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Single-leg movements for a strong and stable back and legs


Why should I train single-leg movements?

Training on one leg has huge potential to make you healthier and more stable in the long run. Why? Because you have to do it every day for the rest of your life. Every step you take is a small balancing act on one leg, until you touch down with your second foot. If you play any athletic sport, especially football, you even need to balance while kicking the ball at full force. In winter, a good balance might even prevent you from hurting yourself from a bad fall. These types of injury can have a huge effect on your health, especially later in life. And even if you ever experience a bad fall (hopefully not), training on one leg will help you be more balanced in your musculature and have better posture. What’s not to like here?

What are some benefits of single-leg movements?

Training your strength on one leg can have a lot of benefits compared to training on two legs: This type of movement can even out imbalances and will allow you to train your balance and stability.

By doing resistance training with single-leg movements, you will: 

  • Balance out the muscle mass on your weaker side 

  • Balance out the strength on your weaker side, improve flexibility, and range of motion 

  • Increase the durability of your tissues, improve your balance, and reduce risk of injury while standing on one leg with a very low risk of injury while doing so 

  • Get rid of muscular imbalances which could lead to injury

With these benefits, you will also be more successful in any athletic goals and activities you might have and since during both athletic endeavours and in daily life we often stand on one leg, single-leg movements are highly relevant for them. So don’t skip “single-leg day!”

What muscles are involved in single-leg movements?

Let’s take a closer look at the muscles that are trained in single-leg movements. Regardless which exercise variation you train, a lot of different muscles in your legs, hips, back and core will benefit:

  • The muscles of your legs, i.e., the quadriceps in front of the thigh as well as the hamstring muscles located in the back of the thigh. They stabilise the knee joint and provide the ability to bend and straighten it, for example to guide a ball. 

  • The muscles of your hips, i.e., the glutes which form your buttocks. They allow you to stand stable and upright and provide the ability to extend the hips to stand up or walk up stairs. 

  • The muscles on the side of your back, i.e., the spinal erectors, which sit right next to your spine, as well as your quadratus lumborum (which sits between your ribcage and your hips). Both of them keep your spine stable and protected while you balance on one leg. They will get a higher stimulus due to having to work more during single-leg movements. 

  • The muscles of your core, i.e., the muscles that form your abdominals as well as those deep within such as your diaphragm. They stabilise the whole upper body during movement, and in single-leg movements they need to keep it from moving to the side. This especially helps train muscles such as your obliques (the ab muscles to your side) even more than doing traditional exercises on two legs.

As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to training on one leg. All of these muscles work together in unison during every step you take. Make sure to provide them with the training they need!

What exercises use single-leg movements?

When we talk about single-leg movements, we mainly talk about exercises which bias either the knee or the hip joint while standing on one leg.

In the former, we use variations of Squats and Lunges on one leg. These increase the contribution of the muscles in the front of the body (i.e., the front of the thigh), and train your knee and knee extensors in a more focused manner. These can include variations such as Pistol and Skater Squats, Lunges to the back, front and side as well as exercises such as Step Ups or Double Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats.

In the latter, we use a lot of hip bend with little knee bend, in exercises such as Single Leg Deadlifts or Single Leg Hip Thrusts. These use mostly the muscles in the back of the body, i.e., the back of the thigh as well as the hips, glutes and lower back, and train the back of your hips and your back. Both ends of this spectrum have their benefits and place in your training.

Technique checklist for single-leg movements

When using single-leg movements, you train your legs, back and core. This is very beneficial, however you want to avoid overstressing these regions. This is where correct technique is key.

To make sure that all the structures in your body are evenly trained, you need to make sure all your joints are well aligned during bending and lifting movements, especially on the side of your working leg:

  1. Keep your working foot flat and stable to stay in contact with the ground. This will help you transmit force from your leg into the floor to push the weight up. 

  2. In general, align your working knee in one line with your hips and feet. You can go a little more to the inside or outside, depending on what feels strongest and most stable to you. However, make sure to avoid excessive movement of your knee towards the inside.

How to implement these exercises in your training plan?

Now that you know all about why and how to go about doing exercises on one leg, you might ask yourself how you can best fit them into your training regime. As these exercises are usually full-body movements with a certain degree of instability (you are balancing on one leg after all) it is best to train them twice per week in the first third of a full-body workout. You can either use them as your main exercises (i.e. instead of heavier loaded exercises such as Squats) or as accessory exercises after your heavier lifting. Give yourself at least one day of rest between workouts, so you’re well rested before you go at it again.

To get the most out of them in regards to muscular development, you should try to train each muscle group that is important to you with between 10-20 sets per week. This includes all exercises that train these muscle groups, so make sure to also count in exercises on two legs.

As you can see, single-leg movements are really important for balance and stability, helping you to get rid of muscular as well as mobility imbalances while also helping to avoid injury of your lower body. They work great as resistance and balance training and can have a huge impact on your quality of life as well as your athleticism. Make sure to get the most out of them and see your health fitness levels reach new heights!

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