In my previous article, I talked about the importance of single leg training and how it can reduce spinal compression, increase stabilizer activity, hit the glutes, tax the adductors, and hammer the core.
Having absorbed all that, you should already be convinced that single leg training should be an integral part of your programming. Nonetheless, I feel the need to break single leg movements down a little further so you can maximize their effectiveness in your workouts.
Unilateral movements can be further divided into two categories called knee-dominant and hip-dominant lifts. Knee-dominant lifts typically involve the quads to a greater degree and transfer well to the stability needs for squatting. All of the exercises in my previous article are examples of these.
On the other hand, hip-dominant movements tend to focus primarily on the glutes and hamstrings, and the strength and stability gains from these exercises transfer directly to the deadlift. As I’m sure you know, deadlifting is a must for anyone who is really serious about putting on size, and single leg variations are a step in the right direction if you want to blow your deadlift numbers through the roof. Moreover, unilateral hip-dominant work can assist with sprinting speed as this activity requires repetitive single leg hip extension.
Although less sexy, these movements can also iron out side-to-side strength imbalances that can lead to back pain and sideline your training for months. If you’re training exclusively on two legs, the dominant side will always compensate for the weak side, and the problem may only get worse.
Hip-Dominant Single Leg Progressions
Single-leg Hip Thrust
This movement, borrowed from my good friend Bret Contreras, is great for activating the glutes, which are major players when it comes to deadlifts and any other posterior chain movement. To perform this movement, set up two benches such that your upper back rests on one and your foot on the other. Allow your hips to lower between the two benches and then forcefully contract the glutes to drive your hips upwards. Only go up as far as the glutes will take you, and make sure not to hyperextend the lower back at the top of the movement to compensate for tight hip flexors.
Because two of the hamstring muscles (the semitendinosis and semimembranosis, for you anatomy geeks) cross the knee joint, the bent leg position puts the hamstrings in a slack position and forces the glutes to take the brunt of the load. To really emphasize the glutes, focus on pushing out through the heel to engage the quads in the movement, which will force the hamstrings to relax further.
Since most people’s hamstrings overpower their glutes, minimizing their contribution to the movement will help to bring the glutes up to speed. The elevated position on the benches allows for more range of motion and magnifies the effectiveness.
You should note that you may get some stares when performing this exercise at the gym because it does look a bit strange…either that or you should consider not going commando when you’re wearing shorts to the gym! Not everyone wants to see your junk.
Single-leg Overhead Band Deadlift
This is an exercise I’ve modified slightly from a movement I picked up from Dr. Stuart McGill. To execute it, stand on a resistance band with one foot and press it overhead as though you’re performing a shoulder press. From this position, bend forward at the hip allowing the foot on the band to come straight out behind you while maintaining the position of the arms overhead. The knee on the planted leg should be only slightly bent to ensure some glute involvement in the exercise.
Holding the band overhead helps to prevent a rounded thoracic spine (which is a common postural problem for those who slouch at a computer all day) and pushing the leg into the band behind the body teaches the proper leg position for later progressions. As an additional point, make sure that the toes on the trailing leg are pointing downward and that the hips are square.
Be warned that this movement looks a lot easier than it really is, and you’ll battle at first to avoid being pulled into flexion or extension by the band. Keeping the core tight to prevent movement at the spine and only allowing movement at the hip is the key to success with this exercise.
If you don’t have a band, you can mimic the movement by holding a stick or broom handle overhead. Although it isn’t exactly the same thing, it serves the same purpose.
Single-leg Good Morning
Generally speaking, almost every good morning I’ve seen performed at the gym has been a total train wreck. Most people round their back so much that it looks like they’re bending over to tie their shoe instead of performing an exercise. Don’t be one of those people.
To properly execute the single-leg good morning, start with a conservative weight (probably just a bar) and place it across your shoulders as though you were setting up for a squat. I typically recommend a low bar position for this because you don’t want the bar creeping up onto your cervical vertebrae while you perform the exercise. Pull the bar downward into your traps to prevent rolling, and bend at the hips as though you were performing the previous exercise with one leg rising straight out behind you. Again, make sure that the hips are square and that the toes on the trailing leg are pointing straight downward. Contract the glutes on the planted leg to come back up to the starting position.
I like this exercise because it reinforces the movement pattern learned above, and because the bar is relatively far from the fulcrum at the hip, only a moderate amount of weight is needed to get the benefit. This is great for learning the movement and also for de-loading the body after a period of heavy lifting but maintaining some muscle mass. Additionally, having the bar on the shoulders causes the thoracic spine to remain tall and straight in order to prevent it from rolling onto your neck. You’ll either maintain good posture or dump the bar over your head and look like an idiot.
Moreover, if you do bend your spine, you’ll rob the glutes and hamstrings of the training effect. As an extra bonus, you’ll also load the low back under flexion (which, as you might guess, isn’t a bright idea). It is also a good idea to start with your weaker leg and match the number of repetitions on the stronger side to iron out strength imbalances.
Single-leg Romanian Deadlift from a Box
This is possibly my favorite hip-dominant single leg exercise. While the earlier versions tend to limit the weight used, this exercise allows you to really load up the weight and hammer the posterior chain. Truthfully, I like the idea behind the normal single-legged deadlift, but pulling from the box allows the lifter to regain balance between reps and use more weight. It also takes away the bounce at the bottom of the conventional version and forces the lifter to contract the glutes harder in order to stand back up. I have to credit Gray Cook with this exercise, which has now been a mainstay in my training arsenal for the last three years.
To perform this movement, you’ll need to place two dumbbells on a low box (about 8″) or aerobic step. From here, you’ll bend forward at the hip bringing one leg straight out behind you in line with your body. (It helps to think of a broomstick running from the foot to the back or your head all the way to the ankle.)
From this position, grasp the dumbbells and position your body as though you’re going to perform a conventional deadlift while balanced on one leg. Stand up by strongly contracting the glutes. To return the start position, drive the hips back as you lower the dumbbells to avoid falling forward. Make sure the dumbbells come to a complete stop on the box between reps.
The trailing leg and the body should move as one unit. Personally, I like to think of those drinking bird toys that you can attach to the side of a glass. Balance will be difficult at first, but over the course of a few weeks this movement should become much easier and your weights should increase dramatically.
At this point, you’ll be able to offset the load so that you can hold a dumbbell only in the hand opposite to the planted leg in order to hit the core and control the rotational forces at the same time.
By performing hip-dominant single leg training, you’ll not only eliminate the staleness of an old routine, but you’ll challenge the core to an incredible extent, correct muscle imbalances, and attack muscles in a different way than bilateral training offers.
The next time you’re in the gym on a leg day, try getting on one leg for a change. The pleasure (read: pain) you’ll experience the next morning will be incredible and the results will be just as good.
Written by Mark Young
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Unilateral Hypertrophy – Killing it One Leg at a Time: Part 2 discussion thread
About Mark Young
Mark Young is an exercise and nutrition consultant from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
In 2000 Mark completed a degree in Kinesiology and a minor in Psychology from McMaster University. He later followed that with graduate research in both biomechanics and exercise physiology under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Phillips.
Rather than blathering on any further about his credentials and clientele, he would prefer you check out his website at www.markyoungtrainingsystems.com and check out the content for yourself.