Training single leg movements like the lunge and RDL can be a brutally humbling experience for any serious athlete or lifter. But chances are if you suck at unilateral work, your ego isn’t the only thing likely to endure some serious hurting. A lack of single leg stability, strength, power and agility is linked to potential increases in lower back, hip and knee injuries, and is truly one of the most powerful orthopedic health indicator lifts out there.
But since this single leg “lunge” movement pattern targets common weak links so directly, just doing more single leg work isn’t enough. World-class compensators are going to cheat, and then try and justify it after. The effectiveness of single leg work is highly dependent on movement quality and control, so we must rein in quality by manipulating tempos and rhythms that keep authentic movement patterns strict.
Instead of cheating your way through butchered lunges and sloppy single leg RDLs and yielding no benefit except for your self-justification of doing the lifts at all, try incorporating these challenging paused single leg variations to keep you strict while maximizing the trainability of this class of movements. Here are 5 of the most effective single leg exercises to pause your way to stronger, more stable single leg lifts. Time to clean up those glaringly painful weak links once and for all.
#5 Forward To Reverse Lunge Combo
For one of the most painful training effects you can possibly elicit using single leg lunge variations, let me introduce you to the forward to reverse lunge combo. This lunge variation was originated as a single leg stability test that I used in the assessment and testing of my athletes, but quickly transformed one of the most efficient ways to hammer the musculature of the lower body with loads of metabolic stress while reducing joint stress at the spine, hips and knees in the process.
By leading with one leg at a time, moving under control in and out of both the forward lunge and reverse lunge positions, this exercise has the ability to hammer your legs, lungs and sympathetic systems into a devastating training effect. And did I mention that you really don’t have to load it up heavy at all in order to maximize the trainability of this movement?
While the forward to reverse lunge combo taps into many of the powerful training mechanisms, it separates itself from something I call the “oh shit” moment. The forward to reverse lunge combo doesn’t need to increase external loads for more muscular emphasis, as it perfectly taps into the sympathetic response of the central nervous system which quickly increases vital metrics such as heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation and siphoning blood flow away from the digestive system and into the prime locomotive movers of the muscular system.
The key feature of this movement is the requisite of stability, or you could say the perceived instability on repeat. As you alternate between one leg finishing up the forward lunge and pushing back into the reverse lunge, there is a period of perceived instability at the hip and core as you glide over the neutral leg and hip position without ever touching down between reps. This transition again causes an “oh shit” moment in the brain, essentially sending signaling from the brain to the neuromuscular system to protect the body from falling over, causing a spike in tension and recruitment of stabilizing musculature through the shoulders, hips and core working together as a synergistic functional unit.
When trained with increased rep ranges in the hypertrophy and metabolic stress based schemes between 8-12 (one rep counted as a forward and a reverse lunge together on one side) the CNS is lead into overdrive, escalating the heart rate quickly, increasing your blood pressure and will even having you start sweating profusely. This is great, and exactly what we are after, especially when you program this movement as a finisher on any lower body day.
Since this movement is so hard on both the CNS and muscular systems, it’s extremely difficult to repeat bout with multiple sets at top end loads. My programming method of choice here is an escalating loading scheme, using more weight each set until you’ve hit your absolute limits, whether that be from a stability, endurance or cardiovascular standpoint.
#4 The 1.5 Rep Dumbbell Split Squat
Dynamic control is the name of the game for improving agility, stability and sequencing in single leg stance. While static stability is step one in linking up pillar unit (shoulders, hips, core) over an asymmetrical stance, the next step in the process that allows more transferability into the gym, a chosen sporting endeavor or just life in general is the ability to create, grade, and maintain stability though altered positions of the lower body. That’s why the 1.5 rep split squat is a superior alternative for improving stability based motor control around the lateral hip group, where a vast majority of people needs the most emphasis.
After progressing your way up the movement pyramid from the traditional split squat with two feet on level ground, an intermediary step that often gets overlooked is having the ability to load this double closed kinematic chain asymmetrical stance pattern. There are two main ways to increase the difficulty of a movement, you can either add explosive acceleration to an exercise to move faster, or you can load heavier. Both will challenge both sequencing and stability. But since we are targeting dynamic stability of the hip, loading will be our modality of choice.
