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Why Single Leg Exercises Stink!

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We never want to do click bait with our newsletter or blog post titles and this is not that. There is definitely a reason that single leg exercises stink! It isn’t because the exercises themselves are bad, rather, people often totally misunderstand what single leg exercises are and how to progress them to actually gain the great benefits of stability, strength, and even power from them. How could people possibly get single leg exercises wrong? Doesn’t the name explain what the exercise should be? Well, let’s go over some examples.

Would you call a lunge a unilateral exercise, how about a lateral step deadlift? Are these single leg exercises or are both feet in contact with the ground and contributing to the movement? I’m HOPING you acknowledge that in the case of the lunge and the lateral step deadlift we do have both feet on the ground and even both feet do help with the performance of the exercise.

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If they aren’t bilateral exercises like we think about with the starting point of squats and deadlifts and they aren’t single leg exercises, what should we consider these movements? In a recent discussion with fitness expert, Alwyn Cosgrove, we came to an agreement that these are asymmetrical lower body drills. Ugh, who cares that we came up with a new name for these exercises right?! The importance comes in seeing how we can use these concepts to build to better single leg exercises. Forever coaches have struggled with how do we get people to be able to use single leg exercises?

Many default to holding onto things, but let’s be honest, that usually doesn’t transition well. Why? When we hold onto something we are creating artificial stability because we can “lean” on whatever we are using and we can’t control our body well in space. Instead, using incremental changes to how we hold a weight, stand with a weight, and the plane of motion we use helps us build the strength and stability to more successfully progress to single leg exercises. So, what are some examples?

Split Squats, Lunges, and Rear Foot Elevated

Yes, split squats, lunges, and even rear foot elevated movement can be seen as asymmetrical lower body positions because both feet can still be active (in the case of rear foot elevated the foot or shin can still apply downward pressure). Now, before someone asks, “what if I just put less pressure on the back foot”, yes, technically that would move you closer to single leg exercises, but there are two issues with that idea. The first is that how do you know how much pressure someone is applying in the back foot and how would you get to them doing “less and less” since it would be incredibly subjective. I’d rather use a more concrete system of thinking about our training that will be easier for both coach and client alike.

In order to understand how much more we can achieve with these movements in moving us to single leg exercises let’s first organize the progression of these three movements. I really don’t know what most would do for all 3 movements, but I have seen enough times where most people start with split squats. Makes sense in theory, it is a static movement compared to lunges and compared to rear foot elevated they are more stable. So, we start there right? Not so fast.

What having my own health challenges have taught me including neuropathy in my right leg is that holding a split squat position is one of the most fatiguing things you can ask people to do. While you aren’t moving with any direction, you are ALWAYS in an unstable position.

Physical Therapist, Jessica Bento shows how we can build split squats by using the press out to help with stability by creating a dynamic plank and then challenging the movement through how we load the body. 

When you are ALWAYS unstable in a split squat it can be harder for many people and make success  less likely. What can we do instead as with lunging we have direction and we have moments we are single leg. The answer I have found is sliding lunges as you see below…

Jessica shows below that we even add a band and our USB press out to make the sliding lunge much more stable for people and learn how to control their own bodies through space while also building a foundation of single leg exercises. This can be used as a tremendous solution (especially as we show different ways to load the movement as Douglas Sheppard shows below) for rear and lateral sliding.

At this point we could make arguments on both sides for split squats or lunges to be next (that would already be after a lot of different loading parameters we would use on these positions), so I don’t think one is right or wrong. If you say split squats that could make sense as they are stationary, but again you are ALWAYS fighting the transverse and frontal plane forces trying to move your body out of position. On the other hand, lunges have direction (which can change intensity) and a need to decelerate more of your body weight during the movements. Moral of the story, I would try split squats and if some people respond better to lunges do what works better!

As we showed earlier, split squats can have many levels not just in how much load we apply to the body, but how we apply the load to the body. Heavier isn’t always more difficult as you can see in some of the split squat progressions that Jessica shows below.

When it comes to lunges the two biggest misunderstandings are in the direction of our movement and the ways we can load the body to challenge the movement. In DVRT we think we have a pretty simple system when it comes to progressing direction…reverse, lateral, forward, crossover. This is our system of moving from easiest to hardest and that opens a big world of also loading each directional lunge. Jessica and I show some different ways you can load your lunges that will take you closer to your single leg exercises.

You can see in these lateral squats we have great options for loading the body (you could apply these to any directional lunge)

You can see we use the same thought process when it comes to using kettlebells and Ultimate Sandbags work right along with kettlebells. Meaning that it isn’t one is better than the other, they allow us to fill in layers of progressions and sometimes even benefit from being used at the same time in drills like the ones below.


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Finally, what about rear foot elevated split squats? It is funny because the system isn’t perfectly linear. Like I said about split squats and lunges sometimes making an argument for one or the other being more difficult, we can say the same with lunges and rear foot elevated split squats. Especially when it comes to something like a walking lunge or even a cross over lunge, some people do better and feel more stable with rear foot elevated. However that is the point, you have a system that leads you with not just what to do next, but why. When you understand the why first instead of blindly following a series of progressions, you will have the ability to get more out of the system because you will learn that the best things don’t go in one straight line. However, if you know why you are going on a side road, you can also rest assure you are making at least a smart decision.

At the end of the day though we have tons of rear foot elevated progressions based just on loading position like you see Jessica and I show below. These all give us SO many better, not just more, layers to building to successful single leg exercises. You will see in a later post this week how we use these concepts for hip hinges that lead to better strength and glute training.

This week we are offering 25% off our DVRT Online Certifications/Courses, Workout Programs, & Functional Fitness tools when you use code “25off”. When you do save on our Ultimate Sandbags you will get our NEW DVRT Strong t-shirt for FREE (one per order and please put size in the description), just go HERE for a very limited time!