How to Build Serious Single-Leg Strength (And Why It's So Important)

An athlete who is strong and powerful off one leg is likely to be faster, stronger, more explosive and more resilient than an athlete who is weak on one leg.

In a previous article, I established solid single-leg strength standards based on my many years of experience working with junior, D1 and pro hockey players.

To recap, I consider split-squatting or lunging 1.5 times your body weight for five reps as "strong enough" for a field sport athlete. For example, an athlete weighing 180 pounds should be able to single-leg squat around 270 pounds for a set of 5 on each leg. Reaching this threshold of unilateral strength will put you ahead of the vast majority of your peers, regardless of the sport you play.

Why is being strong in unilateral movements important?

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In a previous article, I established solid single-leg strength standards based on my many years of experience working with junior, D1 and pro hockey players.

To recap, I consider split-squatting or lunging 1.5 times your body weight for five reps as "strong enough" for a field sport athlete. For example, an athlete weighing 180 pounds should be able to single-leg squat around 270 pounds for a set of 5 on each leg. Reaching this threshold of unilateral strength will put you ahead of the vast majority of your peers, regardless of the sport you play.

Why is being strong in unilateral movements important?

Obviously, we're not aiming to move hundreds of pounds on one leg just to garner a bunch of likes on Instagram or to be known as the next weight room superstar. We're interested in performance, and there are several reasons that being strong and powerful off of one leg is incredibly important for that.

Increased single-leg strength helps propel your body in space more efficiently. Specifically in the context of single-leg training, research exists demonstrating that maximal unilateral strength correlates with linear and change-of-direction speed. Dr. Matt Rhea, the High Performance Coordinator for Indiana Football, has also found that the muscle recruitment patterns present in unilateral movements tend to be much more akin to sprinting than the recruitment patterns present in bilateral equivalents.

Simply put, an athlete who is strong and powerful off one leg is likely to be faster, stronger, more explosive and more resilient than an athlete who is weak on one leg.

Now that we have some concrete weight room numbers to shoot for, let's address the next critical question:

How should you train to improve single-leg strength?

Any program focusing on maximal single-leg strength development should adhere to these three important training principles.

1. Small Tweaks Go a Long Way

I'm a huge believer in exercise variety.

Not because we're trying to "confuse the muscles" or some other such nonsense. Rather, we change things up to better target all the major and minor muscles of the hips and legs responsible for generating lots of strength, speed and power.

Bored athletes tend to plateau quickly. Excited, engaged athletes make continued progress. Changing exercises helps keep training fresh and interesting.

In our system, we rotate between five main Single-Leg Squat variations:

We're not talking about major changes here. The difference when changing exercises could be as simple as switching hand/foot position.

The training implement can also be a source of variety. For example, loading a Split Squat with dumbbells, a straight barbell, a trap bar, a safety squat bar or a U-bar can all produce slightly different results.

That said, for the sake of this article, I'm going to assume you don't have access to any speciality bars like a safety bar, trap bar or U-bar. No matter. Just some heavy dumbbells and a standard barbell along with weight plates can provide plenty of variety.

When it comes to the implement, I do prefer to start with dumbbells and stick with them for as long as possible.

In my gym, weak teenagers (beginner lifters) split squat and lunge holding a dumbbell in the so-called goblet position against their chest. Once the weight gets so heavy that holding it there becomes cumbersome, we progress them to two dumbbells held at their sides.

Only after we have maxed out all available dumbbells (and weight vests/chains), do we introduce barbells into the mix.

Why dumbbells before barbells? Because holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides keeps your center of gravity low. A barbell, on the other hand, shifts the center of gravity upward. This creates a more unstable environment where the likelihood of laterally shifting or losing your balance goes up.

I want my athletes to own any position or movement that involves external loading in a stable scenario before we progress to any sort of less stable scenario. Getting the balance part down is trickier on one leg than on bilateral Squats, so starting in a more stable position makes sense. A pair of dumbbells works better for this purpose than a standard barbell.

When someone eventually graduates from dumbbells to a barbell after a few months of training, I can be fairly confident they won't be missing lifts due to stability issues, because they've already got the balance thing down pat.

By the way, we never use a barbell on Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats. Placing a bar on your back while your back foot is fixed on a bench or padding encourages lumbar hyperextension. Lateral deviation is also almost impossible to correct at near-maximal loads, and you can't dump the barbell in case you miss.

Walking Lunges are also impractical when done with a bar. First, you will need a long and wide stretch of human- and equipment-free space. The standard length for an Olympic barbell is a bit over 7 feet. Account for a safety zone on both sides of the bar, and we're looking at about 15 feet of empty space around you—not something you'll find in a crowded gym.

In addition, walking the bar back to the rack and placing it on the J-hooks at the end of a set when your heart is beating through your chest and your legs have turned into Jell-O can get dicey. I'd rather save myself all that hassle and just stick to dumbbells.

