Single Leg Training

It is rare that a week passes without receiving questions about squatting. I am regularly asked about barbell squats, unilateral options, the potential of either, the differences between each, and what athletes really need. I also get my share of “how much can you squat” questions.

The reality though is that I’ve spent little time with barbell squats for the last 15+ years. I am certainly not against barbell squats, but it is an exercise that has little to do with my role as a trainer. I train fighters during the day so I’m often inside the ring holding mitts, outside running with them, and/or leading them through conditioning drills. As much as I may want to squat, it rarely makes sense as I need my legs to be fresh when I’m moving around the ring with one of the fighters.

I do however mix in a good share of unilateral leg training as I can get it in almost anywhere and I don’t need nearly as long to warm-up before performing challenging variations. Such variations do not involve as much weight (when compared to barbell squats), so the need to gradually warm-up towards max-effort loads is nonexistent.

Yet with that said, I had an itch to squat barbells a few months back. I wanted to mix them in without interfering with my coaching duties. I began squatting on Saturday mornings last fall at a time when I didn’t have any fighters with bouts lined up. After approximately 1 month, I was able to work up to 405 pounds. It was not a one rep max, as I didn’t feel comfortable enough with the movement to push myself to determine a true max.

Soon after, we began preparing for a bout in December (last year), so I eased off the squats as my Saturday mornings shifted back to training sessions for the fighters. It was fun while it lasted.

As for the relevance of this blog entry, I recently came across an article from Ben Bruno which addresses a similar topic. Ben is quite strong and performs a considerable amount of single leg training. In the article below, he shares the results of a test that he performed on himself. If you have any interest in single leg training, his work is certainly worth a look.

Single Leg Training Put To The Test


  1. Unfortunately despite working out for decades I’ve spent litte time with heavy barbell squats or deadlifts for that matter. Like most people who started lifting weights in the 70’s & 80’s I made the mistake of devoting way too much time on flat bench presses. While I was never what I would call a hardcore bodybuilder/weightlifter I was probably a “cross-fit” guy before cross-fit even existed way back in the Seventies. I always loved running whether in the form of long distance runs, short sprints on a track or field, or running hills or sand dunes. I would regularly put on combat boots(this is the Seventies so combat boots were still considered hardcore running footwear) and run this large sand dune hill a couple times a week. I would do repeats sprinting to the top and jogging backwards on the way down. Occasionally once in awhile I would throw in some relatively light barbell squats for 20-30 rep sets, but more or less my only leg workouts were running that sand dune hill for quite some time. Even though I have little experience with either the squat or deadlift, from what I’ve read both are probably the two best single lifts you could perform with the possible exception of the Olympic lifts. I think deadlifts are probably just as valuable as squats but they aren’t performed as much so the success stories with deadlifts aren’t as well written about as squats. Deadlifts like squats can be used for building, toning, increasing stamina, increasing metabolism, etc., hi-rep deadlifts in the 15-25 rep range can whip you into shape just like hi-rep squats. Two versions of the barbell squat are the front squat and the overhead squat. Personally as far as being used for athletic performance I think the overhead squat and front squat are far more valuable than the regular back squat. Think about it, the overhead squat works nearly the entire body, improves flexibility and balance, and really strengthens the lower back and core.

  2. I somewhat agree with you, squats arent the best for exposive strenght and endurance, single leg training is kinda the way to go in that regard, great article

  3. Having personally experimented with single leg work for some time, and having found a few single leg movements that I like and perform often, I would certainly agree that they are conducive to better barbell squats. (They are also conducive to better running power in my opinion.)

    My personal favourite single leg movements are (i) single leg “split stance squats” with rear foot elevated, and (ii) walking lunges with “big steps” (so as to take more load on the groin and glutes, and to take less load on the knee on each step).

    I also found that the single leg movements listed in the paragraph above helped me to build back strength after a knee injury some years ago. On that point, I would be very careful on the single leg movements selected for that kind of endeavour. I found the two movements listed above to be beneficial for that, however, there have been single leg movements that have not agreed with my post-injury physiology at all, such as Pistols.

  4. Ross,

    What are your favorite unilateral leg movements? Do you have any that you tend to prefer?

    I’m in the process of tinkering with my program and was just curious as to what you typically prefer.

  5. Jumping lunges aka jumping spit squats are excellent for putting your endurance to the test and are excellent functional exercise. Add a weight vest or hold a pair of dumbbells/kettlebells to increase resistance or to increase the difficulty of the exercise.

    1. I don’t really pay attention to my feet and where they are pointing. I just do what is comfortable.

  6. good of you to mention Ben Bruno, that guy is solid, if y’all dont know him check him out on T-nation and his you tube page

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *