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3 Unusual Unilateral Leg Exercises to Improve Your Squat and Deadlift

They can help strength gains and avoid injury too.

Deadlifting makes you stronger. Squatting makes you stronger. Breaking personal records means you’re stronger. 

However, all this bilateral work can come at a cost of injury and strength imbalances. Some think of these as inevitable consequences of training, but if you’re smart about accessory exercises, the risk can be mitigated.

(It can also be mitigated with good programming, recovery, diet, sleep… there are a ton of factors for injury prevention, but smart accessory training is important as well.)

This is where single leg exercises come in. There are many benefits to single leg exercises to not just the squat but the deadlift as well. Here are three to think about:

Walking Lunge

1. Reduce Muscle Imbalances

Due to activities of daily living and bilateral barbell lifts, most people have a dominant and non-dominant side. This manifests in training when a lifter favors one side (usually whichever is dominant) over the other. Favoring can mean the dominant side bears more of the load during a lift or the non-dominant side compensates by bearing more of the weight instead.

Either way, if an imbalance is present, then it needs to be corrected. Hopefully you don’t have any kind of imbalance. But if you do, then it’s good you’re here.

2. Reduce Lifting Injuries

Strengthening your “weaker” side will reduce your injury risk by improving your technique. Don’t read “weaker” as non-dominant. Just because one side is dominant does not definitively mean that it is the stronger side.

Having either the dominant or non-dominant side compensate for the other leads to the imbalances that cause form to falter. (These imbalances are most obvious during 1-rep maxes — you’ll often see a lifter’s body lean to one side during a heavy squat.) It goes without say that when form falters the risk of injury surges, something these exercises can preemptively help avoid

double kettlebell
Shutterstock/Dusan Petkovic

3. Improve Muscle Recruitment

To put it simply, unilateral leg exercises recruit more muscles to perform the same movement, e.g. you have to work harder. An example of this kind of movement would be performing a split squat instead of a goblet squat. Using only one leg reduces the base of support, compelling the hip abductor and core to stabilize the pelvis while the working leg performs the movement.

Strengthening those muscles that support you in a single leg stance has legitimate, real world crossover. After all, much of everyday life is spent in a single leg stance (walking, taking the stairs, running, sprinting, changing direction, etc.)

So, even if lunges and split squats are not your favorites when going to train, think of them as vegetables; may not taste as great as dessert, but they are good for you.

Here are three exercises that fit the bill:

1. Single leg hip extension with hamstring curl

This exercise trains and strengthens the hamstrings both has hip extensors and knee flexors, which are the hamstrings major functions.  And because this is on a stability ball, your stabilization demands increase too.

Not only is this great for accessory exercise for your squat and deadlift but for runners also. The unstable ball mimics what you’ll encounter while road running.

Instructions

  1. Have one heel pressing (with toes pointing up) into the stability ball with the other knee bent.
  2. Perform a single leg hip extension and curl the ball towards you until your knee is bent at 90 degrees.
  3. Engage glutes and make sure your body is in a straight line from hips to shoulders.
  4. Slowly straighten the leg while keeping the glute engaged.
  5. Lower yourself to the ground and repeat for reps.

 Programming suggestions

This is a hamstring killer, so please make sure your hamstrings are ready for the challenge. Doing 2-3 sets of 6 reps on each side as an accessory exercise works well.

2. Kettlebell swap

If your foot collapses inward during the squat or deadlift, this can put excessive strain on your knees and make it harder to engage your glutes at lockout. This exercise challenges your single leg balance and strengthens your arch and ankles to put your lower body in better positions to squat and deadlift.

Instructions

  1. Hold a weight in your left hand and take your right foot off the ground and find your balance.
  2. Slowly pass the weight to the right hand while trying to maintain balance.
  3. Slowly pass it back to the left hand. That’s one rep
  4. Swap back and forth for 6 reps and repeat on the other side.

Programming suggestions

This exercise is also done with a dumbbell. If you’ve never done this before, start with a light weight of around 18-26 pounds. Use as a warmup exercise or pair it with a squat or deadlift for 6 reps on each side.

[Related: A World Record holder gives his 5 most important accessories for powerlifting]

3. Offset side lunge

The adductors are the forgotten muscle when it comes to hip mobility and strength. However, if they’re weak or tight they will definitely impact hip mobility which can affect your performance in the squat or deadlift.

Offset side lunge strengths the adductors on the working side while stretching them on the non-working side. It’s what you call a win-win.

Instructions

  1. Get the kettlebell or dumbbell into the rack position and stand tall.
  2. Take a big step to the side that you’re NOT holding the weight on.
  3. Aim your working glute at your heel until you feel an inner thigh stretch on the non-working leg.
  4. Push your foot through the floor and return to a standing position.
  5. Repeat for appropriate reps and repeat on the other side

Programming suggestions

This is best performed as an accessory exercise after your squats or deadlifts. There is no need to go crazy with the load. A 26-, 35- or 53-pound kettlebell will do.

Pairing this will a hip mobility exercise will show the adductors some love they deserve. For example,

1A. Offset side lunge: 8-12 reps each side

1B. Split stance adductor mobilization: 8 reps each side

Wrapping up

No one really likes taking their ‘medicine’ but when you do, you’ll like the results. Performing unilateral exercises is a must for strength and to avoid the Physical therapists table.

Because if you think lunges suck, just wait until a PT lays their hands on you.

Featured image via Jacob Lund/Shutterstock 

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