Growing a stronger lower body requires patience, consistency, and variety. Popular heavy compound lifts are great for developing full-body strength, but every now and again you have to throw in new techniques or exercises to place a different challenge on your muscles, especially if they're large muscle groups. Your legs are made up of some small, but mostly, large muscle groups, which includes the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. If you want to strengthen and build muscle in your lower body then you need to do more than just heavy squats and deadlifts. Incorporating single-leg exercises, also known as unilateral exercises, is a great way to zone in on the entire muscle group you're targeting.
What are single-leg exercises?
It refers to a lower body exercise that involves using only one leg, meaning one side of your body is doing all of the work. Single-leg work helps to place a challenge not only on your legs, but also your balance and stability. Aside from helping you build stronger legs and better balance, isolating one side of the body can help identify and fix any muscle imbalances. This refers to imbalances of strength which can result after repeatedly favoring one side of the body or by even doing heavy compound exercises without good exercise form. By placing the focus on one side of the body at a time you're basically forcing each leg to do the work without relying on the other for help, thus not giving the other side the chance to take over.
So, if you want to continue hitting strides on your fitness journey you should start incorporating single-leg training! It will help challenge your balance and stability, increase your core strength, help improve your overall athletic performance, and help you build stronger legs. So, ready to find out what the best single-leg exercises are? We have 8 exercises to share with you, along with tips on how to do them with good form and technique! And word of warning, these exercises require a good amount of core strength, balance, and stability, so if you're completely new to them then start with your body weight and slowly begin to increase the resistance. Now, let's get started!
Bench supported single-leg deadlift
The single-leg deadlift, similar to a traditional deadlift, involves a hip-hinge movement that requires one leg to lift off the ground and extend out behind you. This makes an ordinary deadlift more complex by placing a greater emphasis on the leg being worked while also challenging your core and balance. The thing is, this exercise is quite difficult, but if you want to challenge yourself and improve your leg strength then start slowly incorporating by trying this bench supported single-leg deadlift!
Here's how to do it: Face forward with the bench behind you and set one bent leg on the bench with your working leg facing forward up against it. Make sure that hips are squared, core is engaged, and your shins are verticle. Using a dumbbell or kettlebell, hinge back at the hips and lower the weight to the ground. Move slowly to feel the stretch in your hamstrings and glutes asyou return to the starting position. Repeat for 8-12 reps and repeat on the opposite leg.
Beginner's tip: If you still find yourself struggling to find good balance, consider scaling back and practicing staggered stance Romanian deadlifts. The movement pattern is slightly different because it involves holding a staggered stance instead of placing the full support on the working leg. Once you nail this exercise, move to the bench-supported variation.
Bulgarian split squats
If you want to build muscles in your quads, glutes, and pretty much your entire lower body then start implementing Bulgarian split squats into your training program! Similar to lunges and split squats, this exercise helps to challenge your balance, stability, and single-leg strength... But it involves having your rear foot elevated thus increasing the difficulty and improving muscle recruitment (especially in the quads).
Here's how to do it: Put a barbell on your upper back and hold the sides with your arms, or hold two dumbbells at your sides. Get into a split squat position with your back foot on top of the bench, making sure to place it approximately hip-distance apart from your front foot. Keep your back upright as you begin to lower your hips toward the floor until the rear knee comes close to the floor. Pause and drive through your front heel to return to the starting position. Repeat for 10-12 reps and repeat on the opposite leg.
Beginners tip: This exercise can be difficult on your lower back, so take time to find a good foot position. When you place your feet on the bench behind you, you may need to hop the front foot around a little to help you find a position that feels best. Do a few practice reps with different foot placements to make sure you're set up properly. The great thing about this exercise is that you can easily do it using only your body weight, so start by practicing the movement only using your body and then work your way up to free weights.
We all know squats are one of the most popular compound exercises, but if you want to really fire up your leg workout to maximize your gains start practicing pistol squats. Also known as a single-leg squat, this exercise places a greater tension on the working leg without adding any free weights because the amount of weight on one of your legs nearly doubles when you're not relying on the other leg for support. The increased tension and stress placed on your leg muscles leads to better muscle growth while increasing unilateral strength, core strength, and balance and coordination.
Here's how to do it: Start by standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Extend one leg in front of you, stand upright with your chest and head high, shoulders pulled back and down, and engage your core. With a slight bend on your knee, begin to hinge forward at the hips to lower into a squat keeping your back straight and torso upright. To help you balance, hold your arms straight out in front of you. Try to move through the full range of motion, meaning your butt should be close to your heels. Keep your muscles tight and engaged, push through your heels to stand back up to the starting position. Start by doing 3-5 reps on each leg, and increase the reps as you make progress.
Beginner's tip: Weighted or not, this exercise is highly advanced and difficult. To practice, perform the movement by slowly lowering down to a bench or chair. This will help you get more comfortable with the movement and build better balance and stability. You can also attach a TRX or long resistance band to a high door hook (or squat rack) and hold on to the handles as you lower yourself down.
