Single leg work is one of the most beneficial and effective movement patterns that should be in any training program for building functional strength, packing on muscle, improving performance, and enhancing health and longevity.
When it comes to single leg work, you’ll want to divide up your training into both split squats and lunges (stationary versus moving single leg variations) and incorporate varieties of weight placement, forms of resistance, planes of motion, ranges of motion, and tempos for maximal benefits.
Without further ado, here’s my top 5 functional single leg exercises designed to improve function, pack on size, improve your performance, and durability.
The King of them all, Double Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats
No surprise that the old fashioned Bulgarian Split Squat is our staple #1 variation. This straightforward, no bull shit variation provides the perfect environment for maximal strength and mass gains. In order to properly set up the perfect Bulgarian split squat, we’re going to break this down into 5 easy steps.
1. Place the rear foot on the bench with shoelaces down.
2. Use a band to mark the floor for proper front foot placement.
3. Use a foam pad to monitor depth and protect the downside knee.
4. Use a slight forward torso lean, eyes forward and arms extended down to your sides.
5. Use your strongest stance, allowing knees to travel over toes with a slight hip hinge.
When strength is the goal, stability reigns king. So the above setup (also taking into account your unique body structure and needs) is preferred for strength based sets in the 5-8 repetition range with 60-120s rest between sets.
With the goal of muscular hypertrophy or self hatred, you can alter from your strongest stance to bias specific regions, muscles or actions to fit your needs as the loading is lower and the ranges are higher between 8-15 reps taken to form failure. This may look like front foot heel elevation for more of a quadriceps bias, or a longer stride with a vertical shin angle for a more glute bias position.
However you choose to Bulgarian split squat, ensure your setups are strict and strategic for your body and your specific goals at hand.
The Ultimate Glute Builder, Ipsilateral Banded Reverse Lunge
Taking the Split Squat in a different direction, we can make this a true glute dominant single leg exercise by turning an already great glute exercise for one leg into an absolute glute torcher for both legs. We do this simply by setting up with a medium to heavy resistance band looped around the lunging leg (up high on the thigh) and the other end anchored on an upright or some permanent fixture. Take a longer stride so that the front shin angle is as close to vertical as possible. We’re going to use a SINGLE dumbbell on the same side as the lunging leg. Get into a slight forward lean by hinging at the hips and take a large step back bringing the knee close to the floor. As you step forward, drive hard with the lunging side glute into the band. You get extra benefit here with the unilateral load that up regulates the amount of core integration to keep you balanced over the forward leg.
I would recommend this variation as an accessory to your other primary lower body movements, trained as heavy as possible while aiming to stay anywhere between 8-12 repetitions, even as high as 15 repetitions per set with about 60-90s between sets.
High Performance Lunge, Front Rack Reverse Lunge
If you’re looking for the pinnacle of performance improvement on one leg, this is it. I’ve combined a multitude of nuances together for this brutal lunge, all designed to challenge you harder in multiple facets to give you the biggest return for your effort. I want to highlight a few of these and divulge what exactly the purpose behind them are. The front rack position is going to overload the demand from the core to keep you balanced over mid foot; depending on the implement that you use for the front rack, there could be additional challenges from things like oscillations, perturbations, and posterior chain stability demands. In addition to all of that, if you opt to use a front leg deficit this will ensure that as we step back we must also step down further increasing the range of motion. The last nuance here is simply an alternating repetition scheme where the benefits are strictly skill and coordination based; which if you’re looking for performance improvements, is ideal.
Sprinkle this unconventional reverse lunge into your next leg day as an accessory move trained as heavy as possible in the 12-15 rep range with multiple sets and approximately 60 seconds of rest between.
Enjoy the leg AND lung burn. You’re welcome.
Core Destroyer, The Cross Body Split Squat
If you’re looking to really fire up the core during your single leg work, of course goblet variations are always a good choice but if you’re looking to attack the core from all of the angles- look no further than the crossbody hold.
You have the option of setting up with the rear foot elevated just like we would in a traditional Bulgarian Split Squat setup or with a slight elevation for the rear foot or simply both feet on the ground. For a crossbody hold, we’re going to hold one weight (Kettlebells preferred but dumbbells work fine as well) in the front rack position on the forward leg side. The opposing weight will be down at your side. With this unique hold, you will experience the benefits of higher posterior chain recruitment, anti-lateral flexion of the obliques, and of course, a sick leg pump.
Of course as you switch legs here you will also switch the cross carry position, the hand that was up is now down and vice versa for the opposite arm. I recommend this variation as an accessory to your primary lifts and perform anywhere between 8-15 repetitions per set with about 60-90s rest between sets. (Yes, that’s 8-15 per leg!)
The Crevice Special, Goblet Lateral Lunge
The downside to a lot of people’s programs tends to be that they rely too much on sagittal plane variations and while those variations obviously work very well for their own sake, branching out into frontal and transverse planes will not only unlock new gains in neglected areas but also alleviate chronic aches and pains from overused patterns.
The lateral lunge fills a unique need for people in that it functions not only as a strength and mass builder for the quadriceps, glutes, and adductors but it actually can improve flexibility through the hips. Combine this with a goblet hold and you have quite possibly the biggest return on investment with a single exercise. Starting from a standing position with the dumbbell held directly below your chin and OFF of your chest, step directly out to the side and catch yourself on the lunging foot, controlling the descent into hip flexion. On the return, drive hard off of the lunging foot to return to your starting position. I will mention that if you struggle with knee pain or a lateral lunge; try opting for the lateral split squat. This simple adjustment removes the deceleration aspect of lunging out to the side and subsequently driving hard off of the lunging leg. If you simply begin in a wide stance and drop into the lateral squat, you avoid this painful trigger while still being able to get down into deep squat.
I recommend the lateral lunge or squat as an accessory to your primary leg movements with the heaviest weight you can handle in the 10-20 repetition range (Yes, per leg!) with 60-75s rest between sets.
Remember, at the end of the day, these are simply my favorites and the ones I believe that offer the most benefit while remaining relatively simple to throw together and progress. However, I recommend to always experiment with different implements, holds, ranges of motion, directions, tempos, pauses, and repetition ranges! When in doubt, combine techniques!
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, barbell sport competitors, and over 10,000 clients from all walks of life with his innovative pain-free performance programs and systems, which has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus. Dr. Rusin is also the founder of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) that has certified over 10,000 personal trainers, strength coaches and rehab pros from across the globe in the pain-free performance training system since 2019.