When it comes to training for sport performance, it’s important to remember that we want our work in the weight room to closely resemble the movements that are required from us in our sport. Therefore, the old school approach of only training bilaterally (on two legs) with traditional back squats, deadlifts, leg extensions, and leg curls is not going to have nearly the same transfer to the field of play as unilateral (single leg) training will. When is the last time you saw a football player hop down the field on both legs? Have you ever seen a baseball player jump down to first base on two feet? Or what about a soccer player kick the ball with both legs at the same time? The place that you are going to spend the most time with two feet flat on the ground is when you are sitting on the bench. So, if you continue to take the old school approach to training with poor programming of only doing two-legged lower body exercises, the bench is where you are going to stay!
- SPORTS ARE PLAYED ON ONE LEG!! – How many sports do you know of that are played with two feet fixed on the ground and your weight evenly distributed through each leg the entire time? Not many, right? I believe rowing/crew is the only one. Running, walking, skipping, cutting, backpedaling, shuffling, crossover running, and jumping are all sport related movements that are performed with one foot on the ground at a time. Therefore, we should be training accordingly (unilaterally) to give us the best transfer from weight room to playing field.
- WE ARE NOT POWERLIFTERS!! – We need to remember that we are training to be ATHLETES and to improve performance in our respective sport. Powerlifters squat, deadlift, and bench press because THAT IS THEIR SPORT! As sports performance coaches, we do borrow some concepts of powerlifting for our athletes, but we need to remember that we are not lifting weights just to get good at lifting weights!
- DON’T LET YOUR WEAK LEG HIDE!! – We all have one leg that is stronger than the other. When we have both feet fixed on the ground, like in a traditional back squat, naturally your stronger leg is going to try and do most of the work while your weak leg hides behind that stronger leg and stays weak! When you move to a single leg exercise, such as the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat, that weak leg can no longer hide because it is now on its own and forced to do all the work and therefore gets stronger.
- CHALLENGES MORE MUSCLES – When going back to the traditional back squat, we have both feet fixed on the ground, a good base of support, and our balance is not being challenged which makes our big strong prime movers (glutes, hamstrings, quads) the only muscles that are working. When we move to one leg and lose that solid base of support, the lateral side to side stability suddenly becomes an issue and some of our smaller very important stabilizing muscles (adductors & abductors) are forced to kick on and do their job.
- THE BILATERAL DEFICIT – The bilateral deficit is a phenomenon where the sum of the strength you can produce on each leg individually is greater than what you can produce with both legs working together. In other words, if you were doing a rear foot elevated split squat on just your right leg and then just your left leg and you added those two weights together it would be greater than what you could do in a double legged back squat.
- 50% LESS SPINAL LOADING – Most people know the risks associated with excessively loading your spine. Regularly placing a barbell on your back compresses your spine and sets you up for a host of back problems now and in the future. I’ve never met a powerlifter that hasn’t had a back injury of some kind. With single leg exercises, you can basically cut the load in half. Even better, you might not need to load the exercise at all if you are doing something as challenging as a non-supported pistol squat.
- INJURY PREVENTION – One of the main reasons you should be training is to prevent injuries from occurring while playing your sport. So, to put yourself in a compromised position where you are leaving yourself susceptible to injury while training for your sport is completely counterproductive and inexcusable at any level. Therefore, if we can choose a safer and more effective exercise like a split squat, lunge variation, single leg squat, etc. instead of a less effective and more dangerous exercise like that back squat, isn’t that a no brainer? There is also plenty of research supporting the use of single leg exercises to combat against ankle and knee injuries because of the proprioceptors that are turned on to balance and stabilize those particular joints.