by Tyler Valencia, MS, CPT, PES
In most sports, single-leg movements are an integral part of an athlete’s success. With respect to the specificity of training, it wouldn’t make sense for an athlete making cuts or jumping off one leg to solely strength train their lower extremities with two feet on the ground. If the majority of their sport is performed on one leg, movements in strength programs should provide stimulus to increase strength, decrease the chance of injury and improve performance. Santana (2001) stated “because of the lighter loads and the more functional positions used in this unilateral training approach, single-leg training could be instrumental in prolonging athletic careers while enhancing performance”. With single-leg training, an athlete can increase the cross-over of their training which is ultimately is the purpose of incorporating a strength training program.
I must preface that this article is not about the negatives of high intensity interval training (HIIT) or high intensity power training (HIPT) in relation to maximum strength development, but more about creating a foundational strength base with maximal lifts and then transitioning to a more sport appropriate hybrid (individualized) model, which can increase strength performance. HIIT and HIPT training has its benefits and has become widely popular, but when trying to increase the application to sport, different training variables (rest, sets, load, etc.) must come into play. When I first got into competing in monthly Scottish Highland Games, I was doing a combination of HIIT and HIPT. This combination, although useful for aesthetics, did not produce the best results for a maximal effort event. When you think about it physiologically, your body is not giving itself optimal rest to produce maximum effort lifts, and therefore is unable to increase maximum strength. After a year of not getting the performance results I wanted, I decided to fully commit to highland games training and start powerlifting. I did my research as any fellow strength coach would do, and came up with a routine that focused around 6 major lifts of 5 x 5, and 3-5 accessory lifts of 3 x 10. While this produced results in the gym, after 3-4 mesocycles of following this routine and practicing for the games, I felt slow and clunky (no offense to powerlifters, I love lifting heavy). Please note that it is imperative to any strength training program that a strength base is first formed before incorporating single leg elements. As I mentioned, this program produced strength results quickly, but the application to sport was missing.
Next, I created a hybrid program that I designed and followed it for 3-4 mesocycles. This program incorporated more single leg strength training, which helped improve balance and translated better to the offset loaded positions in a highland games competition. According to Santana (2001), “one easily realizes that much of the time, force production is generated by a single leg”, “even in situations in which both feet are on the ground, the weight distribution will often be unilaterally biased and will not line up the articulations perfectly” (pp.35). Another great point that Santana (2001) brought up was how athletes must be able to control different parts of their body while producing forces on a single leg concentrically, isometrically, and especially eccentrically. A mental issue that might arise or prevent this transition for many lifters is that you may start off with smaller loads, but once practiced the loads can be increased. After incorporating these exercises, not only were my strength levels higher than before, but with minimal practice for competition, my throws were already further than before. From a muscular standpoint the tenderness or “hot knee” that I had finished my previous season with (could have been due to poor mechanics and overuse) had dissipated and my legs felt like they had better stabilization when loaded.
Here are four single leg exercises that I incorporated into my program:
- Contralateral RDLs- this exercise can be performed with a dumbbell or a kettlebell. My personal favorite, which I got from the great Ben Bruno, is the landmine variation. With this variation, the glute med activation is higher and noticeable. Visually you can see how much easier the hips are able to stay square with the ground and how your body can counterbalance the weight.
- Unilateral RDLs – can be performed with kettlebell, dumbbell or landmine variation. Notice the hips opening up and balance required to perform.
- Bulgarian Split Squats – can be used with any suspension trainer you have or a bench
- Contralateral Lunges – the offset load causes by the landmine set up can increase neuromuscular coordination and in the application aspect can relate to sports performance. A dumbbell or kettlebell can be used as well.
- Lateral Step Up – the lateral set up allows for a more fluid leg drive on the opposite leg and for safety purposes allows the plant foot to be positioned better. To add an explosive component, a hop on the plant foot can be incorporated.
Santana, J. C. (2001). Single-leg training for 2-legged sports: Efficacy of strength development in athletic performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 23(3), 35 – 37.
About the author
Tyler Valencia, MS, CPT, PES is the Vice President of the National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) and Smart Fitness, and owner of Time 2 Train Fitness in Long Beach, CA.