Best Single Leg Exercises
Sharing a list of my very favorite and what I consider to be the best single leg exercises! I hope this post can be inspiration to include more unilateral training is your routine.
Hi hi! How are you doing today? I hope you’re having a wonderful week so far! We’re getting ready for our Disney trip (I.can’t.wait) and I’m starting to wrap my head around the fact that summer is just around the corner. Usually I have our entire summer planned and this year, I’ve planned absolutely nada. It’s definitely on my list for this week! I’m also looking forward to a call with our Total Body Reset group this afternoon – we have 34 ladies and they’re crushing it!!
For today, let’s talk fitness-y things and one of my favorite elements to include in lower body workouts: single leg exercises. Single exercises are – you guessed it- exercises using just one side of your lower body at a time. Leg strength is important no matter what sport you choose or fitness mode you enjoy. Strong legs support everyday movements, our ability to perform, and focusing on one leg at a time can have several benefits. In today’s post, I’m sharing a roundup of the best single leg exercises that can help you reach your legs’ fullest potentials.
(Set was gifted from Vuori. I love everything on their site, and especially their leggings and joggers.)
Why train unilaterally?
It’s SO easy to use bilateral exercises to *depend* on our strongest side. Think about a barbell biceps curl vs. a dumbbell curl. With the barbell, you’ll lift the weight without the true ability to determine if the weight is split equally between sides. Your stronger side will always kick in to help you complete the rep, which can cause muscle imbalances to go unnoticed. By training one side at a time, like with a dumbbell curl, you can really focus on developing strength in the weaker side. This will not only promote muscle symmetry, but also potentially prevent altered movement patterns from depending on the stronger sides of the body.
Here are some of my favorite single-leg exercises to include on leg day! As always, check with a doctor before making any fitness changes. Honor your body and modify as needed.
Best Single Leg Exercises
Hold a barbell, pair of dumbbells, or kettlebell, and tap one leg behind you. You can keep it here, with the weight in your front foot as you tilt forward, bringing the weights just below the knees. Exhale and rise with a flat back. For the single leg option, you can float this top foot off the floor. Make sure to keep hips parallel to the floor.
Bulgarian split squat
Stand in front of a bench or sturdy chair and place one foot on top. Keep your hips and shoulders facing forward, and posture upright, as you bend your front knee. Press through your entire front foot and exhale to rise. Don’t worry too much about keeping your front knee stacked over your ankle -if you have the ankle flexibility, it can move a bit forward past your toes – but instead, focus on keeping your torso upright and sinking DOWN instead of forward. Another tip: I like to curl my back toes onto the bench, so the top of my foot or shoe is facing down. This places more emphasis on the working leg.
Single-leg hip raise
Start on your back with legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift one leg off the floor, and press your heel towards the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes to lift your hips, keeping your upper back pressing into the floor and hips parallel to the floor. Lower down towards the floor (don’t touch it!) and exhale to rise back up. Continue for all reps, then switch legs.
Single-leg calf raise
Stand with your legs hip with apart and come up onto your toes. Lift one leg, and gently wrap your foot behind the leg that’s still on the ground. Lower your heel towards the ground, but don’t let it touch the floor in between each rep to keep the tension in your calf. Hold onto wall or sturdy surface for balance if you need to.
Side leg raise
Standing, take a wide stance, and place your weight into one leg as you lift the opposite leg off the floor. Keep your toes pointing forward and use your glutes to lift your leg, lower down with control, and exhale to bring back up. For more of a challenge, wear ankle weights.
Start standing with your hips and shoulders in one line. Slightly bend one knee and place the opposite foot on the floor behind you. Using your glutes, exhale to bring your back leg off the floor. Return to starting position with control and repeat.
You can do this exercise on the curl machine at the gym, or at home, using a towel. Place a towel on the floor (or a paper plate if you’re doing this on carpet), and place one heel on the towel as you lie onto your back. Knees are bent, and shoulders are pressing down into the floor. Lift your hips off the floor and straighten the leg with the towel (the working leg), exhale to bend it in towards your hip. Repeat all of your reps on one side before switching to the other side.
Seated single-leg press
Start seated in leg press machine, starting with 1/3 of your typical leg press weight. Place one foot onto the plate, making sure you have about a 90 degree angle with that leg. Exhale as you press that leg out to straighten, engaging your glutes and hamstrings. Inhale back to start and repeat.
Single leg TRX pistol squat or single-leg sit squat
TRX single leg pistol squat: stand away from the TRX base point, holding onto the straps with both hands. The straps will be straight, and your chest will be lifted, with an engaged core. Bring one leg off the floor and flex your foot, bringing the leg up as high as you can. Inhale to sink down into a squat (goal is to end up with your knees in one line) and exhale to rise. Really pay attention to the standing leg and keep it as stable as possible. Squeezing the glutes really helps. If you need to, start with a smaller range of movement.
For the single leg sit squat (if you don’t have a TRX), stand in front of a chair or a bench, with the chair or bench about 2-3 feet behind you. Make sure your feet are underneath your shoulders (hip width or slightly wider is good) and toes slightly turned out. Focus on sitting back, while keeping your chest lifted and a tight core. Inhale to lower to touch your booty to the chair, exhale to rise. Do this on one leg with the opposite leg extended in front of you
Single leg band press out
Start lying on the floor with a band loop just above your ankles. Bring your feet up over your hips, like you’re trying to press your heels into the ceiling (feet are flexed). Create some tension with the band by pressing out. Hold it here, and then press one leg out and in, out and in. Complete 15-20 reps before switching to the opposite side. This is an awesome gluten activation exercise.
Here’s a quick video tutorial I put together, featuring some of my top exercises from the list above:
How often do you utilize unilateral training in your routine?
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Thanks for a wonderful read, and probably one of my favourite subjects too.
I managed to herniate a couple of discs in the the lower left side of my spine, many years ago now, but it put an end to me performing heavy barbell squats and deadlifts for a couple of years.
However, I’m glad to say that I’ve built myself back up, and I’m now stronger and healthier than ever before.
With that being said, much of my lower body training focused around single-leg movements for a few years, and I’m glad to say that most of the exercises have stuck with me ever since.
Plus, I remember once reading, “The exercises you hate the most are the ones you should be doing more often.”
And trust me, I hated Bulgarian Split Squats at the time, LOL.
But, it just shows how the body both adapts and changes.
I now love BSS and will generally squat more weight (with dumbbells) than I barbell back squat. In fact, I think the only thing holding me back from going heavier is grip strength.
Plus, I regularly perform weighted step ups and weighted single-leg hip thrusts.
I can tell you now that single leg work makes me feel great (and it does a lot for the physique too).
Awesome post, Gina!
Firstly I have to confess that I personally HATE single-leg exercises. Especially Bulgarian Split Squats. lol.
But I agree whole-heartedly that they should be an integral part of any well-rounded exercise program.
These are a lifesaver when you don’t have much weight to work with and are stuck at home. Like most of us were during the lockdowns.
Loved the specific pointers on minute things like sinking down instead of forward on the BSS and emphasising the weight to the working leg.
Have a great day!