You Can't Shoot a Cannon Out of a Canoe: Unilateral Leg Training
Whether you are training to get better at your sport or trying to look better in a swimsuit, working your bodies prime movers via compound lifts like the squat and deadlift will help you reach your goals faster than nearly anything else. Anyone that knows us at Pulse knows we love those bad boys, but in order to get the prime movers firing right we need stability - one oft-overlooked reason for lack of stability is imbalance between the legs. When it comes to speed training, mimicking the sprint drills from that cool Under Armour commercial are sexy and feel cool, but if you're leaving a trail of zig-zagged footprints behind you, again, imbalance between the legs must be addressed!
Single leg exercises often carry a stigma with them that they only belong in Zumba classes or alongside a Tony Little Gazelle machine, but I (along with anyone who has ever done a set of heavy Bulgarian split squats) vehemently disagree. The two main benefits you’ll see when more single leg movements are fused into your program are:
1) Strengthening of the major knee stabilizers
Being an athlete that has come back from several knee surgeries including an ACL reconstruction, this is one benefit I hold in high regard. I could go on forever with this but in short, strong gluteals, vastus medialis oblique (VMO), and hamstrings are what keep your knees healthy and injury-free. These are our natural knee braces, so kiss the bulky DonJoy’s goodbye and get your wheels strong and independent.
2) Improved balance and proprioception
Most athletes and clients we train have trouble standing on one leg, let alone going through a full range of motion with weights. The strong parts get stronger and weak get weaker - think about the wear and tear that’s doing in your lower body. You’re not falling over so I can assure you that something, somewhere is compensating for this! We don’t have to be able to walk a tightrope, but small improvements in these two will make a difference in your everyday activities.
There is a long list of possible exercises when you decide to start using these movements, just keep it simple. Some movements we at Pulse have found to be most effective in both my own personal programming and the programs I write for my clients include, in no particular order.
Single Leg RDLs
Muscles Used: Hamstrings, glutes, adductors
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your body and raise your foot slightly off the ground. Keep your chest high, shoulders pinned back, and the weight in the heel of your grounded foot. Once in this position, keep your free leg straight and swing it back while pushing your hips back, lowering the dumbbell down as far as you can while keeping your shoulders back, trying to tap the ground with the weight. Return to the top and repeat. When you get good enough, keep your swing leg off the ground throughout the entire set.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Muscle Used: Quads, glutes, adductors, hamstrings
Stand a couple feet in front of a bench, reach back with one leg and place the top of your toes on the edge of the bench. Place all your weight on the grounded foot and lower yourself down to where your back knee lightly touches the ground – it is important to achieve full range of motion here to hit the glutes hard. Once that knee touches the ground drive your heel through the ground back to the starting position and repeat for prescribed number of reps.
Forward Lunges with Front Squat grip
Muscle Used: Quads, glutes, adductors, hamstrings, core, upper back
Unrack barbell in a normal front squat position keeping the elbows high throughout. Start with both feet together, take a step forward and land on your heel. (landing on the toes tends to shoot the knees forward over the toes putting pressure on the patellofemoral joint...a big no-no. Once your heel is down, lower your opposite leg until your knee gently touches the floor. Again, we need full range of motion. Keep the weight on the heel, drive off back up standing with the feet together in the starting position, repeat.
Zercher Reverse Lunges
Muscle Used: Quads, glutes, adductors, hamstrings, spinal erectors
The Zercher grip always kicks things up a notch, this is no exception. Set a barbell in a rack about thigh high and load the bar, then lock your hands together and place the bar at the bottom of your forearms and in your elbows (It should look like you have your arms crossed but with a bar running across them). These are performed in the same fashion as the front loaded forward lunges, but you will step backwards with the heel drive coming from the static leg.
Step Up with Knee Drive
Muscle Used: Quads, glutes, adductors, hamstrings, ankle joint
Start with a pair of dumbbells in your hand or barbell on your back and raise your knee up to place one foot up on a bench. Place the majority of your weight on the "up" heel, then drive the heel as if you were trying to step down through the bench. You then drive your opposite foot up and knee to your chest. Make sure the glute is fully flexed at the top of your knee drive.
Muscles Used: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves
The sled is conventionally used as a rehab or conditioning tool, but is also great for building single leg strength while giving the spine a break from heavy loading. It also promotes recovery since there is no eccentric (lowering) portion. Load it up, push it, pull it, drag it.
Throw these in your workout as a supplementary lift or an accessory movement once or twice a week for 3-4 sets of 6-10 each leg and watch your compound lifts and movement efficiency soar - along with your heart-rate.
Zumba outfit optional...and encouraged.