From running to walking to climbing stairs, a whole lot of life happens on one leg. That’s why it’s helpful to include single-leg exercises in your workout routine, especially if your goal is well-balanced, functional strength.
Single-leg exercises are crucial for achieving that, Ava Fagin, CSCS, sports performance coach at Cleveland State University, tells SELF.
Also called unilateral exercises, single-leg exercises are movements that are performed with the strength of just one leg. Compared to bilateral exercises (like a squat or deadlift) that require both legs to be working simultaneously, single-leg exercises (like a lunge or split squat) demand more balance and stability. They also, like we mentioned, more closely mimic everyday life, which makes them a super-important, functional component of pretty much any exercise routine.
Ahead, everything you need to know about single-leg exercises, including their benefits, how to work them into your strength training routine, and what to do if you notice a strength imbalance between legs—which, we’d just like to point out, is completely normal! We also rounded up 11 great single-leg exercises that you can try out in your own workout program.
Why are single-leg exercises so important?
Single-leg exercises are really functional. That’s because they strongly parallel daily life (and most sports, too) which means regularly doing single-leg work can help you move more efficiently and with less risk of injury in tons of scenarios.
Single-leg exercises also demand balance and stability, which translates to core engagement, since your core muscles are vital in keeping you steady and avoiding tipping to the side or folding over. So while single-leg moves primarily work your lower body, they also deliver sneaky work for your abs and surrounding core muscles, too.
Another benefit of single-leg exercises is they can help you identify asymmetries that exist from side to side. Now, most of us have strength imbalances between our legs, meaning one leg is stronger than the other, says Fagin. And while these imbalances occur naturally, it’s a good idea to work to improve them since significant strength differences per side can lead to injury. That’s because the stronger side can overcompensate for the weaker side and end up taking on too much stress.
And one way to effectively address imbalances? Yep, you guessed it: single-leg exercises. “Single-leg exercises really do allow us to even things out,” says Fagin. (More on how, exactly, they do that in a minute.)
How can you use single-leg exercises in your workout routine?
Fagin suggests incorporating single-leg exercises alongside bilateral exercises every time you lift weights or do other forms of resistance training. “I would err on the side of strength-leg work as much as I can,” she says.
In a workout of five lower-body exercises, for example, Fagin suggests doing three single-leg and two bilateral moves because “single leg work really is that important,” she says. That said, bilateral exercises, like squats and deadlifts, are important, too, which is why you don’t want to spend all your time doing single-leg work. As with many things in exercise (and life!), balance is key.