We already spoke briefly about this exercise above, but we want to give you more details on why you should start doing it on your leg days. Aside from helping you build stability, it also helps build flexibility and strength in the hips, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
Here's how to do it: Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell with an overhand grip in your right hand and let it hang at arm’s length in front of your thigh. Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor behind you. This is the starting position. Keeping your lower back arched naturally, hinge at your hips and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let your left leg stretch out behind you with your toes pointed down to the floor the entire time. The weight should travel straight down toward the floor in your right hand. Hold your left arm out to the side for balance. Return to the starting position without letting the toes of your left foot touch the floor. Repeat for 8-12 reps and repeat on the opposite leg.
Beginner's tip: Master staggered stance RDLs, and try the bench supported single-leg deadlift before trying this exercise! This exercise is similar to a pistol squat, in that your leg is lifted off the floor so it requires a lot of balance and coordination. Perform those two variations, and then attempt a bodyweight single-leg RDL with a chair or bench in front of you in case you need support.
Single-leg feet elevated glute bridge
Glute bridges and hip thrusts are both popular for their ability to target and maximize growth in the glutes. But this variation helps to isolate each glute while challenging your balance! So, if one of your main goals is to grow bigger and stronger glutes then start adding this exercise into your routine – and don't forget to do glute activation exercises with UPPPER Resistance Bands during your warm-up to really fire up and activate your glutes 😉
Here's how to do it: Lie on the floor with your heels propped up on a bench or box, or use a stability ball for an extra challenge! Keep one leg on the other box and bent at a 90-degree angle, and lift the other leg in the air. Engage your core and glutes as you drive your glutes up toward the ceiling, driving through your heel. Squeeze your glutes as you pause at the top of the movement. Then lower until you're just off the ground. Repeat for 10-15 reps and repeat on the opposite leg.
Beginner's tip: Compared to the other exercises on this list, this one is rather beginner-friendly. Start by using your own body weight, and once you're able to do 10 reps with proper form feel free to add a dumbbell to increase the intensity.
Single-leg stability ball leg curl
If you're quad-dominant and want to start building better strength in your hamstrings to fix muscle imbalances, then implement single-leg stability ball leg curls. This exercise helps increase strength and stability in your hamstrings, glutes, and even lower back.
Here's how to do it: Lie on your back and place your hands out to the side, palms facing down and stability ball facing your legs. Put one leg straight on top of the stability ball on your lower calf. Bring the other leg toward you and up in the air. Using the leg on the stability ball, lift your hips off the floor as you simultaneous curl the ball toward your butt slowly and in control. Once the ball is close to your butt, slowly extend your leg back to the starting position. Peform 10-15 reps on each leg.
Beginner's tip: This exercise doesn't require weight, but if you find it to be too challenging start by doing single-leg hamstring curls at the gym! Using a hamstring curl machine at the gym, but instead of using both legs to curl the bar up, use one. This will help you build single-leg strength before attempting to add a stability challenge.
Single-leg step up
Step-ups are an underrated and underused leg exercise! The movement pattern allows you to produce force while balancing on one leg targeting mainly your glutes and quadriceps.
Here's how to do it: Stand 6 inches in front of a bench, or raised platform. Step onto the bench with your right leg, while making sure your foot is flat against the bench. Lean forward slightly and push yourself upwards through the heel of your right foot, so your left leg can come up to the bench. Step down with the right leg under control. Perform for 10-15 reps on each leg.
Beginner's tip: Start by only using your own body weight and a lower step. Using a 6-8 inch step will make the move slightly easier, and once you adjust to the movement you can increase the height until it is at the level where your thigh is parallel to the ground when your foot is on the step. You can also hold dumbells at each side or a kettlebell in front of your chest to increase the intensity!
Single-leg calf raises
Don't neglect to train your calves!! Strong calves are essential for propelling you forward and up when you're running or jumping, so at the end of your leg workout, throw in one or two calf exercises to make sure you're building strength in the calf muscles as well. To help build strength effectively and fix muscle imbalances, do single-calf raises to help isolate your calf muscle.
Here's how to do it: Stand on top of a box or bench with your heels off the edge while keeping the balls of your feet on the box. Lift one foot off the box, and with your working leg begin to raise your heels and push of the ball of your foot slowly and in control, flexing your calf. Once you're at the top, begin to slowly lower back to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times on each leg.
Beginner's tip: Place the box or bench close to a wall so you can gently place your hand there to help you balance. Once you're comfortable with the movement, hold two dumbbells at your sides to increase the intensity!
In summary, if you want to make progress on your strength training journey start incorporating single-leg work into your routine! Upper body unilateral exercises tend to be easier, but single-leg exercises are not impossible to do... All it takes is practice and consistency! So, start practicing these exercises on your leg day to start driving better lower body results, full-body strength, and better balance, stability, and coordination.