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5 Lower Body Unilateral Exercises to Explode Your Strength and Destroy Weaknesses

Make unilateral exercises a bigger part of your training.

Lower Body Unilateral Exercises will improve your mobility, strength and uncover and fix major imbalances in your body and movement. 

One of the best ways to overcome a plateau in traditional bilateral movements like the squat, strict press, or bench press is to incorporate more lower body unilateral exercises. When you use both arms or legs, it is easy for your body to naturally compensate for your weaker side. But by training each side individually, you not only get more from your lifts, but also gain a higher quality of movement by evening out imbalances and reducing your risk of injury.

Unilateral movements also allow you to strengthen your body throughout a bigger range of motion.

Think of a strict press with a barbell, where you can only move in one plane, vs. a single-arm dumbbell Arnold Press, where you can rotate your arm throughout the entire range of motion as you press up. This rotation allows you to access a whole new range of strength, which you can then apply to any type of press you perform.

Lastly, I believe unilateral training often gets overlooked as a very powerful training tool for strength work and body composition training. When we training unilaterally we often will end up doing double the work as it will be a requirement to train both sides of the body in equal repetitions. This often means more time under tension throughout the training session since R + L as separate exercises adds up to more than doing them together in bilateral movements. Think 8 Split Squats/leg = 16 vs 8 bilateral squats.

Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

Therefore, unilateral lower body exercises contribute to any good lifter’s arsenal. If you’re weak at single-leg training, any gains in strength and competency will transfer over to bilateral training. But with so many good exercises to choose from, which single-leg movements reign supreme? Here is a selection of the best.

1. Zercher Reverse Lunge – Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

This is an accessory movement for the squat with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and strength. The Zercher position increases the contribution of the upper back (thoracic extension) and anterior core, along with increasing glute activation. Stepping back increases stress at the hips and decreases stress at the knees.

Technique

  • Start with the bar in a squat rack or squat stand set at about sternum height.
  • Some people prefer using a bar pad or towel wrapped around the bar to pad the arms. If you have access to a fat bar or axel bar, this is a great time to use it.
  • Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift. Keep the majority of the pressure centered over the front foot throughout the movement.
  • Place the bar in the crook of your arms and interlock the fingers together to create a solid base (or make fists). Unrack the bar and step back.
  • With one leg, step backwards into a reverse lunge, keeping the foot in line with your hip.Do not try to create a straight line between your feet; maintain your normal stance width.
  • Keeping the torso upright (a slight forward lean is fine), descend under control until your knee lightly touches the ground.
  • From this position, drive through the heel of the front foot and return to the starting position. Don’t allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side.

Common Mistakes:

  • Taking too large or too short of a step backward.
  • Not maintaining control throughout the movement.
  • Not touching the ground and skimping on range of motion.
  • Rising up onto the toes.
  • Trying to keep both feet in line with each other instead of under their respective hips, causing an unstable base of support.
  • Trying to return to the start position from the lunge by pushing off the rear leg rather than keeping the majority of the weight over the front foot.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat – Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is a single-leg strength exercise that targets the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Performing the exercise with dumbbells ensures muscular balance on both sides of the body.

Technique:

  • Create a 2-4″ deficit using boards, mats, or aerobics steps.
  • Line up in front of a bench and consider placing an Airex Balance pad (not shown) or some other type of padding on the floor to protect the knee in the bottom range of motion.
  • Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Standing on top of the platform, reach back and place the top of the foot on the top of the bench. The majority of the weight should be kept over the front foot (around 80%), with the additional weight on the rear foot (around 20%).
  • While keeping the torso mostly upright, descend under control until your knee lightly touches the pad.
  • At this point, drive through the heel of the front foot, back to the starting position. Keep a neutral head, pelvis, and spine throughout the range of motion.
  • Don’t allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side. If you’re prone to knee aches and pains, sit back more and maintain a vertical shin throughout the movement.

