The Benefits of the Single-Leg Squat
These exercises are perfect for the outdoor athlete looking to get stronger and faster while staying injury-free
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The two-legged squat has long basked in the glory of strength-training fame. Endurance athletes incorporate it into their regular weight routine for its ability to engage nearly every muscle and build power and durability from the core to the legs. But according to Tim DiFrancesco, physical therapist at TD Athlete’s Edge, you can do better.
“In any outdoor sport, and even walking, you’re spending more time on just one leg,” he says. When you move, you’re hardly ever standing with two feet firmly planted, so relying on two-legged squats alone won’t optimize your outdoor performance.
Instead, says DiFrancesco, athletes should turn to single-leg squats, where you generate power one leg at a time, just like you do when trail running, cross-country skiing, cycling, or climbing. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, athletes who added single-leg squats to their regimens gained just as much strength and speed compared with athletes who added barbell back squats. But the single-leg variation also carries the benefit of mimicking real movements, so you’re training your body more directly for your sport.
You’re hardly ever standing with two feet firmly planted, so relying on two-legged squats alone won’t optimize your outdoor performance.
Another plus: single-leg moves are also generally safer—they require less technique and mobility. They’re also better at firing up smaller lateral muscles, which may help you avoid injuries that stem from imbalances. Lastly, single-leg work is more metabolically intense, so while it’ll take you twice as long to work both sides of the body, you're also getting a bigger, better burn.
This quick and dirty single-leg routine from DiFrancesco is tailor-made to help outdoor athletes build their base. Add the exercises to your existing workout two or three times per week.
Single-Leg Goblet Squat
What It Does: Works your stabilizing muscles. Lowering on one leg requires serious control and stability, so you’ll build lower body strength. It fires up smaller muscles to balance your body, which can help avoid injury. This series of variations allows you to slowly build up to the move and reap all its benefits.
How to Do It: Hold a 10-to-25-pound dumbbell, kettlebell, or rock, and stand facing away from a bench or chair. Raise your right foot off the ground, extending the leg out in front of you. Push your hips back, bend your knee, and keep your torso straight as you slowly lower your butt to the chair. Take about three to five seconds to lower. Once seated, return your right foot to the ground. Do eight to twelve reps on your left leg, then repeat on your right for one set. Complete three to five sets.
What It Does: Trains you to rotate and generate power from your hips while staying strong, stable, and balanced. Outdoor sports involve more than just forward and backward movement. You bound diagonally to miss a rut on a trail run, twist and reach to grab a jug, or rotate and hold an edge while carving downhill. Once you master the first variation, scale up with one of these progressions.
How to Do It: Stand on your right leg with your knee slightly bent and your left foot behind you, elevated slightly. Without changing the bend in your knee, push your hips back and lower your torso towards the floor, keeping your back straight. Lower your torso as far as you can and reach with your right hand toward the left side of your body. Reverse the move. That’s one rep. Do three to five reps, then repeat on your other leg for one set. Complete three to five sets.
Plyometric Single-Leg Hip Thrust
What It Does: Helps with explosiveness, so you can hammer harder. Whether you’re bounding uphill or cruising along the flats when skate skiing, power and athleticism comes from your hips. Plus, strong hips mean stabler, more efficient movement, which is a good way to protect yourself from overuse injuries. Start with the most basic option and gradually work your way up.
How to Do It: Lie on the ground or on a bench with your back and feet flat and your knees bent. Lift your right foot off the ground, knee bent 90 degrees. Your weight should be on your back and left foot. Explosively raise your hips so your shoulders, hips, and knee are in line. Your left foot may raise from the ground slightly. Return to start. Do eight to twelve reps on your left leg, then switch legs to complete one set. Do three to five sets.