Anytime you program a movement, and this can be especially important for single leg based movements, you must have a why behind the goal you are trying to achieve and match the methods with the goal in mind. If your goal for single leg work is to increase requisite stability at the posterior-lateral hip group in single leg stance, then spending more time in the most inherently unstable ranges of motion would make sense. For the split squat, the bottom position with the back knee hovering over the ground is the most difficult position, and where many athletes will lose their ability to control the hip, knee ankle and spinal positions.
By utilizing the 1.5 repetitions split squat, we can effectively spend more time in the bottom position of this movement under loading to bring up weak links and rewire neuromuscular motor control while also eliciting a strong mechanical muscular adaptation. Split eccentrically descend under control into the bottom aspect of the split squat, then come only half way up before going back down to end range before coming all the way back up to the top position. That is considered one rep.
The goal here on an executional standpoint is to maintain constant tension throughout the pillar complex, but most specifically in the glutes, quads and adductors of the lower body on both sides. As you are better able to link up some of these prime movers (the glutes, hamstrings and quads) with the prime stabilizers (adductors and core musculature) we can control smooth, authentic pulsing movements in and out of that end range position to challenge neurological synergy while also tapping into the potential to recruit higher threshold motor units with an increased total time under tension.
Anytime you incorporate partial repetitions into a movement pattern, you’ll most likely need to be programming in increased rep ranges between 8-20 repetitions. As mentioned above, the rep count comes secondary to the total time under tension, which we are shooting for 25-45 seconds per leg per set. Load this exercise appropriately, and never jeopardize movement quality, control or tempo for more weight, as we must keep the goal the goal.
#3 Dynamic 90-90 Paused Reverse Lunge
I hear it all the time from our new athletes… “Single leg work hurts my lower back.” From my years in the field, I’ve seen that the vast majority of generalized lower back pain can be attributed to two factors: a lack of stability through the lumbo-pelvic complex AND/OR a lack of authentically controlled hip mobility. Why not bring up both of these common deficits with one movement that will quickly humble you down to the core, literally. It’s called the non-alternating dynamic reverse lunge, and if you present with motor control or balance issues that you’ve been trying to hide by only loading your movements bilaterally, get ready to eat some humble pie. Here’s why it’s awesome and how to execute it properly.
A simple, yet highly effective assessment of synergistic hip and core stability can be tested from a single leg stance position with the knee and hip bent to 90-degrees. If you can’t hold this position for 30 seconds without losing balance and having to touch down or flailing around like you’re having a seizure to gain “balance”, you better start prioritizing smart single leg variations like this one to not. Why? Not only to get strong and coordinated in single leg stance, but to re-learn how to stabilize and brace properly through with the lower body synergistically connected to the core, which will greatly transfer into your big lifts while helping to keep you healthy for the long run.
Start out this movement by getting into that 90-90 position on a single leg. You’ll notice that the heavier you load this movement in the form of dumbbells, the more challenging it will be to maintain stability, which is again the point of loading this particular lunge variation. Pause for a full second at the top here to really tap into that lateral hip stability and glute activation, then drive that leg back behind into a reverse lunge pattern.
Ensure that you hit depth on the back knee grazing the ground while your torso angle is positioned slightly forward to bias the posterior chain stability from the hamstrings and glutes. From this bottom position, explosively drive back up into the original 90-90 starting position leading with your hip flexors on the dynamic leg.
Execute this exercise in non-alternating fashion between 6-8 reps per side. Remember, the goal here is to tap into your CNS and link up sequential stability in the single leg stance, so keep your rhythm and tempo of the movement on point. This movement has the ability to sky-rocket your heart rate from the perceived instability factor in the transition in and out of every rep. This simply means it will smoke you without a ton of weight, which is in alignment with pain-free training methodology.
#2 Single Arm Single Leg Paused RDL with Iso-Hold
As mentioned above but always worth reiterating, a majority of chronic lower back pain in strength athletes can usually stem back from a lack of functional stability and strength in a single leg pattern. This is the reason why I have my athletes, yes even my powerlifters that put 750+ pounds on their backs and squat it in competition, keep the single leg RDL in their movement library by programming it into their assistance work later on in the week in nearly every training block throughout the year.
