If you walk and especially if you run, doing exercises that work your legs independently is absolutely critical to maintaining and/or regaining healthy ankles, knees and hips. You can test how important this is by squatting down to a low surface so that your hips get below your knees. This is not “ass to grass” but considered a full range of motion squat. If that is hard for you then you need to figure out whether it’s a strength issue, a weakness issue or a combination issue called stability. Now have something close by that you can hold on to for balance and support if needed and try to do a lunge. Your back knee should touch the ground and both knees should be at 90 degree angles. (see the video for a visual of these two positions).
These are two of the most primal and necessary positions to be able to not only function in your daily life but should also be a prerequisite for doing any sport from running to riding a bike to tennis. Let’s get as primal as possible, without the ability to squat it is very difficult to get off the ground without assistance. Once you lose that ability you are in a nursing home. Without the ability to lunge, steps become a problem not to mention walking on uneven ground and now you are a significant fall risk. Ok, now that I have made those two points let’s highlight the benefits of single leg training to improve your athletic ability and your joint health. If you have ankle, knee or hip pain then you will be really interested in this next part.
I want to make a disclaimer: Squats and Deadlifts are effective; they're two of the best exercises in existence. But if you have any hope of becoming a more well-rounded athlete who's resilient to injury, then you need single-leg exercises in your workouts.
Benefits of single leg exercises:
1. Single-leg training creates balanced strength.
Sports are often played on a single leg. You might have to leap off your left foot to score a layup or plant hard on your right foot when changing directions. Realistically, there are only a few times when you're actually on both feet at the same time. Single-leg strength allows you to create equal strength in both legs so you're strong and powerful in every direction in which you need to move.
2. Single-leg training allows you to train heavy.
Don't be fooled by single-leg exercises. You can still load up on the weight and develop a serious amount of strength—and still impress your friends. In fact, it's usually possible to lift more with each leg individually than you can with a two-legged exercise. For example, you might be able to use 100 pounds on the Bulgarian Split Squat on each leg compared to 175 pounds on the Back Squat. That's more total weight and a greater challenge per leg.
3. Single-leg training helps prevent injuries.
Single-leg exercises are unstable by nature. This activates stabilizer muscles that help to protect your knee and ankle during dynamic movements. That instability helps eliminate weakness on your non-dominant leg to reduce the risk of injury in multi-directional movements. Think of single leg exercises as insurance against injury.
Ok, so I made my point, but actually doing single-leg training isn't as simple as doing a few lunges here and there. You need to include single-leg exercises that cover the different ways the body moves—the same reason why most programs include both Squats and Deadlifts. However, if your sport tends to move in only linear planes (like running) then you need to balance out your body by doing lateral movements.
I would suggest you pick 1-2 of the following exercises and incorporate them into your strength/resistance training. I gave you a brief description of each exercise but click on the exercise to watch a quick video of the movement being demonstrated. As a general rule with any exercise, but specifically with single leg work, If the exercise challenges your balance, range of motion and makes you feel very uncomfortable then work on mastery of form before you add any load.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: With one leg supported behind you and elevated on a bench or chair, assume a split squat position. Drop your hips straight down like you're performing a lunge keeping your front knee from passing over your toes.
Lunge/Reverse Lunge: Step out or back with one leg and keep the other leg in place allowing your knees to go to a 90 degree angle and the back knee should touch the ground for full range of motion.
Lateral lunge and Cossack Squat Variations: Step to the side about 1-2 feet until the leg you are stepping with bends into a squatting position. Stop at 90 degrees in your hip for a lunge and go as low as you can for the cossack squat. The leg you didn’t step with should stay straight and lateral to you. If your toes are pointing forward and your foot is on the ground it’s a lateral lunge. If your toes come up with only your heel touching the ground it’s called a cossack squat.
Single-Leg Glute Bridge: Laying on your back, lift your butt off the ground until only your upper back (shoulder blades) are touching the ground and your chest and hips make a straight line to your knees. This is a glute bridge, now do that same movement but straighten out one leg at the knee so it’s off the ground.
Single-Leg RDL Variations: The basic version of this is hinging at the hip but allowing one leg to straighten out behind you while you balance on the other leg. Like you're picking something up off the ground but you can’t bend your knee and balance on one leg. It will challenge your hamstrings and balance.
Step-Up and lateral step-up: Pick something stable that is just below the height of your knee, usually about 12-18 inches. Now step up to it but don’t push off hard with the trailing leg, try to make the stepping leg do all the work. You can do this in front of you, like you're going up steps or you can do it to the side for a lateral step-up.
Master these movements by first making sure you can go through the full range of motion. Then pick up the speed at which you can do the movement until you can do 10 of them in about 30 seconds. Once you can do both of those things, now you can add weight. Your balance will improve, your strength will improve and your stability in everything you do will really improve. If you want some custom programming give me a call. The call is free so we can discuss what you need and see how I can help you.
Move Well, Feel Great