Skater Squat: The Ultimate Unilateral Exercise?

by Mike Over

7 Variations for Size and Strength

It builds muscle, boosts performance, and strengthens the squat and deadlift, all while being joint-friendly. The skater squat does it all.


The Skater Squat

The skater squat is a hybrid exercise. It’s more hip-dominant than a squat and more knee-dominant than a deadlift. This unilateral, one-legged lift builds size and improves hip strength, stability, and power.

Use it as a squat or deadlift alternative, or use it to boost your numbers in those big lifts. It’s joint-friendly and back-friendly. And since you don’t have to load and unload plates, it’s even a time-saver.

Here’s how to do it, eight variations to try out, and the science of single-leg training.

Quick Lesson: How to Do Them

Quick Lesson: How to Do Them

  1. First, use a counterbalance. Even just two-pound dumbbells in your hands can work as a counterbalance. Or you can squeeze a tennis ball between your hamstring and calf on the non-working leg. This will help keep your back leg in a better, tighter position and keep you from turning it into a reverse lunge.
  2. Next, think of an invisible line coming out of your middle toe of the working leg going toward the wall in front of you. Reach your hands through it.
  3. Lower yourself down and keep your back foot from touching the ground.
  4. Then drive your hands down as you push through your front foot to return to the starting position.

Tip: Your knee doesn’t have to touch the floor when you’re first starting out. So ease into this exercise by stacking a few foam pads on the ground for your back knee to touch. As you get stronger, remove them gradually so you can get lower and increase the range of motion.

Now let’s get to the variations.

8 Types of Skater Squats

8 Types of Skater Squats

1. SLIDER SKATER SQUAT

Do this version to dip your toes in the skater squat water. It’s like a reverse lunge but with a slightly different torso angle.

To really get the feel of a skater squat, try to put as little weight as possible on the rear leg and instead focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the working leg.

2. ECCENTRIC-ONLY SKATER SQUAT

This is another version that’ll help you ease into the exercise. Lower down with one leg and stand back up on two. The strategy here is to control the eccentric/negative and not just free fall to the floor.

It takes a bit of practice, and even though you’re not doing the concentric portion with one leg, the focus to lower yourself slowly can give you just as many benefits as doing the full rep on one leg.

3. DEFICIT SKATER SQUAT

Before adding load, try to increase the range of motion slightly. When you do a regular skater squat standing on the floor, the femur usually ends up a few inches short of parallel at the bottom, especially if you put a pad underneath the rear leg (which you definitely should).

Standing on a four-inch aerobic step will allow you to get down to parallel or even slightly below, depending on your body’s mobility allowance. If doing this causes pain or is too challenging, stick to the floor and build there or even work on smaller ranges. Never force square pegs into small holes!

4. THE 1.5 REP SKATER SQUAT

Squat all the way down, come halfway back up, squat down again, and come up. That’s one rep. Now do that 5-8 times. That’s one set.

This is a quick way to get a serious leg burn and pump. Master it and it’ll improve your motor control since you’ll have to retrain your brain on what the full rep entails.

5. PAUSE SKATER SQUAT

Pausing each rep at the bottom makes it harder by killing the stretch reflex. It also forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid free-falling to the floor.

This is also a great way to increase mind-muscle connection.

6. LANDMINE SKATER SQUAT

Set up your barbell in a landmine and hold the end of it in the hand opposite the leg you’re working. Position the barbell a few inches in front of your torso.

This is called “contralateral loading,” and it increases glute recruitment and challenges hip and core stability. This is tougher than it looks, so be conservative with the weight. You may actually want to start with the empty bar as you adjust to the offset loading.

7. SANDBAG SKATER SQUAT

Once you’ve got the basic skater squat down, you’ll be able to get the technique on this one pretty quickly. Be prepared; this variation will challenge your core, making it harder to brace and stay upright.

8. ZERCHER (FRONT LOADED) SKATER SQUAT

If you’re familiar with Zercher exercises, you’ll love this. It’s a tough variation that’ll challenge your core and balance.

How to Get Them Into Your Workouts

How to Get Them Into Your Workouts

Stick to 5-12 reps. That’s the sweet spot. Anything more and you risk messing up your form. And don’t forget, you can still benefit from lighter loads and get an equal payoff using a skater variation.

If you’re not sure where in your weekly workouts to add it, you’ve got a lot of options. Remember, the skater squat is a hybrid exercise: more hip-dominant than a squat and more knee-dominant than a deadlift. So it could potentially replace either.

It’s a super joint-friendly option, so you can program it more frequently. Use it as a primer for heavier squat or deadlift days, or use it as a stand-alone exercise and progressively work on loading and range of motion.

Either way, it’s a back-friendly choice that can improve your lifts in more ways than one. You might end up boosting your deadlift and improving hip strength, stability, and power.