Front-Foot-Elevated Split Squats are a bit of a mixed bag. Elevating the front foot on an aerobic stepper or a thick plate does add an extra layer of instability compared to placing both feet on the ground. For this reason, I don't feel comfortable going much above 220 pounds with the barbell version, and can't imagine loading guys up to 300-plus pounds like we do with a regular Barbell Split Squat or Reverse Lunge. Our strongest athletes stick strictly to dumbbells here.

With these pointers in mind, our exercise selection looks like this:

  • Dumbbell or Barbell: Split Squat, Reverse Lunge
  • Dumbbell Only: Front-Foot-Elevated Split Squat, Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat, Walking Lunge

How often should you switch up exercises? I have found that rotating a movement in and out every 2-4 weeks works well for the athletes I work with. That's enough time to drive desired adaptations, but not so long that guys burn out mentally or physically from doing the same movement over and over again.

2. Vary Reps and Time Under Tension

Now that we have our exercise selection squared away, let's talk about how to further modify your unilateral leg training through the manipulation of repetitions and lifting tempo.

Repetition Ranges

We can break down our repetition ranges into three main categories:

1-5 Reps: Heavy loads above 85% of 1RM used in a maximal strength phase.

6-12 Reps: Moderate loads around 70-85% of 1RM used in a higher volume phase focusing on a mixture of strength and size.

13-20+ Reps: Lighter loads at <70% of 1RM. Primarily aimed at improving muscular endurance.

Mind you, the above guidelines are not etched in stone. The quads do respond well to higher reps and a longer time under tension for muscle growth, so there's overlap between these categories. But for general illustration purposes, they work just fine. Let's not get bogged down in the minutiae.

One issue people run into when attempting to build single-leg strength is completely avoiding low-rep schemes (1-5 reps) for unilateral exercises. If you're always doing 10 reps per leg per set for every unilateral exercise, you're rarely exposing yourself to the type of heavy loads that drive neural adaptations and increase max strength (more on this later).

Changing up your rep schemes is an important part of building single-leg strength.

Most of the time, we perform unilateral squats in the 5-10 rep range, but in a heavy phase, we peak athletes with multiple sets of 1-3 reps. Sometimes, we crank out sets of 12-15 (or more) to build a bigger base through high-volume work. But training with moderate reps (5-10 per set) is our bread and butter.

Lifting Tempo

A problem I run into all the time with my stronger hockey players is that they max out the biggest dumbbells I have in my facility. Very few gyms carry anything above a pair of 110-pounders. That may sound like all one would ever need for single-leg work. However, within a year of consistent unilateral training, most of our older teens will be able to split squat or lunge over 220 pounds.

If you can't apply progressive overloading through ever-increasing external loads, what's the alternative?

You could just keep the resistance constant and bang out more reps with a given weight. That's certainly a viable method, and it does work. Still, sooner or later, pumping away for higher reps ceases to elicit the adaptations we're looking for. Once you can complete 12-15 reps with a weight you previously could do for a set of 5, we're no longer training in a rep range most conducive to rapid strength gains.

So, what's the solution?

Vary lifting tempo.

Whenever an athlete outgrows the largest dumbbells, we manipulate tempo to make things more challenging. Suddenly, they're forced to go from the 120-pounders back to 80-pounders, and we're again able to make systematic progress through weekly load increases.

We typically use 3-5 seconds on the eccentric (lowering part) and 1-3 seconds on the isometric (hold at the bottom). We always aim to perform the concentric portion of the movement fast, but by adding a longer eccentric and/or isometric, you instantly make the move more challenging by increasing the time under tension.

Here's Detroit Red Wings prospect Kasper Kotkansalo demonstrating a 3-2-1-0 tempo on Dumbbell Front-Foot-Elevated Split Squats:

You go down in 3 seconds, hold the bottom position for 2 seconds, then come up.

3. Lift Heavy Weights for Low Reps

Finally, we come to the third and perhaps the most neglected principle in single-leg training.

I alluded to this earlier, but it bears repeating. Too many gym-goers end up chasing the burn with moderate to high reps for unilateral exercises. Often, you will see training programs calling for sets of 10-plus reps on Lunges and Split Squats. This is fine for developing muscle stamina in the legs, but not for improvements in maximal strength.

Many trainees are forever stuck in a high-volume phase (e.g., 3x12 or 4x10) where adaptations are mostly muscular, not neural. Also, lifting in a very narrow rep range for months on end leads to plateaus.

If you were in a race to increase your Barbell Squat 1RM by 20 pounds in the next four weeks, 3x10 wouldn't cut it. You'd squat for several sets in the 1- to 3-rep range to drive up your 1RM strength. So why aren't we applying this same thought process to unilateral movements?

We know low-rep, heavy lifting produces big strength gains.

But finding dumbbells heavy enough to make just 1 to 3 reps challenging quickly becomes improbable once an athlete reaches a sufficient level of unilateral strength.

