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How To Become A Wizard At Single Leg Training

Updated: Aug 14, 2023


When people talk about their least favourite exercises, there is a high probability they will mention a single leg movement.



The split squat is the most hated exercise there is after burpees and running.


Other single leg exercises like step ups and lunges of all kinds rank high on this list too.


Pistol squats are a single leg exercise so hated that I tend to avoid them for client's unless they want to do them.


Maybe the statement above should be amended to "the split squat is the most hated single leg exercise THAT MOST PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO DO?"


Some of the reasons people hate single leg exercises are based around something called self-determination theory. Self-determination theory is concerned with human motivation and psychological needs around 3 main topics, namely competency, autonomy, and relatedness.


To summarise it way too briefly, humans want to feel like they are good or able at something (competency), like they have a chosen to do something or are acting out of their own free will (autonomy), and to feel like they fit in when they do something (relaredness.)


Brutal single leg exercises threaten competency because many people have poor balance and many single leg exercises severely challenge balance.


It's difficult to feel you are doing exercises similar to lunges and split squats optimally, or in a way that looks impressive, especially in a busy gym. By the time fatigue sets in, people often feel like they are terrible at the exercise, even if their form looks fine to an outside observer.


Note for coaches: until a person feels like they are doing something competently, it doesn't matter what it looks like. Once they feel like they are doing it properly, and only then, do the feelings of competency shine through.


Because of how awfully tough single leg exercises are, people begin to doubt their own volition and decide they've made a grave error and had better cease immediately.


"CURSE MY FREE WILL!"


Single-leg work threatens relatedness because many people feel they look stupid and may get laughed or stared at by the people around them when they are performing single leg exercises.


Careful, all those incredible athletes at PureGym might look at you for wobbling a bit during rep 7!


Single-leg exercises tend to be tough, even performed with no more than bodyweight. They are really hard, and make everyone uncomfortable.


Single-leg exercises take twice as long to complete versus an exercise using both legs like squats, leg curls, or leg extensions, so are often seen as inconvenient. Because you are performing twice the reps, you will need more rest, upping the time further.


They hurt more, they take twice as long and are likely to challenge each pillar of self-determination.


This tends to make people try to rush through their single leg work, half-arse it, or avoid it entirely.


If people have to do 3 sets of split squats or another challenging single leg exercise, they'll often begin with their stronger side forward. Then without resting, will go onto the weaker side. By the end of set 1, these people are a burning ball of pain, wobbling, and extremely fatigued. .


You can do it better. You can have better form, with higher weights when you follow a few simple tricks (at least one of which I totally got from a Lyle McDonald article many years ago, unfortunately I have no idea which one, but you should read his blog, it's awesome.)


The Tricks To Being A Single-Leg Exercise Wizard


  1. Rest for 30-90 seconds between legs

  2. Start with the weaker side

  3. Take balance out of the equation

  4. Use machines


Resting between legs allows the supporting leg and everything else to recover enough to perform in an acceptable way when you move on to the second leg.

If you apply the "rest between legs" trick; fitness is less likely to be a reason for not getting through the prescribed reps, you're less likely to need to throw up during your session, or it will require more reps to make you feel like you are going to die. You're balance will be better, and you will be able to handle heavier weights.


A side note to unfit men- split squats of any kind tend to make people feel like shit very quickly. Start with 1-2 sets at low difficulty and build up slowly.


Why am I only addressing men here?


Because women are built different. You'll rarely if ever see a woman needing to throw up after single leg work assuming the amount they have to do is remotely sensible.


These changes will make people feel more competent. They'll doubt their decision-making a lot less, and they are less likely to feel as if they stick out.


Starting with the weaker side means you are more likely to perform with good technique, and feel less like a Wall-E.



When people "do" their weaker side second, their form tends to be worse, misjudgements about the correct weight to use are more common, and the exercise feels more sucky, threatening the 3 pillars of self-determination I've mentioned 9000 times in today's article.


As we said earlier, one of the main threats to feeling competency is balance. You can take balance out of the equation by supporting yourself by holding onto something supportive in one hand while holding the weight in your other hand.


The late, great John Meadows


You'll get at least the same benefits as the freestanding version. In many cases, because of the additional load, the supported version is at least as beneficial.


One of my favourite single leg exercises is the single leg press. It hammers the glutes and quads, you don't have to worry about the other leg doing a lot of the work, you don't have to worry about your grip going while holding dumbbells, and many gyms have a leg press. In fact, you can get them attached to your home squat rack.


People tend to progress fast with machine-based single leg work, it's often quicker and more convenient for busy people to smash out some machine-based sets as opposed to free weights. Form is still important but is often easier to correct on machines and it's easy to make most people feel competent while performing single leg work on machines.


My top 3 machine based leg exercises


  1. Single leg press

  2. Single leg curl

  3. Smith machine split-squat


There you have it. Single leg training will be easy, fun, and you'll never want to skip it again.


OK, you don't believe me, with good reason, but I promise this:


Apply the above tips and your single leg training quality will improve, and that should mean better results in the long run.


Sample Single Leg Work Progression To Be Added To Or Split Between Your Leg Days

Week 1

Single Leg Press 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty

Single Leg Curl 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty


Week 2

Single Leg Press 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty

Single Leg Curl 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty


Week 3

Single Leg Press 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty

Single Leg Curl 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty


Week 4

Supported Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty

Supported Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty


Week 5

Supported Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty

Supported Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty


Week 6

Supported Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty

Supported Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty


Week 7

Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty

Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at an easy to moderate difficulty


Week 8

Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty

Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a moderate difficulty


Week 9

Supported Bulgarian Split Squat 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty

Supported Single Leg Deadlift 1-2x 5-8 reps each side at a tough difficulty


After this, the single leg training world is your oyster. Cycle different single leg exercise, try different rep ranges, tempos and training methods and you are likely to enjoy many of the benefits of single-leg work.


If the progression above is too fast, adding in repeats of the easy and moderate weeks is recommended. Women will probably find the volume of the above progression too low and will likely get away with performing 2-3 sets of each exercise versus the 1-2 sets recommended above. I'd still recommend starting with 1-2 sets at first but you can quickly progress this if needed.


What does your single leg training look like?


Want coaching now? Here's our coaching application form HERE


By Chris Kershaw

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach





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