What is the place of single leg movements in training?
Are they there as a safe alternative for squats, as a better way to go heavy? What about the fact that they are performed on one leg, while running is also on one leg? I can’t say that I have all the answers in this realm, at least not in the scope of a single article, in the sense of special physical preparation.
In this regard, I think that bilateral training definitely has a strong place in potentiation for the skills of speed, jumping and explosive sport movement, but how that training is carried out relative to the skill and readiness of the athlete is everything.
What I can tell you, is that when I am designing GPP programs for athletes, or general off-season programs for athletic enhancement, having a large battery of single and double stance, single-leg work is a key player in an effective program that will not only help to reduce an athletes chances of injury, but also help to restore movement variability, improve posture, trunk strength, rotational ability as well as allowing for a more in depth look at an athletes movement abilities with each lift.
I treat each weight-room session as a movement screen, and single leg movements, particularly those in a single leg stance, are a far better assessment of an athletes capabilities in movement versus the typical program that features most of the training volume revolving around a squat or deadlift maximal capability.
Today, we are going to talk about 7 single leg movements I enjoy using in GPP capacity, which means I use them in context of their ability to help athletes improve their triplanar movement ability and corresponding muscular recruitment, which are as follows:
- Extreme ISO Lunge
- Extreme ISO Straight Leg Hold
- Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat with KB Front Rack
- Single Leg Bench Squat with KB Front Rack
- Lateral Slideboard Squat
- Cross-Behind Lunge
- Inertial RFESS
In addition to be a great foci of GPP methods, they can also be good in context of warmup or auxiliary movements in more SPP focused training for particular sports. Alright, here we go!
1. Extreme ISO Lunge
The extreme ISO lunge has become a staple movement in my early programming. Not only does it lay a foundation in an athletes positioning and strength-endurance that can be utilized in later training phases, but done properly, it also helps an athlete to become far more neurologically efficient, as well as achieve better length-tension relationships in their muscles. This efficiency often leads athletes to quick high-performances, or even personal bests, in a short period of time, and is particularly effective for those athletes who have just been fed a steady diet of grindy, compensation inducing squats for months or years.
A great description of proper performance of the extreme ISO lunge is shown above. I will program athletes to hold these for 2-5 minutes total, one leg at a time, with enough breaks as they like. To me, the key is getting a maximal contraction in the right agonist-antagonist pairings, for each rep, and is more important than survival mode to hit a particular length of time.
2. Extreme ISO Straight Leg Hold
The extreme ISO straight leg hold works on the same idea as the ISO lunge, and is extremely straightforward and easy for athletes to understand. It offers a fantastic screen of an athlete’s functional and neurological capacity in hip flexion, as well as hip extension. This is a great lift for coaches of all levels to easily assess and correct basic functioning issues in a critical movement.
For those coaches interested in muscle patterning (which should probably be everyone, for the most part), this is an extremely simple way to see if an athlete is using the psoas in hip extension. Athletes who have poor core strength, and weak or a shut-down psoas will tend to not be able to lift their leg very high, and feel this “mostly in the quad”. Athletes who can lift their leg fairly high without cheating and bending the bottom leg will generally feel the lift largely in the crease of the hip and psoas region.
On a side note, I feel this is a nice movement to know that, yes, your psoas is firing, since the psoas manual muscle test is probably the easiest to “fail” athletes who are actually testing strong, due to the leverage advantage that the tester has.
3. Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat – KB Front Rack
The RFESS is a basic, functional lift that can be utilized not only for athletic balance, but also for the sake of replacing bilateral work as an option for athletes to get in heavy lower body training. For me, though, if I’m going to go for function, I’m going to take it the full-chatch, and throw a front-rack in for the way the athlete holds the weight. By putting kettlebells on one’s shoulders in an anterior position, you will activate the anterior trunk more, in conjunction with a single leg extension.
Look at any good sprinter, and what can they do? They have powerful unilateral hip extension, and strong, ripped abs. Adding weight in the front rack position keeps athletes truly honest, and is an amazing additive for GPP reasons.
In case of no kettlebells, a standard goblet squat hold can also do the trick.
4. Single Leg Bench Squat – Goblet or KB Front Rack
Along the same lines as the RFESS with a front rack, the single leg squat from a bench offers a true tri-planar challenge to the athlete performing the movement, since they must stability on a single leg in all planes, with a lot of force also running through the anterior core.
A goblet rack is shown above, but this can also be done with two kettlebells for more of a trunk-based challenge and integration
In terms of single leg, single stance movements, I’d take this well above the pistol squat, due to the amount of forward leaning most athletes use to get to the bottom of a pistol. Athletes who are very good at the extreme ISO straight leg hold may have a good chance to pull off a decent pistol, but athletically speaking, a good pistol is beyond the functional realm for most athletes to pull off with good posture.
5. Lateral Slideboard Squat
A new favorite of mine after attending “PRI Integration for Fitness and Movement” is the lateral slideboard squat. It’s not that I hadn’t seen the movement before, but the PRI instruction really helped me to see the finer points behind the movement that I hadn’t considered before, particularly integrating the adductor of the stance leg into hip extension. So often we look as the adductors simply as tight muscles to stretch out, or these things that are compensating for hamstrings and hip flexors, but the fact of the matter is that adductors are a massive synergist to any hip extension and flexion based movement, so it makes sense to train them as such. On top of this, we live in such as over-blown “knees out” squat world that it is important to bring some sense back into it all by utilizing some work that pairs adductors into the hip extension equation.
In performing this squat, it is imperative to keep the primary stance leg hip over the stance leg foot, and not let the hips travel to the middle as is often the case.
6. Cross-Behind Lunge
I love the cross-behind lunge because it strengthens and reinforces the rotational components of single leg work. Hip external, and particularly internal rotation are largely ignored by the majority of training folk. Many know this movement as a “Curtsy Lunge”, but if you have read “Thinking Fast and Slow”, we know that the things we name our exercises show up in how our athletes move. The word Curtsy has some fairly “sissy” connotations to it, so calling it “Cross-Behind” is probably a better idea in the grand scheme of things.
This isn’t a movement that demands heavy loading, but it can be done with basic weighted parameters.
7. Inertial RFESS
The last movement is likely the most intensive, but also one of the most dynamic due to the unique nature of inertial loading. That is the rear-foot elevated inertial split squat.
Inertial loading has advantages on traditional lifting in a more consistent muscular tension, ever-present need to micro-adjust one’s stance and position in context of the moving wheel, higher eccentric ratios of force, and more. Training with a flywheel device is more “alive” as athletes must react more to the ever-moving tension of the belt, and they don’t get to rest from this between repetitions to “reset”.
Research has confirmed these advantages in higher strength and size gain potential from this type of work, and for further reading I would recommend Carl Valle’s latest work on the topic.
What is very important to understand and use with inertial training is that for athletes, the training dosage should be quite low. In Just Fly Performance Podcast #5 with Chris Korfist, Chris holds that a couple of reps is often all you need. If you read Carl Valle’s article, those in the “athletic performance” camp are in need of the lowest volume of training here.
In this regard, the inertial RFESS is a perfect “finisher” to many workouts, and just one or two sets of the movement are a great place to start.
In the world of athletic development, there are a myriad of means and methods. When it comes to getting results, the art of integration is everything. A combination of unilateral and bilateral movements in context of athletic need is optimal, and utilizing the 7 movements above can help any athlete finish their general physical preparation in a place where they have better movement patterning and variability, ready to adapt to any challenge that lie next.
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