Leg Workout - Building Big Legs One at a Time
“You want big legs? You HAVE to squat.”
For decades, coaches, trainers, and fellow lifters have preached that the path to big, strong, and powerful legs is built by countless sets of heavy barbell back squats. While it is true, the barbell back squat is a truly righteous exercise, so much so that it’s often dubbed “the king of exercises.”
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Truth be told, single leg (unilateral) exercises have been dubbed as “accessory” lifts or often disregarded completely for the “more important” double leg moves like squats, deadlifts, or even the leg press. Well, we look to correct those misguided thoughts and teachings with this training program that will enhance your size, strength, power, and overall athleticism using only single leg training.
Now, let’s get a little deeper into the specific benefits of single leg training.
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Benefits of Single Leg Training
No amount of barbell squatting, deadlifting, or any other bilateral exercise will correct the strength and size imbalances each lifter carries in their body. Regardless of how strong you may be, one side always overcompensates or “helps a little more” during a lift than the other, weaker side.
Single limb training offers you the ability to specifically address you weaker, smaller side and bring it up to match your dominant side. In addition to boosting your strength, correcting these imbalances also serves to prevent future injuries that can occur as a result of gross, untreated imbalances between your two legs.
To go about correcting an imbalance, you can do one of two options:
- Train the weaker leg first and match the number of reps with the stronger leg.
- Train your stronger leg first and use brief rest-pauses with the weaker leg until you match the number of reps performed with the stronger leg.
However you go about matching sides, remember to perform the same number of repetitions on BOTH sides, lest you make the existing imbalance any worse.
Ideal for Those With Injuries
A common complaint among lifters who earned their wheels squatting with a barbell is that they have nagging knee and back aches. Single leg training is a perfect prescription for your knee and back woes.
It generally requires lighter loading (due to using only one leg at a time), yet enables you to really tax each leg without subjecting the spine to excessive loads. Additionally, single leg training also imparts less stress to your joints while applying more stress to your muscles, enabling you to beat the snot out of your quads, glutes, and hammies without wrecking your spine or knees.
Few activities in sports or real life are performed with both feet on the ground, outside of standing or maybe rowing. Typical “bread and butter” lifts like the squat or deadlift are performed in the sagittal plane. Performing all of your lifts in only one plane leads you to become stiff and rigid. Plus, you’ll also have a limited in your range of motion.
Athletes need to be able to move in all three planes of motion -- sagittal, transverse, and frontal. Single limb training allows you to move freely in multiple planes, postures, and positions, and strengthen your muscles in those planes, ultimately making you a better athlete.
More Muscles Worked
This may seem strange considering you’re removing one of your working legs, but it’s true single leg exercises work more muscles per leg than their bilateral counterparts. For instance, three more muscles are engaged during a single leg squat than when performing a back squat, due to the increased stabilization required to keep you upright and balanced with lifting the weight. More muscles worked leads to more muscle growth and power, it couldn’t be simpler.
Unilateral Leg Training Tips
The key to mastering single leg training, or any training for that matter, is to start off slow and steady. Select the most basic exercises and progress only after mastering (“extremely proficient and comfortable”) with the basics.
While this might seem obvious, far too many athletes looking to attempt unilateral training jump immediately into counterbalanced pistol squats before mastering a simple split stance squat. Attempting too complicated of a single leg exercise will either lead you to endless bouts of frustration or getting hurt.
Start with supported single-leg work (split stance squats, Bulgarian split squats, etc.) before advancing to unsupported single-leg work (pistols, shrimp squats, single leg deadlifts, etc.)
Rest Between Sides
Often times where athletes torpedo their performance with single leg exercises is immediately performing one side after the other. While this is great for getting your heart rate up and torching calories, it’s utterly terrible for your strength.
When performing single leg exercises, perform one side, then set the weights down, take a few deep breaths, then pick the weight up again and work the other side. This mini 15-30 second break between sides will enable you to lift the weights with more control and better form, making for more productive reps (and better gains).
In line with this pointer, don’t alternate sides when trying to build size and strength. Again, alternating sides is good for getting the heart rate up, but your focus here is on fatiguing one leg at a time. So, complete all reps on one leg, rest briefly, then complete all of your reps on the other leg.
Don’t be Afraid to Go Heavy!
Far too often, trainees make the mistake of equating single limb training with light weight, high rep training. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you’ve become proficient with a given single leg exercise, it’s time to add some serious weight and really focus on increasing your strength.
You need look no further than the Bulgarian split squat. It’s not uncommon for sports athletes to perform multiple sets of 5-6 reps holding 100lb dumbbells in each hand. And, once you’ve maxed out your dumbbell rack, several of these single leg moves (lunges, split squats, deadlifts) can be performed with trap bars or regular barbells.
Remember, to keep making gains, just like with the barbell back squat, it’s all about progressive overload. Once you’ve got the movement down, it’s time increase the weight, up the reps, and really tax those muscles.
Do Single Leg Training First
This pointer applies to the times when you’re training bilateral and unilateral exercises within the same workout. On the days involving single and double leg work, begin your sessions with the single leg exercises.
The reason being is that you’re fresh at the start of a workout. Performing single leg exercises at the end of your workout after you’ve already fatigued your muscles, stabilizers, and CNS can make it near impossible to maintain balance during single leg lifts or learn a new movement pattern due to the accumulated fatigue.
Single Leg Training Workout for Big Legs
|Deficit Reverse Lunges||3||8-10/leg|
|Single Leg Romanian Deadlift||3||8-10/leg|
|Single Leg Hip Thrusts||3||10-15/leg|
Hopefully this article has made you consider placing more emphasis on single-leg training and not relegating it to mere “accessory work.” Make no mistake, single leg training can be downright brutal when you attack it with the same intensity as you do the typical leg day. Give this routine a shot for the next 6 weeks and witness first hand the dramatic size and strength increases you’ll experience.
We never said to banish the back squat forever, but single leg training can (and should) have a place in your plan to grow massive wheels!