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  • The Benefits of Unilateral Training (Single Leg Exercises)

    The Benefits of Unilateral Training (Single Leg Exercises)

    Single leg exercises are often some of the least liked in the gym -- but they should be a part of your routine. 

    Here's why.

    Symmetrical Aesthetics

    If you are training to build muscle and improve the way you look, symmetry is something you should care about. I mean looking big is great, but looking big and symmetrical? 

    That's what sets you apart from the crowd.

    With that in mind, unilateral exercises are some of the most effective ways to eliminate asymmetries in the muscle size of the lower body. 

    See, your body is smart, and although big compound exercises like squats and deadlifts technically train both sides of your body, they don't do so equally. If one side of your body is stronger than the other (which is the case for most people), then you will naturally compensate to make the movement easier.

    And this often means subconsciously placing more load on your stronger side.  

    As a result, asymmetrical muscle development is pretty common. But single leg exercises are your solution.

    Because exercises like split squats and lunges predominantly load one leg at a time, they eliminate the potential for compensation. This has obvious implications for building a symmetrical physique.

    As a note, when you first start performing single leg exercises, you will notice that one side is stronger than the other (this is entirely normal). Make sure to start all your single leg exercises on the weaker side, then match the number of reps on your stronger side.

    This is a great way to even up asymmetries while ensuring an even amount of muscle growth between legs.

    Greater Muscle Growth

    While you should never change exercises every week, there is some evidence to suggest that implementing different variations that target the same muscle group will lead to better muscle growth than using just one or two variations [1].

    If all your quad work comes from squats, leg presses, and knee extensions, you are loading the muscles in a somewhat similar manner between exercises (especially between the squat and the leg press).

    But if you throw just one single leg exercise into the mix, you add another degree of variability into the program, which can increase muscle growth.

    As a bonus, you don't even have to add in more training volume for this to yield a positive effect. Instead, all you need to do is reallocate some of the volume you are already performing to single-leg exercises:

    For example, if your quad work looks like this:

    • Squat 3 x 8
    • Leg Press 3 x 10
    • Leg Extension 3 x 12

    You could replace two of the sets with split squats like this:

    • Squat 3 x 8
    • Leg Press 2 x 10
    • Split Squat 2 x 10
    • Leg Extension 2 x 12

    If your leg routine is void of single leg exercises, give this a go to kickstart some extra muscle growth (just be ready for some serious DOMS that first session…).

    Improved Athleticism

    Most of us don't only train to look good but feel good too.

    Considering this, single-leg exercises are a must. Split squats, lunges, and their many variations replicate athletic movements like jumping, sprinting, and bounding. As a result, they have a direct carryover to those activities, making you more athletic [2].

    If you intend to become big, jacked, and athletic, single-leg exercises are an absolute must.

    Less Systemic Stress

    You can think of systemic stress as the total stress placed on your body during a gym session. This encompasses the stress placed on your joints and connective tissues, as well as the stress placed on your muscles.

    In short, the greater your level of systemic stress, the harder it is to recover.

    Taking this into account, those exercises that create the most systemic stress allow you to use the most absolute load, and therefore place the most load on your connective tissues.

    Think squats, deadlifts, and their many variations.

    While there is little to no scientific research on this topic, most people are aware of it. Think about the fatigue you accrue after a heavy set of squats. It is much more than a set of leg presses, even if the muscular fatigue is similar between the two.

    As such, if you replace some of these exercises (or at least reallocate some of their volume) with their single leg variations, you can get the same muscular stimulus with significantly less systemic stress. 

    This means faster recovery between sessions, which could increase long-term gains by the quality of your training sessions over the long term.

    Plus, not feeling like you got hit by a truck after every leg session is nice too.

    Enhanced Functional Capacity

    While this is not something that all of you care about right now, it will be in the future.

    Single-leg exercises improve balance and your capacity to perform activities of daily living, such as standing up from a chair, walking up stairs, and moving about the house.

    As a result, they can also help reduce your risk of falls as you get older, while ensuring you maintain your independence wll into your golden years -- which, if you intend to be a lifelong lifter, is a pretty big bonus [3].

    Best Single-Leg Exercises

    Like most things, the "best" single-leg exercise will be dictated by your goals.

    If you want to maximize muscle growth and eliminate asymmetries, exercises that take your joints through a larger range of motion are your best bet. This means Bulgarian split squats, front-foot elevated split squats, and front-foot elevated reverse lunges should be your first point of call.

    Exercises replicating real-world movements are key if you want to improve your athleticism and functional capacity. This means reverse lunges, lateral lunges, walking lunges, and step-ups should be a part of your program.

    Suppose you are simply looking to try something different and reduce systemic stress. In that case, any single-leg exercise is a good choice. I like barbell split squats, walking lunges, and Bulgarians, but it is really up to you.

    Single Leg Training: Final Thoughts

    Whether your goal is to build muscle, become more aesthetic, increase athleticism, or improve your day-to-day life, single-leg exercises must be part of your routine.

    Next program you write, we want to see a heap of single-leg exercises thrown in the mix.

    References:

    1. Kassiano, Witalo, et al. "Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 36.6 (2022): 1753-1762.
    2. Fisher, J., and M. Wallin. "Unilateral versus bilateral lower-body resistance and plyometric training for change of direction speed." J Athl Enhanc 6 (2014): 2.
    3. Josephson, Micah D., and John G. Williams. "Functional-strengthening: A pilot study on balance control improvement in community-dwelling older adults." Montenegrin Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 6.2 (2017): 75.
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