I get it, squatting all the weight feels cool, looks cool and gives you bragging rights to your fellow gym rats. It’s a huge accomplishment to be able to load that barbell with all the weight, push through what feels like stand-still speed and hit PRs (personal records). I’ve done it and still on occasion will do it, but if that’s all you’re doing for your squats, you’re missing a HUGE aspect of training. Let me explain.
In my opinion, unilateral (single leg) squats are exponentially more important than bilateral (two legs) in most training programs. The exception comes in for power lifters, olympic lifters and competitive CrossFit athletes, BUT all of these athletes need to incorporate single leg work on a regular basis as well. I promise when you do, you will see your numbers go up and injury go down!
- Correct Imbalances: First of all, they show potential weakness from one side to the other. When we squat with two legs, light or heavy weight, we typically push with our more dominant leg. It may not be noticeable, but it happens. If you continually do this, yes your bilateral numbers go up, but that imbalance increases risk for injury. By doing single leg work, you are required to use your non-dominant leg just as much as your dominant leg. Note: it’s important to do the intensity (load and reps) that your non-dominant side can handle for both legs.
- Enhance Mobility: Second of all, they reveal glaring mobility issues. A single leg squat requires good ankle, knee, hip and t-spine mobility. I’ve seen it too many times when an athlete that can squat the world with their weight lifting shoes and belt on, but when asked to do a single leg squat with no shoes and no weight, fail. Why, because they don’t have mobility (or stability) without all the crutches. By discovering these mobility issues you can then focus daily mobility work to improve.
- Improve Stability: Third of all, unilateral squat work enhances ankle, knee and hip stability. When you are forced to balance from one point as opposed to two, you must create stability or you will fall over. The most common mistake I see with regard to this is a collapsing knee. This can come from weak hip external rotators, weak VMO, weak hamstrings and/or poor mobility. Again, single leg work can be used for a tool to discover what specific weaknesses you need to personally work on.
- Results: Fourth of all, it makes you strong AF! Once you can identify and correct the issues listed above, your strength in bilateral and unilateral lifts will go up. Improved mobility, stability and symmetry enhances overall strength, power and athleticism. Single leg squats will help provide results for performance and aesthetic goals. With focus on single leg eccentric (downward phase) squats with focus on heavier loading, you pack on muscle quick. In other words, apple bottom jeans. Can I get a “hell yeah!”?
I recommend single leg work in every training session to some capacity. It may be working on the mobility and stability problems you discover in your warmup and cooldown. It may in the form of your main strength component or an auxiliary exercise. Until all the kinks are ironed out (mobility and stability) don’t load with heavy weight. I’d recommend at first to stick to 3 sets of 8-12 on each leg and as your execution improves, then you can play around with smaller reps and heavier weight to build that apple bottom booty!
Below are some of my favorite single leg squat and single leg squat(ish) exercises.
Bulgarian Split Squat (this is BY FAR my favorite single leg squat and oh man will your cheeks be sore if done correctly)
Step Up (my second favorite way to do single leg “squats”, steps ups are applicable to everyday life for most everyone… i.e.: climbing up stairs)
Single Leg Squat to a Box (this is demonstrated to a high box, ultimately you want to maintain solid position and lower to a box below parallel)
Single Leg Squat off Box (this is bit more advanced and a good tool to start working toward pistols if that is a goal of yours)