The Best Lower Body Exercise: The Single Leg Squat
An often overlooked exercise, the single leg squat, demands a come-back in the fitness community as it is possibly the best lower body exercise you can do, not only for the health of your spine, but also for its strength and balance building potential. Moreover, with the proper set up and coaching, a single leg squat is an exercise everyone can do. First though, it is imperative that you understand the value of the single leg squat. Let’s start at the very beginning:
During motion in bipedal animals (like humans), the lower extremities are rarely doing the same thing at the same time. Functionally speaking, since we alternate walking between one leg and then the other, instead of using both legs on the ground at one time, we are actually unipeds, using one leg at a time. In essence, we create force with one leg and then accept it with the other. This form of motion creates unique challenges for our lower extremities, necessitating unique training with unipedal motion in mind in order to maximize our functional strength.
If you watch your favorite four-legged friend run, you will notice that when they are generating force with their right back leg that their left front leg is also in contact with the ground. The back leg pushes and the front leg pulls. This form of dual force production makes some four-legged creatures very fast and it also assists in stabilizing rotational forces that could destabilize the animals’ straight-line speed. As functional unipeds we do not have this luxury. Instead, we require muscles on the stance phase leg and the opposite side erector spinal muscles to counter frontal plane rotational forces since we do not have our opposite hand on the ground to stop the rotation. Without appropriate single leg functional strength the muscular strength we have to counter the rotation is challenged, especially as we increase our movement speed. When the muscles are unable to control this frontal plane rotation we are susceptible to back, hip, knee and ankle/foot pathologies.
Single leg squatting allows you to build balance between both legs to promote a symmetrical balance of overall lower body strength. It can help you detect imbalances between legs, allowing you to correct any asymmetries along the way. A body that is symmetrically balanced in strength will ultimately function better and be more resistant to injury. In fact, if there exists even just a 15% or greater strength discrepancy between legs, then the weaker leg is susceptible to injury because it cannot accept the force produced by the other lower extremity. More often than not, in those who do not train with single leg exercises or with the single leg squat, that 15% or more strength discrepancy will exist as we naturally tend to favor one leg over the other.
Additionally, the movement of a single leg squat engages your core and your balance since the exercise is performed on one leg at a time. By doing so, you strengthen the smaller stabilization muscles of the hip and pelvic area, improving overall proprioception in the body.
Perhaps most importantly, a single leg squat allows you to challenge the legs without having to overload the spine, as one would do when performing a bilateral weighted squat. Even when loaded, single leg squats tend to require less weight added for force challenge, thereby lessening the spinal load, even for those who can perform the exercise at its maximum. For anyone with back problems, a single leg squat should be used as your primary form of squatting since it allows you to properly train your legs without loading the spine. Squatting with improper form (ie: with a loaded trunk bending), with a loaded spine increases the risk of disc herniation. (See also, Blog post "Squatting Properly: The Fallacy of the Hip Hinge)
Additionally, for those with degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis, squatting with a loaded spine will increase the symptoms and ultimately worsen the pathology, making the single leg squat the obvious training tool of choice.
For athletes, the single leg squat is essential to have in one’s training arsenal. Since the single leg squat improves and equalizes single leg strength in proportion to body weight ratios, it is a key exercise that should be used to optimize athletic performance. Furthermore, for sports that demand lateral movements and multi-directional running bursts, the single leg squat trains each leg to perform on demand with equal strength and force. Ultimately, the goal for an athlete using the single leg squat in training is to perform the squat with appropriate form. The amount of assistance or resistance supplied for the movement is less important than the preservation of perfect form while performing the single leg squat.
Single leg squats are for those who want:
To protect the integrity of their spine and back
To decrease the risk of injury for the hips, knees, and ankle / foot
To get bigger and stronger legs
To improve balance and overall muscular proprioception
To increase athletic conditioning and functionality in their lower body
Single Leg Squat and the CKC Trainer:
To perform an effective and proper single leg squat it is important for you to keep the range of motion and the load appropriate when performing the single leg squat. For those who have access to a CKC Trainer, progressing safely and effectively can be easily facilitated by simply switching out weight assistance bands appropriately. The use of the CKC Trainer allows you to improve the quality of the single leg squat by controlling your center of gravity while squatting.
The center of gravity supported single leg squat on the CKC Trainer is for those who have weak gluteus medius musculature. As one gets stronger, the assistance coming from the band support can then progress to the torso where the user has to manage their frontal plane in conjunction with their gluteus medius. In this case, the band simply offloads weight allowing for proper form and motion of the exercise. Visit the lower extremity exercise page for examples.
Doing a single leg squat with the center of gravity supported puts the body into ideal alignment to maximize efficacy of the movement and to facilitate the proper performance of the exercise. Also, by utilizing the supportive resistance bands associated with the CKC Trainer, the torso is ultimately well supported during the single leg squat, preserving the integrity of the spine and ensuring the proper alignment of the exercise through each phase of movement.
Implement single leg squats into your training and program design immediately, your body and your performance will thank you.