T Nation

Single Leg Exercises

I’m curious as to how many T-Nationers have ever given their all on single leg work. I’m not talking about throwing in a set of ten bodyweight Bulgarian squats or step ups after you squat and deadlift or a set of walking lunges with 25 pound dumbbells.

I’m talking about performing them first in a workout and going all out the same way you would squats or deadlifts.

If not, I challenge anyone to try it for a workout. You’d be amazed at how strong you are at unilateral leg exercises if you perform them first.

I did this for two months, and people at my gym were amazed at how much weight I used when I performed walking lunges, step ups, or Bulgarian squats, but I could use that much weight because I picked one and did it first in my Thursday leg workout and went all out.

In fact, I just did speed squats and deadlifts with 50-60% of my 1RM during these two months and my squat strength increased when I returned to them (but not my deadlift), and my form felt more natural.

Try it and then write back the next day cursing me because your glutes and inner thighs are so sore you can hardly walk.

I’ve done some unilateral work… can’t say I liked it much. For the simple reason that my balance sucks and I can’t use heavy weights. But I hear unilateral leg work is highly beneficial.

Every third TBT workout I begin with Bulgarian Split Squats and Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts … both have helped the my front/back squats & DL’s tremendously.

When I was doing full body workouts I always started my moderate intensity day (about 5-6 reps) with split squats, I worked up to 245 for 6 clean reps on each leg, they helped my squats a ton.

Due to mma and judo training I can’t recover from full body anymore, so I’m on an upper/lower split (2 upper, 2 lower) 3 days a week so I don’t start my workout with single leg work, but I always do some type of single leg work after my deadlifts. I switch between, split squats and unilateral leg presses, mainly because I messed a toe sparring, so split squats are sometimes unconfortable.

I tried step-ups but never liked them, walking lunges are a lot of fun when you have enough space.

[quote]PhilG wrote:

I tried step-ups but never liked them…[/quote]

Ah yes but many times its the very things we dislike or suck at that will give us the largest payback. Just thought.

Not saying step ups are magic but a good exercise none the less. try then HIGH, and dont cheat with the non working leg. add resistance as able or needed.

[quote]Phill wrote:
PhilG wrote:

I tried step-ups but never liked them…

Ah yes but many times its the very things we dislike or suck at that will give us the largest payback. Just thought.

Not saying step ups are magic but a good exercise none the less. try then HIGH, and dont cheat with the non working leg. add resistance as able or needed.
[/quote]

Someone posted an interesting article by Mauro DiPasquale the other day that made me consider keeping step ups as a mainstay in my routine.

Unilateral work has done wonders for me. I almost always do it as my second exercise, right now it’s step-ups and Bulg SS. I feel so much better and stronger when really putting effort into these. It was shocking the first time I did Bulg SS how much stronger my left leg was than my right.

I could barely do a few reps with just my bodyweight on that leg, and I wobbled all over the place and had to catch myself a few times. Unilateral work is a great way to hit the thighs, hips, and glutes hard without stressing your lower back which is superb for someone doing a lot of deadlifting and box squatting. DeFranco will preach the virtues of single leg work all day long for athletes.

That article is very cool, and I think I am going to try going higher on my step-ups to focus on the hammies more.

[quote]Donut62 wrote:
Unilateral work has done wonders for me. I almost always do it as my second exercise, right now it’s step-ups and Bulg SS. I feel so much better and stronger when really putting effort into these. It was shocking the first time I did Bulg SS how much stronger my left leg was than my right.

I could barely do a few reps with just my bodyweight on that leg, and I wobbled all over the place and had to catch myself a few times. Unilateral work is a great way to hit the thighs, hips, and glutes hard without stressing your lower back which is superb for someone doing a lot of deadlifting and box squatting. DeFranco will preach the virtues of single leg work all day long for athletes.

That article is very cool, and I think I am going to try going higher on my step-ups to focus on the hammies more. [/quote]

Great post

Very interesting. I just finished doing TBT and for 2 of the weeks I did step-ups onto a high box. I loved them–made me feel like I was going to puke. Just curious what weights you guys do. I haven’t squatted 300–have only gone up to 245-265 for a few reps. But, I was able to do 135 for 12 reps (each leg)
I’ve just started WS4SB and like the single-leg component.
Gym was busy yesterday so I had to use DBs instead of a barbell. Didn’t like the feel as much. Also got difficult just holding them–good grip workout.

Form-wise my only problem is when I step down: I think the leg I’m stepping down with is too straight ad I feel a bit of a shock in the knee. Anyone else get this? Trying to bend the knee a bit near impact but feels awkward

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[quote]lesotho72 wrote:
Very interesting. I just finished doing TBT and for 2 of the weeks I did step-ups onto a high box. I loved them–made me feel like I was going to puke. Just curious what weights you guys do. I haven’t squatted 300–have only gone up to 245-265 for a few reps. But, I was able to do 135 for 12 reps (each leg)
I’ve just started WS4SB and like the single-leg component.
Gym was busy yesterday so I had to use DBs instead of a barbell. Didn’t like the feel as much. Also got difficult just holding them–good grip workout.

