I’ll be the first to admit it: I hate single leg exercises. Lunges, split squats, step-ups, they’re all torture as far as I’m concerned. But I hate them a lot less – and value them a lot more – after a year-plus of working at Cressey Sports Performance and understanding their importance in any training program.
In fact, by simply adding a few sets of single leg work into my workouts, I’ve significantly reduced the hip discomfort that used to plague me after heavy squats and deadlifts. Much like 1-arm rowing and pressing does for the shoulders, getting the hips to work independently works wonders for mobility and longevity in the iron game.
Single leg work poses a big problem, however, if you’re training for hypertrophy. If you just want to grow your wheels as big as humanly possible, the logistics of trying to balance on one leg while using moderate-to-heavy loads and focusing on muscular tension can be a literal and figurative pain in the ass. It’s pretty hard to focus on your quad contracting if you’re falling on your face.
This installment of Right Link/Wrong Link explains a few simple tweaks you can use to dramatically improve your ability to add muscle to your legs using single leg exercises.
WRONG LINK: THE BALANCE COMPONENT
If you’re an athlete and you want to train hip stability and balance, then by all means pick the most challenging single leg variations you can find. But if you want to blow out the legs in your jeans, the balance component fails the Right Link/Wrong Link test: you’re making the exercise hard for the wrong reason.
Our athletes display some impressive feats of single leg strength at CSP, which has tremendous athletic carryover, but I’d argue that there are more efficient ways to add size to your legs.
For most single leg exercises, your technique will break down before your target muscles reach concentric failure. This is a problem, because we know approaching muscular failure is key for muscle growth. We need to adjust some aspect of the exercise to shift the difficulty from the balance component to the contraction of the target muscle(s).
RIGHT LINK: USE HAND SUPPORT
I’ve had success with myself and clients by simply using hand support to remove the balance component of single leg exercises. Holding onto a power rack with one or both hands is my favorite way to do this.
Bulgarian Split Squat with Rack Support
I love to hate Bulgarian split squats and they blow up the quads better than just about any exercise. I stole this variation from John Meadows and it takes the exercise from a flailing balancing act to a direct leg destroyer.
Safety Bar Split Squat with Rack Support
And if you’re lucky enough to have a safety squat bar, you can load split squats nice and heavy without crushing your back toe or losing your balance. The hand-supported split squat has quickly become one of my favorite single leg exercises for hypertrophy.
WRONG LINK: YOU CAN’T LOAD THEM HEAVY ENOUGH
There are two primary ways to make a muscle grow: mechanical stress (i.e. heavy weights) and metabolic stress (i.e. the “pump”). It’s pretty hard to get either of these with single leg exercises, but it’s especially challenging to use heavy loads on one leg at a time. There’s often a fine line between what’s useable (and too light) and what makes your form go to crap.
RIGHT LINK: OVERLOAD THE ECCENTRIC PHASE
One of my favorite tricks is to take advantage of the eccentric component (i.e. the “lowering” phase) of the exercise. We’re stronger during the eccentric portion than the concentric, so by lifting with two legs and lowering with one, we can overload one leg at a time.
This is most easily done on machines with exercises like leg extensions and leg curls. Lift with two legs, lower down with one for concentrated one-leg misery. But if you don’t have access to machines (or you’re worried the functional police will catch you), here are a few other options:
Slideboard Leg Curl with 1-leg Eccentric
I snagged this one from Kevin Neeld at Endeavor Sports Performance. Slideboard leg curls are often too easy to load in a hypertrophy rep range (i.e. it’s hard to make the muscle “fail” between 8-12 reps), but it’s also tough to keep good form on one leg at a time. The solution? Curl with both legs, lower with one. (Pro tip: If you don’t have a slideboard, try these on a stability ball).
Barbell Romanian Deadlift with 1-leg Eccentric
This next one I stole from Ben Bruno, whose exercise creativity is unmatched. Single-leg RDLs smoke the glutes and hamstrings, and by lifting with both legs and lowering with one, you can use way more weight than normal.
The options are endless, and if you don’t have access to machines, these are a few of your best bets.
SMARTER TRAINING, BIGGER LEGS
Single leg exercises may never be fun, but they have a place in any training program, whether you want to squat 500 pounds, run faster or grow massive quads. The catch, however, is adjusting your exercise technique based on your goal. If your objective is bigger legs, removing the balance component and overloading the eccentric portion can negate many of the drawbacks of single leg movements.