Progressing Single Leg Exercises for Strength

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Getting strong in the lower body can be done with squats and deadlifts.

These two exercises are insanely effective, but they are not the entire equation.

I am absolutely not going to dismiss squats and deadlifts because they are both important parts of my programs. I also have no problem ditching these exercises when they do not fit the person doing them.

These exercises also involve both feet on the ground, working together. This is necessary for younger or newer athletes. They have to be able to create this strength to start.

Eventually people will run into the bilateral deficit.

The bilateral deficit is a point in training where the strength of each leg individually is greater than the strength of them together.

An example of this is one of our current athletes. Her front split squat was approaching 150 pounds. This requires each leg to move 150 pounds 3-4 times (I forget). There is no chance that she was going to come anywhere close to a 300 pound squat 3-4 times. Her squat is actually closer to 225 for 3.

By the way, these are insanely good numbers for a high school female athlete.

The bilateral deficit is in effect here because the squat provides less stress to each leg than the split squat does. If the goal is to train pure leg strength, then the split squat is doing a better job.

bb split squat

I still like the squat because it builds whole body tension and also involves the posterior chain more.

When it comes to progressing single leg exercises there is actually a pretty simple progression.

  1. Split Squat

The split squat is like a lunge that we do not step into. Without any kind of step it allows the athlete to find some their base of support and move within it. Then they readjust for the other leg.

  1. Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is next because it involves a step back. This makes it a little bit harder but still very doable. The front leg tends to stay in a really good position in the reverse lunge.

  1. Forward lunge

The forward lunge increases difficulty because the front leg needs to decelerate the whole body. This puts a lot more demand on the muscles of the lower body. Jumping right into a forward lunge is very difficult for most people.

  1. Walking Lunge

Taking a forward lunge and continuing it makes the walking lunge the next step. Each step is a deceleration and the continuous movement add to the difficulty.

  1. Bulgarian or RFE Split Squat

This variation puts a foot up on a box and the other foot is planted into the ground. We next descend into the lunge and everyone begins to hate their lives. Instead of having two feet on the ground we now only have one.

I have found that the Bulgarian is the hardest single leg exercise that can be loaded up. Single leg squats cannot be done by most people, often making them a poor choice.

All of these exercises can also be progressed within each other.

We can go from a kettlebell, to dumbbells, to barbells. Get creative with hand position as well. A front rack position is harder to hold than back, but the weight is usually less.

For strict lower body training, we need single leg exercises. Start at the first one, load it up, and progress over time.