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Solving Your Single-Leg Situation


Okay, I’ll admit it, I had the Pack last night. But I wasn’t all that disappointed to see the Seahawks dominate, just the way they did last year. It’s sort of like somebody on my Facebook newsfeed said, I guess all that’s left to figure out is whether the Broncos or Patriots will be taking the ‘Hawks down in February.

On another note, I made another Fauxloco buffalo burrito bowl last night and it was delicious.

As with my post on warm-ups, I think I have another debate here that I’d like to provide my two cents on. The whole single-leg vs. bilateral training debate.

One side will tell you that squatting is bad for the knees, isn’t functional, and/or doesn’t mimic any movement that you actually do on the field. The other side asserts that single-leg movements don’t allow you to use enough weight to elicit a response, also don’t mimic any movement that you actually do on the field, and leave the toilet seat up.

But I’m here to tell you that all of this is wrong.

And let me tell you why. Squatting isn’t bad for your knees, what you’re calling a squat is bad for your knees. Both movements are functional because functionality isn’t about imitating “real life” movements, it’s about developing your ability to put force into the ground (which in turn makes you better at sprinting, jumping, etc). Single-leg movements won’t necessarily prepare you to squat because the load isn’t enough to elicit a response from your core. However, the weight is definitely enough to strengthen your legs.

I have to admit, I had it all wrong for a while. Being young in this field, I used to be prone to believe everything that I read on T-Nation. It led to a lot of program-hopping and continuously swapping out exercises.

I used go back and forth between bilateral and unilateral movements on almost a daily basis. It stressed me out because I was never sure that I was using the perfect workout. So what’s the answer to the debate? Squatting or single-leg movements?

Arnold did his fair share of squatting.

Squatting Pros and Cons

Squatting has a lot of pros and cons to it. Let’s start with the good parts. First off, squatting allows us to use the entire body in unison, developing total body strength from our upper back and lats to our calves. This, in turn, allows us to move greater weight which forces a greater hormonal response and hopefully a greater adaptation.

Speaking of hormones, high-rep squats seem to have an incredible effect on the human body and should be a part of any hypertrophy program.

Squatting is a bit easier to learn than single-leg movements in my opinion, simply because having two feet on the ground gives us more stability and balance. This helps us focus on the task(s) at hand: chest up, knees out, pushing through the entire foot.

So what are the cons? For starters, the core is always the limiting factor in a squat. In other words, your core will fail before your legs give out (this varies by individual, obviously). Loading your spine with near-maximal weights will always put you at risk, no matter how well you know the movement.

Additionally, squats require a very specific type of mobility that most people simply don’t have these days, although there’s usually at least one variation that everyone can perform correctly.

Obviously this list is brief, as I don’t intend to list every scientific reason why you should or should not squat.

Single-leg Pros and Cons

So what are the pros of single-leg movements? Single-leg movements allows us to work the legs to their full-capacity without worrying about the core failing first. In fact, most people will be able to perform single-leg movements with greater than 50% of the same rep-max squat. (A 200lb squatter could probably lunge with more than 100lb on each leg.)

Working each leg individually allows us the chance to balance out our body. Furthermore, we build greater stability with single-leg movements because the inherent instability of the narrow base-of-support demands more stability.

Lastly, single-leg movements often give us the opportunity to stretch the hip flexors and quads on the non-working leg, which can benefit everyone and their mother (sorry Mom, your hip flexors are probably tight).

As for the cons, single-leg movements lack that total body strength development that comes with bilateral squatting. And therefore, they also lack the hormonal response.

And as I mentioned above, single-leg movements have an inherent stability requirement, so it can take some time learning and gaining that stability before you can really load the movements.

The Single-Leg Continuum

So where do we start our single-leg work?

The way I see it, we need to move from greatest to least in terms of non-working leg support. What I mean by that is that split squats come first. The back leg is in contact with the ground the entire time and definitely plays a role in the actual movement.

From there, lunges. Lunges give us an opportunity to support ourselves with our back leg, but reduce the ground-contact time. They also give us the additional challenge of moving our body through space.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bulgaria.

Next is rear-foot elevated variations, aka bulgarians. Obviously the back leg comes into play a bit, but it should be minimal (especially if your laces are facing down) and should primarily assist with balance.

Last is pistol and skater squat variations. Here, the non-working leg does not touch the ground (except for the knee in the case of the skater squat) and the entire stability demand is on the working leg/hip.

Without going into too much detail, I like front-foot elevated lunge and bulgarian variations as they provide a large range-of-motion, but don’t absorb all of your strength in an attempt to stability yourself on one foot.

Are You Going To Answer The Question, Or What?

Okay, fine. The answer to your single-leg situation is both. You should be performing bilateral and unilateral lower body movements throughout your program.

Here are my two favorite ways to program them together. First, the traditional. You perform your bilateral stuff first. I like this for strength reasons. Performing bilateral movements fresh allows us to really test our core strength, neuromuscular coordination, and phosphagen energy system. This leaves your single-leg work as your accessory stuff.

Most would agree that if squat or deadlift numbers are your concern, you should do those movements first. And I agree.

But what if numbers aren’t your primary concern? The second way I like to program them is the exact opposite. We use our single-leg movements first. Now, since single-leg movements don’t lend themselves well to singles, doubles, and triples, we’ll use four, five and six rep sets.

After our max effort work (our single-leg stuff), we’ll move to high(er)-rep squatting. As I said earlier, there’s something to be said for high rep squatting and hormone release. Also, since your legs are tired from the single-leg work, your core will be fresher during the squatting, making the squats safer! Although I don’t think this second option works well if squat numbers are your primary concern, you’ll definitely see a ton of growth in the legs … and probably all over your body as well.

Some high-rep squats could probably fix this.

Could we combine these two in the same week? Of course, try this format:

Lower Body Day 1

  1. Deadlift (max effort)
  2. Single-leg movement
  3. Core, hamstrings etc.

Lower Body Day 2

  1. Single-leg movement (max effort)
  2. High-rep squatting
  3. Core, hamstrings, etc.

And if you’re looking to condense everything into one day, try this:

  1. Deadlift (max effort)
  2. Single-leg work (lower rep accessory)
  3. High-rep squatting
  4. Whatever you can get done if you aren’t lying in a puddle of your own sweat.


So there’s your answer. Squats are good for total body strength, squat numbers, and the hormonal response (like GH and testosterone) that comes along with it (especially with high-rep sets). Single-leg work is good for balance between legs, actual balance, hip stability, and overall leg strength (as the core doesn’t limit you).

In my opinion and from my experience, leaving one or the other out of your program means leaving great progress on the table. However you choose to program it, make sure you have both bilateral and unilateral movements in your program somewhere. (And for more information, check out this post, this post, and this post on program design.)

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