If you’re after strength, size, athleticism, and happy joints, add these four unilateral exercises to your leg workout.
There are limitless ways to build big, strong legs. Most lifters use the basic lifts in their leg workouts. Cool. But if you want to stay resilient and move a lot of weight without pain, unilateral training is a must.
Here are four highly effective exercises to help.
1. The Split Squat
The split squat doesn’t just build a ton of muscle; it also improves coordination, something lifters often lack.
It also allows you to hone in on potential weaknesses and fix imbalances while still pushing hard, heavy working sets. You might realize that your left leg has more strength or endurance than the right, or that one of your knees, ankles, or hips is less stable than the other. Receiving this feedback is critical to pain-free performance and, ultimately, faster and better muscle gains.
Do 3-4 sets x 6-8 reps per side. Lower with control and explode up on each rep. Rest two minutes between sets.
2. The Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat
Also called the Bulgarian split squat, this is one of the most difficult and effective leg exercises you could do.
It’ll hit the quads, glutes, and hamstrings while emphasizing your single-leg balance and coordination. This makes it one of the most transferable and beneficial exercises in existence.
Start with 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps using a controlled tempo. Add load once you’ve got the technique and control locked in.
3. The Step-Up
The step-up requires a lot of stabilization of the knee and hip, so master the movement before loading it with weight. The gains will come fast when you’ve got the proper technique and control down.
This is also one of the most effective exercises for hitting the glute max. According to the Journal of Sports Science, “The step-up and its variations may elicit the highest level of gluteus maximus activation, possibly due to the stabilization requirement of the exercise.”
In this meta-analysis, the step-up even outperformed squat and hip thrust variations for building the glutes. But even if you’re not convinced it’s the BEST, it’s still worth adding to your workouts if your goal is to build great legs and strong glutes.
Do 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps per side. Control the lowering phase.
4. The Landmine Lateral Squat
Get strong outside the sagittal (backward and forwards) plane. There aren’t very many exercises in the frontal (side-to-side) plane that you can load as effectively as the landmine lateral squat.
Training that gets you to go from side to side will strengthen your adductors and abductors (inner and outer thigh muscles) and increase your athleticism and performance. When we train in all planes of motion, we become more resilient to injury and build a better performing (and better looking) body.
Doing this move with a landmine allows you to load the bar while giving your spine a break. You’ll limit low-back stress and be able to focus solely on the muscles you’re trying to hit.
Want a greater challenge? Stay in an engaged three-quarter squat between reps to increase time under tension. Make sure you watch (or re-watch) the video above to see this in action.
Do 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps per side and rest a minute and a half between sets.
- Neto WK et al. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Mar;19(1):195–203. PMC.
- Carroll TJ et al. Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 Nov;101(5):1514-22. PubMed.
- Videman T et al. The long-term effects of physical loading and exercise lifestyles on back-related symptoms, disability, and spinal pathology among men. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1995 Mar 15;20(6):699-709. PubMed.