For this reason, when the prescribed reps are anything below five, we ditch the dumbbells and perform exclusively barbell-friendly unilateral movements. So coming back to our exercise selection outlined in point one, that means it's either a Barbell Split Squat or a Barbell Reverse Lunge when we're in a low-rep, max strength phase.

I have seen rapid improvements in single-leg strength numbers by alternating between phases of higher volume and higher intensity. We first build a foundation through moderately heavy weights and eccentric/isometric-emphasized tempo work that improves muscular strength, size and work capacity. Then, we strength peak athletes by decreasing volume but ratcheting up the weight on the bar.

This is a tried-and-true approach to getting stronger.

By bringing down the number of reps per set to 1-5 on occasion, you'll tap into greater progress which will translate to new personal bests in your training journal.

A Sample Program For Single-Leg Gains

Let's wrap up with a sample 16-week training program so you can see how everything we have covered so far fits together. This plan is based on our offseason template and it's guaranteed to produce large increases in unilateral squat strength.

Obviously, what follows is a big picture explanation of our training approach. The exact exercise selection depends on, among other factors, the training age of an athlete, their injury history, personal preferences, time availability, and the goals of the training phase they're currently in.. All of these factors would require deeper exploration far too nuanced to cover in a single article.

For the program to work as intended, you need to train legs at least twice a week. Lifting lower body only once per week won't deliver the gains you seek. An upper/lower split with four total weekly sessions or two full-body workouts per week where unilateral squatting is a priority fits the bill.

In our upper/lower system, we usually perform a unilateral knee-dominant movement (some type of Split Squat or Lunge) on both training days. These are done as assistance work after our main bilateral strength lift, which is either a barbell Squat or Deadlift movement.

You will see an example of how we program Single-Leg Squats below. Day 1 begins with a Barbell Back Squat, Front Squat, Box Squat or Pin Squat. Next, we superset some type of hip-dominant assistance exercise with a Split Squat or Lunge variation.

Day 1 Example

  • 1) Bilateral Squat variation
  • 2a) Hip-dominant assistance exercise (for example: Back Extension)
  • 2b) Split Squat or Lunge variation

On the second day, we perform a Trap Bar, Sumo or Block Deadlift as our first strength movement. A Split Squat or Lunge, again paired with a hip-dominant assistance exercise, will then follow.

Day 2 Example

  • 1) Bilateral Deadlift variation
  • 2a) Split Squat or Lunge variation
  • 2b) Hip-dominant assistance exercise (for example: Hip Thrust)

Obviously, our training session doesn't end after three strength movements. We do more work after the 2a/2b exercises, but that's not really relevant in this context.

As you read through the program below, keep this layout in mind. You'll slot each unilateral Squat variation into its corresponding place in the template (2a/2b) on each training day.

Note that in Phase 4, we treat Barbell Split Squats and Reverse Lunges in the 1-3 rep range as max strength work. That means they're done as a stand-alone exercise (instead of supersetting with a hip-dominant movement) with 3-4 minutes of rest between sets.

Phase 1

Day 1: Front-Foot Elevated DB Split Squat

  • Week 1: 3x8
  • Week 2: 3x10
  • Week 3: 4x10
  • Week 4: 4x12

Day 2: Front-Foot and Rear-Foot Elevated DB Split Squat (Tempo: 5-2-1-0)

  • Week 1: 3x6-8
  • Week 2: 3x6-8
  • Week 3: 4x6-8
  • Week 4: 4x6-8

Phase 2

Day 1: DB Reverse Lunge

  • Week 1: 3x5
  • Week 2: 3x5
  • Week 3: 4x5
  • Week 4: 4x5

Notes: Use a barbell if you run out of dumbbells and weight vests/chains.

Day 2: DB Walking Lunge

  • Week 1: 3x5
  • Week 2: 3x5
  • Week 3: 4x5
  • Week 4: 4x5

Phase 3

Day 1: Rear-Foot-Elevated DB Split Squat with Rack Hold (1.5 Reps)

  • Week 1: 3x10-12
  • Week 2: 3x10-12
  • Week 3: 4x10-12
  • Week 4: 4x10-12

Notes: Detailed exercise instructions here.

Day 2: DB Split Squat (Tempo: 3-2-1-0)

  • Week 1: 3x5
  • Week 2: 3x5
  • Week 3: 4x5
  • Week 4: 4x5

Phase 4

Day 1: Rear-Foot Elevated DB Split Squat

  • Week 1: 3x5
  • Week 2: 3x5
  • Week 3: 4x5
  • Week 4: 4x5

Day 2: Barbell Split Squat

  • Week 1: 3x3
  • Week 2: 4x2
  • Week 3: 4x1
  • Week 4: 5x1

Notes: Do these inside a power rack and use safety pins. The bar can be either in a Front or Back Squat position, whichever feels more comfortable. If the front rack position bothers your wrists, place the bar on your back.

Photo Credit: Zocha_K/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | LUNGE | DEADLIFT | BUILD MUSCLE | WORKOUT PLAN | BARBELL EXERCISES | DUMBBELL EXERCISES | UNILATERAL TRAINING