Single-Leg Science (The Nerd Stuff)

Single-Leg Science (The Nerd Stuff)

Let’s talk about the research on single-leg work. In a recent study, researchers challenged the assumption that the load taken on by the working leg during single-leg squats is half that of bilateral squats. To do so, they used a model based on segmental weight distributions (load acting above or rotating about the hip joint) with force data to determine how much true load the legs take on in both movements.

They discovered two things:

  1. The combined bodyweight that acts above the hips during unilateral movements is 16% greater than during bilateral movements (84% vs. 68%).
  2. Unilateral movements equate to 1.62 times the intensity (per leg) of bilateral movements (in sum).

Furthermore, unilateral work could lead to better gains than bilateral exercises on changes of direction (Francisco Javier Nuñez, 2018). The exercise can better mimic an athlete’s running and sprint form and can even help produce faster sprint times and even jumps (Rhea, 2016).

Remember, unilateral training elicits significant metabolic stress because the muscles of the lower body are being asked to produce ATP at a much more significant rate. This is a potent stimulator of hypertrophy and thus produces metabolites such as lactate, hydrogen ions, inorganic phosphates, and creatine which further promote gains in muscle size.

In addition to metabolic stress, unilateral work causes a high amount of muscular tension and muscle swelling. In most cases, it causes significant muscular damage to a greater degree than standard (two-leg) training. Studies show that unilateral work could recruit more fast-twitch fibers than bilateral work (T. J. Koh, 1993).

References

References

  1. Speirs DE et al. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Feb;30(2):386-92. PubMed.
  2. Isik O et al. Effects of bilateral or unilateral lower-body resistance exercises on markers of skeletal muscle damage. Biomed J. 2018 Dec;41(6):364-368. PubMed.
  3. Moran J et al. Effects of Bilateral and Unilateral Resistance Training on Horizontally Orientated Movement Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2021 Feb;51(2):225-242. PubMed.
  4. Baechle TR et al. Essentials of strength training and conditioning 3rd ed. Human Kinetics. June 2, 2008.
  5. Rhea MR et al. Joint-Angle Specific Strength Adaptations Influence Improvements in Power in Highly Trained Athletes. Human Movement. 2016;17(1):43-49.

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These look awesome for putting into some circuit training

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I thought I invented this; I guess not. Let me explain. I recently got what I believe tendonitis in my lower quad going into my knee. Couldn’t do squats. So I experimented with pull up assist bands by hanging on them and lowering myself down in a skater squat. I thought I was doing more of a variation of the Bulgarian split squat. Good to know this exercise exists because it works well for me.

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Interesting, thanks!

I love single leg work.

What would be the difference between these single leg movements - in terms of recruitment and carry over, etc. - and, say, single leg squats on a box with the non-working leg hanging off the side?

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It’s really impressive that you experimented and figured out an effective alternative before ever seeing it from a coach. I really admire that kind of training innovation. And it sounds like you’re able to hit the quads really well with it!

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I’m not the author of the article, but I liked your idea so much that I tried it just now, and it’s great!

Seems like you might be able to consider the box version another variation of this exercise because I felt the same kind of tension in the legs, and it requires a bit of balance too.

If I were wanting to keep as much tension in the quads as possible, I wouldn’t sit back all the way on the box though. Maybe just a tap with the butt and then stand back up. Have you tried it?

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Now that would be brutal. I’d love to know what else is in your circuit so that I can steal it. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Excellent. I did this exactly when I was recovering from acl recon. It’s great to have enough confidence to improvise like that.

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That’s a really good point actually; I have a tendency to try to make it primarily a hip/glute movement. In part because I have a reconstructed ACL (skiing) and it has become a habit, not intentional and no longer necessary. I’m going to try exactly as you say, yes. And make it more quad dominant. Thanks Dani!

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Well now I want to try it as more of a glute exercise! Thanks for sharing this variation.

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While we’re thinking outside the box, I can see doing the skater squat into a pistol squat without touching the ground. Possibilities may be endless.

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Are you talking about a modified pistol squat?

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I think that would be accurate, yes.

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I’m actually doing them in my 10,000 KB Swing in a Month Challenge that is ending this week. They’re fine and I think much better than actual pistol squats for strength and size.

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totally agree; actual pistols always seemed like a stunt more than a functional movement.

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Good article, I was introduced to this movement through Ben Bruno articles right here on T-Nation. Like him, I started doing skater squats when heavy loading wasn’t an option, and they’re surely a keeper.

They were also one of my pandemic main movements.

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I started doing skater squats when I wanted to do hypertrophy-focused, calisthenics-style leg work in my style of workouts and was having trouble learning pistol squats–the extreme ankle mobility requirement + rounding of the lower back makes pistol squats a less ideal exercise for hypertrophy in my opinion. I view pistols as more of a balance feat that requires lower body strength to execute. So I learned skater squats, and they’ve been in my routine regularly since early 2020 because they’re just so good! Doing these consistently definitely added size to my legs. Sets of 1.5 reps with a pause are really difficult, yet totally worth building up to imo.