to many people when you first see it or feel it, but it shows how little we have given to movement variability.
Sprinter Stance seems simple enough, but many people have been trying to teach it without understanding it. That has led to a lot of small mishaps that lead to BIG issues. Like what?
-They keep the back foot flat. This sounds like no big deal, but it is a HUGE issue. Why, for about 99% of people that do it, that leaving that back foot flat leads to the pelvis being rotated. Such a change places more stress through the low back and can cause serious issues for people.
-They don’t aim for 60/40. The whole point of the Sprinter Stance is that we have a SLIGHT change to instability. Almost think about it as our way of going up by 5-10 pounds in the form of instability. That means our goal is not to have the same weight distribution and that is why I always want to think about 60% on the front leg and 40% on the back leg.
Even though we are discussing single leg exercises, the more narrow stance allows us to use these same strategies for many upper body dominant exercises.
Different Planes of Motions/Lunges
I am cheating here a bit listing two things, but they actually relate to one another a lot. We can’t really do rotational single leg exercises, that would be odd if you understand rotation and could put the knee at big risk. However, we can teach the body how to RESIST rotational forces and that has HUGE benefits to our ability to be injury resilient. I bring this up because we are really talking about frontal and sagittal plane movements.
Using lunges and split squats in these planes of motion allows us to progress to single leg exercises because we aren’t truly single leg. Lunges have us in a less stable position, but the back foot is still very important and should be cued to help people find stability. One of the great things about using lunges is that because they have direction to them we have tons of options in building progressions and adding incremental progression when you think about how lunges allow us to really take advantage of…
-Planes of Motion
When you combine that with the more familiar adding weight or reps we have ways to help anyone be more successful in using single leg exercises and that is what it is all about!
Even when we aren’t truly single leg, we have so many more options than just hanging on to a rack or some support when building better single leg exercises.
If you truly understand functional training it isn’t hard to see how core stability has a big impact upon our ability to perform single leg exercises. If it isn’t so obvious, don’t worry I’ll explain.
Our body is into survival more than anything and it will do EVERYTHING it can to protect itself. That often is reflected in creating tightness in our hips and shoulders. Cutting down movement to our extremities means less risk to the spine because we can’t create as much movement or demand as much stability. When we achieve proper stability of the spine EVERYTHING works better and has greater strength and mobility.
What Robin Paget and Lina Midla show in the series below is how we use our Press Outs to help build our dynamic plank that provides us the stability that leads to greater strength and mobility. They aren’t just pushing the weight out as Jessica describes above, they are creating specific tension against.
These 3 strategies can go a LONG ways in building both greater success, but also respect for the power of single leg exercises. Try prioritizing these ideas in your workouts and see how much better and more fun your training becomes!
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