Resident MAXIM fitness guru ALEXA TOWERSEY explains how to build bigger pins one at a time…
There are two types of people who think single leg training is for pussies – those who don’t do it and those who suck at it… most likely because they don’t do it.
Single leg work is an effective way to build lower body strength and size whilst working around injuries. It can help bulletproof the body, stabilising the hip and knee joints, and addressing any structural imbalances. And if the word “functional” is going to continue to be thrown around, single leg training fits in every sense of the word given that our entire existence pretty much requires that we move one leg at a time.
Now, while I totally get that single leg training might not stroke the ego of all you hard-gainers out there, effectively having to take a step back and lift half the weight you think you should be, I’m going to assume you’re all smart enough to be open minded and at least give it a go.
Evening out asymmetries between your two sides should always be a priority and part of building a solid foundation. If you’ve got strength, mobility and stability on both legs individually, you’re going to be strong AF when using both at the same time. Imbalances can be related to flexibility (the length of soft tissue or muscle), mobility (the range of motion around a joint), strength and/or size…
- Flexibility/Mobility: Work in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio favoring the tighter side with any of your static or active stretching drills.
- Strength: The easiest thing to do is start on the weaker leg and then match the reps on the stronger one.
- Size: The simplest solution is just to add more volume for the smaller side. So, if your left leg is smaller than your right leg, start and finish all your single leg exercises on your left leg giving you the extra set.
PREVENTING OR REHABBING INJURY
A lack of single leg stability, strength, and power is linked to lower back pain and knee injuries. Single Leg Squats (off a box) are a great exercise combining strength at the end range, mobility through the ankle and hip and stability of both the lower limb and torso. I suggest 3-5 sets of 5 reps each leg.
Research reveals a strong correlation between knee pain and weak hips – add in banded lateral walks to engage the glutes as part of your warmup or in between strength sets.
Guys have excuses galore for putting their legs on the back burner while they focus on curls for the girls, but let me tell you there is nothing attractive about chicken legs #sorrynotsorry. When it comes to putting on some size, it’s all about volume, load and time under tension – you’re not looking for neurologically demanding exercises. Lunge variations are an effective choice, in combination with more isolation type movements like leg extensions in the hypertrophy rep range of 4 sets of 8-12 reps 3 x week. Hello Quadzilla!
ENHANCING STRENGTH & ATHLETIC ABILITY
This is all about getting the gains in the gym to transfer over into sporting performance whilst preventing injury. The bonus of unilateral exercises is that you can get levels of joint torque and muscle activation that are similar to their double leg counterparts, but with far less spinal loading. In my experience, one of the best ways to improve strength and stability is by adding an isometric pause at the bottom of each rep and having to initiate movement again out of the hole from that dead-stop position. If you already know how painful a Bulgarian Split Squat is, try adding a three-second dead stop pause at the bottom.
Lower body movements are primarily characterized as knee dominant (i.e. squat and lunge variations) or hip dominant (i.e. deadlift variations). Try adding these single leg exercises into your arsenal.
Knee Dominant: Accessory movements for the squat with additional strength and stability benefits.
- Pistol Squat with counter balance. The counter movement aspect makes it easier to perform by shifting the centre of mass forward, increasing the lever arm of the hip and decreasing the lever arm of the knee
- Cossack Squat. Huge mobility benefits through the ankle joint and adductors
- Slideboard Reverse Lunges. You get the flexibility work of a lunge with a very strong posterior chain component
Hip Dominant: Accessory movements for the deadlift with additional strength and stability benefits.
- Single Leg Prisoner Back Extension – good for single leg flexibility and stability. The arms in the prisoner position increases the torque loading at the hip by increasing the lever length of the torso’s centre of mass.
- Single leg hip thrust – great for increasing end range hip extension strength.
- Supported Single Leg Romanian Deadlift – great for increasing strength in the hamstrings while sparing the spine.
If you’re looking for an effective and versatile single leg tool that can comfortably cross categories, you can’t overlook the prowler/sled. Sled pulling is fantastic for prehab, strengthening the VMO (knee stabilizer) in a low impact way, and push/pull variations can be used for strength, power or endurance depending on the load and length of interval.
“Action Alexa” is an internationally published celebrity trainer, sports model and nutrition and lifestyle coach with over 15 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry, and has worked with NZ’s world champion rugby team, the All Blacks. She has qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Champs and was named as one of the Five Toughest Trainers in Asia during her seven-year stint in an MMA gym in Hong Kong.
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