It’s no secret getting strong is important to maximise performance, but there is some debate surrounding the use of unilateral exercises. Should unilateral exercises be at the core of the programming? Or should they just fill in the gaps for what squats and deadifts have missed?
Many successful strength programs have utilised single-leg squats and their variations as the main movement as opposed to using the standard squat or deadlift and their variants. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this approach! Whatever works for you or the athletes you train, right?
Like so many topics of interest in this industry there is no black and white answer that says “this is how it should be done!” However, for the majority of athletes, single-leg training SHOULD be used as an accessory to the main squatting and deadlifting movements. Furthermore, these single-leg movements prescribed after the heavy main movement should NOT be taken to failure or be super taxing. Think of it this way, after doing a few sets of heavy squats you’re going to be quite fatigued, thus, adding in high intensity, and/or high volume, single-leg work following that is going to eat in to your ability to recover and perform at your best come the next training session or competitive event.
How Single-Leg Exercises Should be Used
Prioritising quality of movement over the weight lifted is a much better approach to take rather than loading up as heavy as possible and struggling through a few reps with poor form. Additionally, training one or two variations for 3-6 weeks and then moving to another movement variation is going to allow for good variability within the program which forces the nervous system to adapt to subtle changes. If an athlete can perform a wide variety of movement patterns with high quality, they are going to be much more robust and injury resilient than the athlete who performs one movement with heavy weights.
Finally, as stated in the introduction, single-leg movements should be used as fillers for what you can’t achieve from the squat and deadlift variations. This means also training in other planes of movement rather than just in the sagittal plane (forwards and backwards). Training other planes of movement will have the benefit of improved injury resilience – especially for overuse injuries such as tendinopathy, enhanced body awareness, and increased movement specificity.
See the below example of how to implement some single-leg movements in to your training program, assuming you lift twice per week for lower body.
Back Squat to Box – 5×3
Romanian Deadlift – 3×8
Single-Leg Hip Thrust – 2×12
Half Kneeling Band Rotation – 3×10
Conventional Deadlift – 5×3
Front Squat – 3×6
Barbell Lateral Lunge – 2×10
Ab Wheel Rollout – 3×10
As you can see here, single-leg exercises are being used to complement the main movements of the training program. They do not take precedence but do fill in the missing links some of the big movements are unable to hit by training in different planes of movement.
The key takeaway – prioritise strength on the big compound bilateral lifts, such as squats, deadlifts, and their variations, then use single-leg movements to fill the holes. Then watch your performance skyrocket!
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