Training Tips

7 Best Unilateral Exercises for Strong Legs

Reading Time: 5 minutes 31 seconds


Date: 2020-07-06T00:00:00-04:00

Many exercises work muscle on both sides of the body at the same time. These are called bilateral movements. A double bicep curl, bench press, and hip thrust are all examples of bilateral training exercises.

Other exercises are designed to work muscle on only one side of the body. This is referred to as a unilateral exercise. Why incorporate unilateral training in your lower body exercise program? Answering this question begins with understanding why good leg strength is so important.

Benefits of Building Leg Strength

Stronger muscle leads to stronger bones. This reduces clients' risk of fracture. Strength training has also been found to provide benefits for individuals diagnosed with diseases such as osteoporosis. A 2018 study reveals that both load and non-load exercises help increase bone density in these individuals.

Stronger legs also assist with agility and balance. This is helpful with older clients as the National Institute on Aging reports that balance disorders can increase their risk of falls.

For example, a 2013 study assessed 50 subjects ranging from 65 to 82 years of age. It found that engaging in 12 weeks of lower limb strength training led to significant improvements in participants' balance function.

For clients engaged in competitive sports, stronger legs can lead to improved speed. This enhanced physical performance helps them out-maneuver their opponents. In sports such as running or track, it can get them to the finish line quicker.

Bigger leg muscles also means a higher metabolism. The body needs more energy to support the additional muscle mass. This is helpful for clients who want to lose weight. What are some reasons to include lower body exercises designed to work one side of the body at a time?

Advantages of Incorporating Lower Limb Unilateral Movements

One of the main advantages of incorporating unilateral exercises in a client's workout program is, in addition to working muscle groups in the lower body, these movements also place more pressure on the core muscles. The abs and lower back must be more engaged in a single-leg exercise than in a bilateral exercise to help the body balance.

Unilateral movements can also be beneficial if the client has an imbalance between opposing sides of their body. This can create an asymmetrical weight shift, which is when one side carries a greater portion of the load in a specific position or movement. In sports, this can lead to injury.

For instance, a 2016 study indicates that imbalances in the hamstring or quadriceps can increase a soccer player's risk of hamstring strain. Strengthening the weakened side can help reduce these imbalances. This also reduces injury risk.

7 Effective Unilateral Exercises for Strong Legs

Which unilateral movements can help clients build stronger leg muscles and aid in reducing these imbalances? Here are seven to consider.

1. Single-leg Squats

One of the most common types of squat is a bilateral squat. This involves standing with legs hip-width apart and lowering the entire body as if you're going to sit in a chair. Balancing on just one leg while squatting is another option.

If the client has balance issues, they could perform a split squat instead. This single-leg move involves standing with one foot a few feet in front of the other while lowering the body into a squat position. This places more pressure on the leg muscles to perform, increasing their strength.

2. Single-leg Deadlift

The deadlift works a variety of muscles in the lower body. Among them are your glute muscles and lower back, as well as your quads and hamstrings.

To perform a single-leg deadlift, stand with your feet hip-width apart and lean forward, keeping one foot on the ground and lifting the other to hip height. Both legs are straight, resulting in the body forming a "T" shape.

3. Single-leg Curl

Another strength training exercise that can increase hamstring and glute strength is a single-leg curl. To perform it, you lie face down on the machine and, instead of using both legs to lift the curl bar, you only use one leg at a time. Do your right leg before switching to the left leg or vice versa.

If the client doesn't have access to a leg curl machine, this movement can also be performed while standing upright. Standing on the left leg, lift the right foot so the right knee is at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lift and lower the right foot to engage the quad and hamstring muscles. Follow up with the same movement on the other side.

4. Single-leg Press

The leg press is a great way to build overall leg strength. Suggesting that clients also do single-leg presses is one way to help them grow their muscles even more.

A single-leg press involves pushing the weighted platform with only one leg at a time. This forces the legs to work harder. Research suggests that, to get the most quadriceps muscle activation, the feet should be placed lower on the platform.

5. Single-leg Step-Up

Steps and stairs are great for building lower body strength. Adding this movement into a client's single-leg training regimen can benefit the legs and glutes.

Single-leg step-ups involve stepping up on a stair or bench with one leg at a time. The higher the step, the more this exercise works the muscles.

6. Forward Lunge

The forward lunge is perfect for a single-leg workout program because it automatically involves stepping forward and placing the weight of your body on the front leg. This engages both the quads and hamstrings in the lowering and rising movements.

When doing a forward lunge, it's important to keep the front knee from extending past 90 degrees. This helps reduce injury while providing a solid leg workout.

7. Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is like the forward lunge but, instead of stepping forward, you're stepping back. This provides different stresses on the leg muscles, resulting in a more comprehensive workout.

Again, when lowering your body to the ground in a reverse lunge position, the knee should not extend beyond the toes.

Tips for Safer Single-leg Training

It can take weeks to build unilateral strength. Helping clients avoid injury until their muscles can fully sustain more force is critical.

For example, if the client has tight hip flexors, this can affect their ability to perform some single-leg training exercises. Suggesting that they use a foam roller after strength training can help loosen these tissues.

If balance is a concern, clients can reduce injury risk by holding the back of a chair, bar, or countertop while performing the movements. This prevents falls by offering more stability. It also reduces the strength needed from the core muscles if they aren't yet strong enough to contribute to good balance.

Making These Unilateral Exercise Options Even Harder

Making changes to some of these exercises can provide a more intense workout for clients with a higher level of fitness.

For example, a Bulgarian split squat involves doing a regular split squat but placing the top of the back foot and resting it on a bench or the seat of a chair. The single-leg squat can also be made harder by doing a pistol squat. This squat requires the client to keep one leg fully extended out front while squatting toward the floor.

Adding weights can improve your bilateral training even more. Transform each bodyweight exercise into one that uses a load to increase lower body strength. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell while conducting the movements will increase this load.

Most gyms have a wide selection of weights available for this use. This enables you to select the ones that will increase the intensity of the exercise in an increment that is both safe and effective for your client. If your client works out at home, share tips for safe and effective single-leg training. This is especially important if you coach clients online.

The ISSA offers an Online Coaching Certification if you don't already offer this service but would like to. This course teaches you how to run a virtual coaching business, from attracting leads to closing the sale. It also shares how to bring on and assess new clients when you can't be there in person.

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