Form-wise my only problem is when I step down: I think the leg I’m stepping down with is too straight ad I feel a bit of a shock in the knee. Anyone else get this? Trying to bend the knee a bit near impact but feels awkward[/quote]

I can use the 100 pound dumbbells or a barbell with 185 for 10 reps when stepping onto a typical adjustable bench, however, I also would use the lateral raise machine at my gym (which allowed me to step up really high- about as high as I could possibly go with good form), and I would do a set of 12 with just bodyweight then a set of 8 with 20 pound dumbbells. It all depends on the height.

If step ups made you want to puke, I’d hate to see what “breathing walking barbell lunges” would do to you. I’ve been doing these for one set per week for the past 4 weeks, basically doing them like you would do “breathing 20 rep squats.” The first week I used 135 for 40 steps, last week I did 175 for 40 steps.

The set probably lasted five minutes, I had to stop at 20, breathe for about 30 sec, crank out a couple more, breathe, etc., til I got to 40. By the end of the set my arms are numb, my heart is on fire, I want to puke and my legs are shaking.

This exercise will improve your VO2 Max and lactate threshold, among strengthening all your leg muscles, from knee and hip extensors to hip abductors and adductors, and your core.

I have a love/hate relationship with this exercise. It haunts me at night yet I can’t distance myself from it.

[quote]bushidobadboy wrote:
Unilateral lower body exercises ROCK, IMO.

They are great for ensuring correct (or atleast ‘better’) recruitment of muscles like fibularis, pirirormis, TFL, glutes etc, and as such, unilateral exercises have been a MASSIVE contributor in my mostly-successful quest to eliminate sacroiliac/lumbar pain.

My favorite exercise of the moment is the ‘Barbel snatch to split squat’. You snatch the bar overhead, then drop the back knee either until you touch the floor, or until just above it, then rise back up. If you pause with the knoee on the flor, you will eliminate the stretch/shorten cycle, and develop some good starting strength.

Oh yeah, this exercise will work your ‘core’ like few other things…

Other unilat exercises that I love:

SL deadlifts

Bodyweight squat (this exercise has actually helped strengthen my foot muscles, and has improved my arch, as you have to ‘grip’ the floor with your toes)

Negative leg press - both legs to raise the weight, one leg to lower it.

As a side note, my legs have hypertrophied considerably since doing unilat. work, in a way that they never did before - completely, with no lagging areas.

bushy[/quote]

I don’t want to get my ass kicked here on T-Nation for saying this, but I think (especially for taller lifters) that the walking lunge, step up and Bulgarian squat, if done with comparable intensity, can do as much or more for leg hypertrophy than squats and deadlifts.

They are more of a “pure” leg exercise, since you don’t lean forward as much and therefore don’t incorporate your lumbar erectors as much. Of course, one must use good form (torso erect, good stride-length, push through heels, go down deep enough to where opposite knee almost touches the ground).

The problem is, most guys think that unilateral leg exercises are for sissies because they have never done them before with any appreciable amount of intensity. The walking lunge is right up there with squats and deadlifts in terms CNS drainage, making you breathe hard and muscle mass worked, if you go heavy enough and have been doing them for long enough to become proficient.

[quote]bretc wrote:
I can use the 100 pound dumbbells or a barbell with 185 for 10 reps when stepping onto a typical adjustable bench, however, I also would use the lateral raise machine at my gym (which allowed me to step up really high- about as high as I could possibly go with good form), and I would do a set of 12 with just bodyweight then a set of 8 with 20 pound dumbbells. It all depends on the height.

If step ups made you want to puke, I’d hate to see what “breathing walking barbell lunges” would do to you. I’ve been doing these for one set per week for the past 4 weeks, basically doing them like you would do “breathing 20 rep squats.” The first week I used 135 for 40 steps, last week I did 175 for 40 steps.

The set probably lasted five minutes, I had to stop at 20, breathe for about 30 sec, crank out a couple more, breathe, etc., til I got to 40. By the end of the set my arms are numb, my heart is on fire, I want to puke and my legs are shaking.

This exercise will improve your VO2 Max and lactate threshold, among strengthening all your leg muscles, from knee and hip extensors to hip abductors and adductors, and your core.

I have a love/hate relationship with this exercise. It haunts me at night yet I can’t distance myself from it. [/quote]

I’ll give the walking lunges a try though I work out in a pretty cramped gym. A couple of questions:

(1) When you use DBs do you hold them at your side or at the shoulders? I held them at the sides and didn’t feel it in the legs as much as with a barbell. Excellent if you’re using 100s – must be quite a grip workout also.

(2) When you step down do you feel alot of pressure on your knee? Step down with a bend in the knee–so when you make contact you’re not straight-legged?

