by Eric Cressey
Almost a decade ago, I was sitting on a panel at a strength and conditioning seminar during the audience Q&A session. One question that came up was:
“If you could only choose one exercise to do, what would it be?”
Everyone on the roundtable agreed that it was a pretty unrealistic question, but reluctantly, we each answered. In spite of my distaste for the question, I responded without hesitation: “Lunges – or any single-leg exercise, for that matter.”
In my eyes, single-leg work really is that valuable – and for a lot of reasons.
First, there is obviously going to be some direct carryover to the functional demands of life and athletics, as we spend most of our life on one foot in one capacity or another. Muscular recruitment patterns are different for bilateral (two-legged) and unilateral (one-legged) exercises, so in terms of specificity, single-leg work really can’t be beat.
Second, it’s much more lower-back friendly, as you can load single-leg exercises appreciably without axial loading (putting a bar on your spine). And, to take it a step further, it is easier to maintain neutral spine (and avoid lumbar flexion with compressive loading) with a split-stance – regardless of whether you axially load or hold the weights in the hands at one’s sides. Simply stated, while single-leg exercises will never (at least in my eyes) take the place of squatting and deadlifting, they are absolutely essential supplemental exercises for one’s training repertoire.
Third, in the case of back or hip pain, they’re hugely helpful in allowing one to maintain a training effect in spite of whatever pain is present.
Fourth, single-leg exercises are difficult. Let’s face it: most people exercise like pansies and pick the exercises they like the most, not the ones that they need the most – or the ones that are the hardest. Here’s a video of Cressey Performance athlete Tim Collins, who at 5-7, 170lbs is throwing 95mph and above in the big leagues with the Kansas City Royals – and single-leg strength surely has something to do with it.
These are just four reasons to include single-leg work in your programming, and frankly, there are many, many more that go beyond the scope of this article. Knowing that single-leg work is important isn’t enough, though, as it’s also important to realize how to progress these exercises. If you’re just starting out, I recommend beginning with body weight options. Three good options in this regard are step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, and reverse lunges. Once you’ve mastered body weight, you can load these drills with dumbbells at your sides, or use the goblet set-up.
Eventually, once you get comfortable with these options, you can look to progress things. One way to do this is to go to the aforementioned axial-loading approach; in other words, move the bar up to your shoulder girdle with either a front or back squat set-up.
Or, you can build up to doing combination single-leg exercises (trust me; this one will make you sore).
As you can see, single-leg drills can be used for heavier loading early in the training session if you’re a more advanced lifter, or they can be plugged in later on in the workout if you’re using them as assistance work. As a general rule of thumb, stick with sets of 4-12 reps, and as always, be sure to emphasize technique first and foremost.
If you’re looking for more direction on how to program single-leg work in a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, I’d encourage you to check out The High Performance Handbook, my new resource that is on sale at a great introductory price through the end of the week.
About the Author
Eric Cressey is the President of Cressey Performance, located near Boston, MA. An author, presenter, consultant, and powerlifter, Eric has worked with clients from youth sports to the professional and Olympic ranks, but is best known for his extensive work with baseball players; more than 80 professional players travel to Massachusetts to train with him each off-season.