Ask yourself this questions, and answer honestly; Do you suck at single leg RDLs? Does your lower back hurt? If you answered yes to both of these questions, we can reliably make a correlation that the two are most likely related. But fixing this highly complex motor skill problem is actually quite simple… nut up and program the single leg RDL because it will become one of the most powerful orthopedic health indicator lifts you’ll ever complete.
While setups differ according to specific presentations and goals, my preferred setup for introducing and improving the single leg RDL involves loading the pattern with a dumbbell in the hand opposite of the leg that is in contact with the ground. This contralateral loading works the anti-rotation plane of resistance during the hinge, which helps to enhance lateral hip stability to an even greater degree. While this movement can be loaded on the same side or with two dumbbells (or barbell for that matter), this single dumbbell in the opposite side hand provides the biggest bang for your motor learning and functional strength buck, which is exactly why you’re using it in the first place.
To master this movement pattern, you must own your stability first. Place an emphasis on pre-tensioning your glutes, core and shoulders together as a functional unit before you start into the eccentric lowering phase. If you’re having “balance” issues, re-read the sentence above and place the same amount of focus on bracing during this single leg movement as you do on your big barbell lifts.
Move slowly through the eccentric range, leading with the hips and achieving a hamstring stretch at the bottom of the movement while keeping the spine in a neutral position to avoid losing posterior chain tension and activation and rounding over into compensation. From there, drive up hard and squeeze in the top of the movement with a big flex of the glutes, adductors and core together to link them up under load and tension.
If you really want to challenge yourself, on the last rep of a set implement a loaded isometric stretch at the bottom of the range of motion. Simply hold the bottom position with your hamstrings lengthened for as long as you can while maintaining balance and keeping an active contraction in the hamstrings, core and glutes. This will be tough, but that’s why it’s considered a challenge technique.
Due to the high amounts of motor control and stability requirements in this variation of the RDL, keep your reps between 5-8 and avoid making this a balancing act. Touch down slightly with your toe between reps and ensure proper tension and stability. If you can do this, you’ll not only see your loads in this movement linearly progress, but chances are your newly forged back and hip function will start boosting your big lifts as well.
#1 Paused Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
There may be no more notoriously cheated class of movements out there than unilateral work including the lunge and it’s many derivatives. Between speeding up the tempo of the movements to compensate for a lack of balance and stability, and contorting the torso and core positioning to depend on non-contractile structures to help pound through glaring weak points, single leg work will help identify dysfunction reliably and efficiently.
The traditional Bulgarian split squat (BSS), or for those of you who don’t associate countries with movements, the rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS), is no doubt a soul crushing single variation that quickly identifies functional weak links along with sticking points in single leg stance, strength and power. And yes, this is the very reason this movement is avoided like the plague by gym bros and powerlifters alike.
Improving the RFESS takes motor control practice, pre-tension stability cueing to create internal stability and also tempo manipulation to hammer the most common unstable aspects of the lift, the bottom position. We can achieve all of these goals by adding a full tension isometric pause at the bottom of each rep and exploding out of the hole from a dead stop position.
Before you dismiss these movement parameters due to the clear reduction in loading you’ll be humbly adhering to, remember Newton’s second law of motion… Force = Mass x Acceleration. Using this natural law of physics to our advantage we can load the tempo RFESS while curing explosive concentric to maximize trainability of this movement while minimizing external loading.
BUT before you start making the RFESS a fluffy functional exercise, remember, it can also be loaded extremely heavy. A common question I receive is “how heavy should I be able to RFESS relative to the bilateral squat?” First off, the metric that I look at for RFESS is being able to knock out 5 reps with 100% of bodyweight in your hands with dumbbells. From there, the phenomenon of the bilateral deficit is real. Having the goal of over performing a right loading plus left loading to exceed a bilateral squat number should also be a long term functional goal.
Getting back to the explosive paused variation of the RFESS, we must focus on increasing total time under tension to around 25-40 seconds per set in order to challenge unilateral stability while also targeting muscular strength and hypertrophy throughout the entire lower body. This variation can train out athletes to repeatedly produce power in a more metabolically stressful environment while keeping movement patterns and muscular targeting on point in the process. Program this variation between 6-10 reps per leg here for 2-5 sets for the most pristine executional challenge. If you can’t move explosively under control, you better set your ego aside and lighten up until you’ve earned the right to go heavy. And hell, you may as well program another heavy day for the RFESS if you want to get the best of both worlds!
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Programthat combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.