Common Mistakes:

  • Using a deficit that’s too high, which alters technique.
  • Not keeping control throughout the movement.
  • Not touching the pad and skimping on range of motion.
  • Using a bench that’s too high, which may cause hip flexor/groin pain.
  • Rising up onto the toes.

3. Front Loaded Forward Lunge – Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

This is also an accessory movement for the squat with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and strength. The arms position increases the contribution of the upper back and anterior core. Stepping forward increases stress at the knees and decreases stress at the hips.

Technique:

  • Start with the bar in a squat rack set at around shoulder height.
  • Use an Olympic style front rack/clean grip position if you have enough flexibility, or you can use a cross-arms position favored by bodybuilders. Maintain a neutral head and spine throughout the lift.
  • Unrack the bar and take a step back.
  • With one leg, step forwards into a lunge, keeping the foot in line with your hip. Don’t try to create a straight line between your feet; maintain your normal stance width.
  • While keeping the torso upright or using a slight forward lean, descend under control until your knee touches the ground.
  • From this position, drive through the mid-foot of the front foot and return to the starting position. Don’t allow the knee to drift too far in front of the toes or shift from side to side.
  • If you’re prone to knee aches and pains, sit back more and maintain a vertical shin throughout the movement.

Common Mistakes:

  • Taking too large or too short of a step forward.
  • Not maintaining control throughout the movement.
  • Not touching the ground and skimping on ROM.
  • Rising up on the toes.
  • Trying to keep both feet in line with each other instead of under their respective hips, causing an unstable base of support.
  • Trying to return to the start position from the lunge by pushing off the rear leg rather than keeping the majority of the weight over the front foot.

4. Single Leg Prisoner Back Extension – Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

This is an accessory movement for the deadlift, with the additional benefit of increasing single-leg stability and flexibility. The majority of stress is on the hamstrings and glute of the stance leg.

This variation doesn’t require additional load. Placing the arms in the prisoner position increases the torque loading at the hip by increasing the lever length of the torso’s center of mass.

Technique:

  • Set up inside a 45-degree hyper and lock only one leg into the foot pad, with the other leg resting on top of the other side.
  • The upper body should have a neutral spine and tucked chin, with no excessive arching of the low back.
  • Hinge at the hips and lower the upper body without rounding the spine until a stretch is felt in the hamstrings.
  • Ensure that no rotation occurs at the torso throughout the movement.
  • Use the hamstring to pull the torso back in line with the legs and finish with the glutes.

Common Mistakes:

  • Using spinal flexion and extension instead of hip flexion and extension.
  • Allowing the torso to twist throughout the range of motion.
  • Not finishing with glutes and instead arching the low back excessively to finish off hip extension.

5. Dumbbell Step-Up – Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

This is an accessory exercise for the squat with the additional benefit of building single-leg strength, stability, and coordination.

It places stress primarily on the quads and glutes of the stance leg.

Technique:

  • Grab two dumbbells and hold at the sides. Maintain tension in the scapulae and don’t allow the weight to pull the shoulder blades down passively.
  • Place the stance leg completely on the step so that the heel is on the step.
  • The ideal step height is approximately knee height. (Higher step ups are incredible too and don’t require much loading.)
  • Maintain a neutral spine and keep the weight primarily on the top leg. Drive the heel into the step until the leg is straight, finishing with the glutes.
  • On the descent, control the body until the foot touches the ground (don’t just free fall downward).

Common Mistakes:

  • Relying on the rear leg excessively for the production of momentum.
  • Going too heavy and losing alignment or allowing the hips to hike during the movement.
  • Failing to adequately control the descent.
  • Not fully extending the hips at the top and failing to finish with the glutes.
  • Allowing the knee to drift inward during the ascent or descent.
  • Rocking the torso, shrugging the shoulders, and/or raising the hips first to start the motion rather than driving through the heel.22

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