In Part 1 of the article I highlighted a handful of the many benefits of unilateral training, and why it can be beneficial to include it in your training program. In this second part I will discuss a few exercises including technique pointers and which ones to try first if you are new to unilateral training.
First, a general piece of advice that is applicable to all of these exercises. I encourage you to use a tempo and load that allows you to perform all the drills with excellent control. Do not prioritize speed or weight lifted over control – that defeats the purpose! Additionally, I always encourage these to be performed in either bare feet or minimalist footwear to help develop the muscles in your feet and ankles, along with improving their proprioception.
Secondly, the following exercises are listed in order of where to start if you are new to unilateral training. If you have ample experience you may be able to move right to some of the more challenging ones.
1) Split squat
The basic split squat, performed with both feet on a level surface, is a great starting point for your unilateral training. If you lack experience with this, I would suggest starting here. The primary reason I suggest starting with this is because both feet are on the floor at all times, minimizing the balance and stability demands – in other words, it lets you ease into it.
To perform the exercise, use a hip width stance with one leg in front of the other (a “split” stance). You want to use a stance that when you squat down you can touch your back knee to the floor while keeping your front foot completely flat on the floor, and your back straight and mostly upright. To clarify, you will be on the toes of the back leg, but the entire front foot needs to be flat on the floor. Additionally, you want your front knee positioned in line with and above your foot – if you stand with your feet too far apart, your knee will be behind your ankle, which is not as desirable.
2) Step up onto a box or bench
This is a great introduction to truly single leg training because it requires less balance than some of the more advanced drills, and it is also scalable both as far as range of motion and weight lifted. It is a great “next step” after getting proficient at the basic split squat above.
To perform the drill you’ll need a sturdy box or bench. Start with a height that allows you to perform the drill with confidence and good balance, and as you get better increase the height. Eventually a good goal is to have your knee joint be higher than your hip joint in the starting position.
When stepping up onto the bench, try to use the front leg (the one on the bench) as much as possible, and let the rear leg contribute as little as possible to the effort. This will probably be hard at first, and you’ll want to “spring” off the toes of your back foot to help propel you up. While this is normal at first, do not let yourself get into a habit of doing this! Stay disciplined and remember you are trying to train the front leg – make it do the work! Just like in the spilt squat drill the front foot needs to be flat on the bench and the knee needs to track the toes. Do your best to keep a strong core and tall posture – try to minimize “sway” in your torso as you move up and down, and be sure to not let your chest drop and shoulders cave in.
As a progression, first select a height you can do with good form but is somewhat challenging. As you get better at it, you can choose to either increase the height or add more weight. I generally prefer increasing range of motion over adding weight, since the priority is to get better at controlling your body. However, if you think adding two extra inches of height may be more than you can handle, try doing some extra weight at the same height for a couple weeks before then moving to a higher box. Eventually you want to use a box tall enough that your knee is at or above hip height in the starting position.
3) Traveling lunges
There are many different types of lunges, all of which have their time and place in training. From time to time we’ll do step-back lunges, step-forward lunges, sliding lunges on a furniture slider, and also do our lunges laterally. To keep things simple, let’s just go over traveling lunges, which is the version where you start at one end of the room and do your lunges across the floor towards the other side of the room.
There are a lot of similarities here to the basic split squat, but now we have the increased difficulty of balancing and stabilizing through both a gait pattern and landing. While the two exercises may look similar, make no mistake that these are significantly more demanding than the basic split squat, and should not be taken for granted.
Start by assuming tall posture and a hip width stance. Take a stride similar in length to where you do your split squats, and as you land take care to keep your knees tracking your toes, your front foot flat on the floor, and your posture tall. Dip down to allow your back knee to touch the floor without slouching or swaying your torso in any direction – your back should be nearly vertical at all times, and should be straight with a tight core throughout. Once your knee has gently touched the floor, stride right into your next lunge on the other side. For added difficulty, you can elect to pause and balance on one leg between each lunge, and bring the airborne knee up high to your chest. This version forces you to really own the movement and display solid control.
4) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS)
This exercise, more than just about anything else in my repertoire, is one that my trainees love to hate. The balance demands are fairly high, the range of motion is fairly big, and yet you can also lift heavy enough weights to make it all around miserable … in all the right ways.
For this one you’ll need a weight bench or something similar. Begin by standing with the backs of your legs touching the bench. Take a large step out (bigger than your normal stride) and get your front foot set in place. Next, put the foot of your rear leg up onto the bench in such a way that the TOP of the foot is on the bench, NOT the ball of your foot. From there, with one foot on the floor and one on the bench, perform the same split squat technique as in #1 above. The range of motion will be bigger than with the basic split squat, so expect a big stretch in the back leg. One technique point on this exercise is that there should always be a straight line from the knee of the rear leg, through the hips and through the shoulders. If the knee does not line up with the hip and shoulder, you probably need to adjust your distance from the bench.
Once you get the hang of these, they can be loaded very heavy and build amazing strength. An ambitious, but achievable, goal is to perform 3-5 reps per leg with half your bodyweight in each hand (or use a barbell equaling your bodyweight). Needless to say, you’ll need to take lots of time to build up to this, so don’t be in a rush and do something silly.
5) Single Leg Deadlift (SLDL)
The SLDL is a wonderful exercise to train the hip hinging motion while also including balance, stability and proprioception into the movement. The balance demands are greater on this exercise than any of the preceding ones, yet if you have enough experience and skill you can lift heavy weights with it. In fact, there are people out there who can SLDL over 300 lbs with textbook technique!
The exercise is usually initiated by starting fully upright with your feet together. The leg you are going to balance on should have a slight bend to the knee, and the other leg should be as straight as possible. While maintaining a neutral spine, you will hinge at the hip of the plant leg and reach your airborne leg behind you, trying to touch your heel to the wall. Continue to descend down until a) you lose your balance, b) you cannot maintain a neutral spine, or c) you reach a horizontal position with your airborne leg and torso. From there, drive through the plant leg, in particular by squeezing the glut, and return to the starting position.
A couple important points to consider on this are: 1) You should never let your spine move into flexion. This is a common problem when people are overly concerned about reaching down to a certain height, rather than the quality of the movement. 2) Your hips should be level at all times. When you are hinging, do not let the hip of the airborne leg twist up towards the sky. One good cue is to have the toe of the airborne leg point directly down to the floor at all times – if it starts pointing to the side you are probably twisting your hips.
This exercise can be performed with no weights at all, or you can load it up heavy as long as your have proper experience and good technique. If you choose to use weights, you can load it contralaterally (this is my favorite way, meaning if your left leg is your plant leg, then the weight will be in your right hand), you can load it ipsilaterally (I don’t use this often, but would be with your left leg being the plant leg and the weight being in your left hand), or you can use a pair of weights or barbell held in both hands.
OK, so there is a starting point for your unilateral training! There are many other exercises not discussed here, such as pistol squats, airborne lunges and others that many people use with great success. Based on your experience level, select an exercise to start with – either off this list, or choose a different one – and try to make some progress. As you gain experience, either keep progressing the exercise or add complexity/challenge by moving to a more advanced one. As with all of your training, take your time and don’t rush it – you should really feel like you “own” one movement before moving onto the next one. Enjoy!