Thanks

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[quote]lesotho72 wrote:
bretc wrote:
I can use the 100 pound dumbbells or a barbell with 185 for 10 reps when stepping onto a typical adjustable bench, however, I also would use the lateral raise machine at my gym (which allowed me to step up really high- about as high as I could possibly go with good form), and I would do a set of 12 with just bodyweight then a set of 8 with 20 pound dumbbells. It all depends on the height.

If step ups made you want to puke, I’d hate to see what “breathing walking barbell lunges” would do to you. I’ve been doing these for one set per week for the past 4 weeks, basically doing them like you would do “breathing 20 rep squats.” The first week I used 135 for 40 steps, last week I did 175 for 40 steps.

The set probably lasted five minutes, I had to stop at 20, breathe for about 30 sec, crank out a couple more, breathe, etc., til I got to 40. By the end of the set my arms are numb, my heart is on fire, I want to puke and my legs are shaking.

This exercise will improve your VO2 Max and lactate threshold, among strengthening all your leg muscles, from knee and hip extensors to hip abductors and adductors, and your core.

I have a love/hate relationship with this exercise. It haunts me at night yet I can’t distance myself from it.

I’ll give the walking lunges a try though I work out in a pretty cramped gym. A couple of questions:

(1) When you use DBs do you hold them at your side or at the shoulders? I held them at the sides and didn’t feel it in the legs as much as with a barbell. Excellent if you’re using 100s – must be quite a grip workout also.

(2) When you step down do you feel alot of pressure on your knee? Step down with a bend in the knee–so when you make contact you’re not straight-legged?

Thanks
[/quote]

  1. I hold the db’s at my sides. To me, it’s difficult to hold on to an appreciable amount of weight at the shoulders with db’s. However, one can do barbell front, overhead and zercher step ups, lunges and bulgarian squats. I just put the barbell on my back though. I feel it less when I do db’s than bb too, because I tend to lean forward more when I use db’s. Make sure you focus on keeping your torso upright. If you try the walking barbell lunges, you need a lot of space. I do them out on the street (I’m lucky, I have a garage gym). If you don’t have a lot of space, use db’s.

There are two exercises in which I allow myself to use wrist straps: shrugs and db lunges. If it bothers you, do a set of static holds afterward to make up for it. As long as my deadlift isn’t limited by my grip strength (which it isn’t), I’m okay with using straps from time to time in order to maximally tax certain muscle groups.

  1. Yes, step down under control and absorb the shock with a slightly bent knee. It shouldn’t hurt your knees. If it does, perhaps you are too weak to lower yourself under control or to absorb shock properly and should strengthen your legs more with walking lunges or bulgarian squats before you take on step ups.

Hope this helps.

I’ve incorporated Bulgarian split squats in my routine for a while and I love them. They work my entire legs like no other exercise and I find myself gasping for breathe after a few heavy sets.

I tried BB step ups the other day but I didnt feel like I could get as good a workout as with the split squats. I dont know if it matters too much if I do split squats 2x a week instead of split squats 1x and step ups 1x. At least im doing unilateral work.

I’ve been doing 3 total body workouts a week, starting each one with two leg exercises:

Monday
Squats (4 sets)
1Leg RDL (2 sets)

Wednesday
RDL (3 sets)
Bulgarian Squats (3 sets)

Friday
Zercher Squat (2 sets)
Sumo DL (4 sets)

My plan has been to increase volume on my unilateral exercises over 12 weeks, using 3 mesocycles of 4 weeks each. But I do plan to eventually get into some high intensity single legs exercises.

[quote]pushharder wrote:
I will also do Overhead Bul. Squats. Very challenging and talk about a total body exercise!
[/quote]
I have to try those.

This is a great thread! I don’t do much single leg work, but will try soon. Has anybody ever tried bulgarin/deadlifts? This is a killer movement!

Tried single leg stuff when I (49 yr old) had groin strain. Have now made an intricate and crucial part of my workouts. Do dynamic lunges, split squats, stepups, bulgarian split squats, and dumbbell squats. Made tremendus diff in regular squats and deads, even high pulls in the start. Later decided must continue floor work, deads, pulls but I could avoid some heavy squatting to get stronger dual leg which was great for unloading the lower back. I’ll never go back.

I’m a sprint cyclist and I scare people just riding up now in bike shorts with the size and development of my quads and hamstrings, all good. I can fron and back squat deeper and with more confidence than ever before, try it for auxiliaries too.

I could make an argument for each of the main three single leg exercises being the best:

bulgarian squats- superior due to continuous tension on the leg muscles, in addition they are the most difficult to balance during execution

step ups- superior due to highest degree of thigh elevation (if you do high step ups), therefore greatest glute/hamstring involvement

lunges- superior because they are the most natural; it’s not as hard to balance therefore you can use the most resistance, and they get me the most sore out of the three

For these reasons, I like to do all three! I also like to do bulgarian squats with my front foot elevated onto a 6" platform, which allows one to go deeper, and reverse lunges, which seem to put more tension on glutes and hamstrings.

I don’t really like doing front, overhead or zercher variations, nor do I like to do low step ups, dynamic, side or crossover lunges. Just personal preference.