Unilateral Hypertrophy – Killing it One Leg at a Time – Part 1

Note: You can read part 2 of this article here.

If you’re trying to build a set of massive, indestructible legs, then there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the old mantra that “squats are king”.  Moreover, you’ve probably been told that squats don’t even count unless you squat deep enough to leave a little brown star on the floor when you come up.

Unfortunately, it is not only incorrect to suggest that deep squats are the only way to get a huge set of wheels, but it can also be a recipe for disaster for some trainees.

The truth is that squats are not necessarily the optimal path for all people and forcing your body to squat when it simply isn’t prepared for this activity is like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole–it just doesn’t work.

Now, before the hate mail starts to pour in telling me that I probably wear pink nail polish, let me be clear that I’m not saying that I’m anti-squat by any means.  When done properly, a deep squat will allow the lumbar spine to stay in a neutral position throughout the movement and the training effect can be incredible.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people I’ve trained (including many advanced trainees) did not have the hip mobility to move into a deep squat without compensating with lumbar spine motion.  In this case, the pelvis will “tuck under” at the bottom of the movement, causing the lumbar spine to flex under load.  According to Dr. Stuart McGill, one of North America’s leading back specialists, this is an extremely dangerous position.  Unless you want your back to snap, crackle, and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies, you’d better make some modifications soon.

The good news is that single leg training variations can drive hypertrophy and performance improvements while you work on the mobility required for a perfect squat.  Once you’ve nailed the squat or if you’ve already got it down cold, you can use the single leg movements to supplement your squat training for additional muscle growth.

The Benefits of Single Leg Training

1. Less risk of spinal compression

It goes without saying that if you’re moving any kind of respectable weight on your squats that you’re going to place the spine under a large compressive load.  Even if you’re not flexing your spine and your form is spot-on, the repeated high loads can sometimes lead to a less commonly recognized injury called an end plate fracture.  Put simply, instead of the discs in your spine becoming herniated (i.e., popping out the back), the ends of your vertebrae can fracture, causing a loss of disc height and compression of nerves exiting the spinal cord.  This is often associated with a “popping” sound that trainees typically remember hearing just before they hit the floor.  As a bonus, your x-ray will often show a loss of disc height, which your doctor will often call degenerative disc disease when it most certainly is not.

Single leg movements can decrease the compressive load on the spine because less weight is needed to train each leg individually.  Even if you’re squatting regularly, periodically rotating squats out of your workout to deload the spine is a good idea.

2. Increased stabilizer function

Generally speaking, bilateral lifts such as squats allow the lifter to move big weights and by doing so, they target the primary movers such as the quads.  They also allow us to grunt, sweat, and clang large plates together!

By reducing the base of support with single leg training, we are better able to emphasize the stabilizer muscles that are less frequently trained.  In many single leg variations, the gluteus medius (whose weakness has a role in knee pain) is heavily recruited to stabilize the femur in the hip joint.  While this may sound less sexy than smashing through your squat PR, training these muscles serves to prevent future injury that could keep us on the sidelines while hard earned leg mass withers away.

3. Greater emphasis on the glutes

To be honest, if you’re a dude, I don’t really care what your glutes look like.  But my wife assures me that women, like men, notice these types of things.  Moreover, if you know how women operate, they talk.  Unless you want to be known to your lady and her friends as flatty flat pants you’d better get to work.

Single leg movements have an uncanny ability to involve the glutes to a high degree, so putting a few of these in your workout is almost assured to give you some muscle soreness the next day.  Training the glutes can also have a profound effect on posture, preventing the dreaded anterior pelvic tilt by helping the pelvis to tilt posteriorly.

With a few weeks of hard work, your posture will finally begin to improve, and your ass will finally stop looking like someone poured pancake batter down the back of your legs.

4. Tax the adductors.

If you’ve got a bodybuilding mindset and your primary goal is to grow some huge quads, it is likely that you’re a narrow stance squatter.  However, squatting in this position often neglects the adductors on the inside of the legs, which could easily account for some extra leg width if they were more developed.  The good news is that while the primary job of the adductors is to pull the legs together, they also have some role in flexion and extension of the thigh, depending on their position.  More specifically, the adductors get hit hard in movements like walking lunges.

If you’re more interested in powerlifting, you already know that wide-stance squats and sumo deadlifts place a high degree of emphasis on your posterior chain.  However, the adductors also contribute to these movements, and by training them using a different pattern, you’ll be able to contribute to their overall size and strength.  With a little work on these exercises, the carryover to your big movements will result in some additional pounds on your total.

5. Hammer the core

One thing about squats that makes us able to use such large loads is that the weight is evenly distributed.  If you’ve ever accidentally put more weight on one end of the bar than the other you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

With single leg movements, you can offset the load by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in only one hand while performing the movements.  By doing this you not only tax the hip stabilizers (as mentioned earlier), but you force your core to work to prevent you from falling over and embarrassing yourself.  While isolated core training is great, integrating core training into your actual exercise programming can add extra core work to your session and provide more “real life” loading situations.

The Movements

With all of the explanations of why you should do single leg variations behind us, let’s look ahead at some of the best single leg progressions you can do to improve leg size and performance.

1.  Split Squat

Step into a long lunge position and maintain a tall spine.  Lower the body so that the back knee reaches a spot approximately one inch from the floor and drive through the front heel back to the start position.  It is important for this movement that you focus on moving the center of gravity up and down and not forwards and backwards.  In other words, the knee on the front leg should not be shooting out over the toes.

This movement can be loaded with a barbell, but I tend to prefer dumbbell variations at first because the balance can be tricky.

Split Squat – Starting Position

Split Squat – Finishing Position

2.  Rear Foot-Elevated Split Squat  (a.k.a., The Bulgarian Squat)

To take the difficulty up a level, place top of your rear foot on a bench behind you and perform the movement in a manner similar to the split squat mentioned above.  Although this position may feel awkward for some, I always recommend that you start with the top of the rear foot on the bench because this will become necessary as the weight increases.  Despite the relatively small change in position, this progression is significantly more difficult than a standard split squat.

Aside from being a more difficult movement, this exercise is more demanding in terms of flexibility of the rectus femoris at the rear hip.  Make sure to keep the abs tight to make sure that the pelvis doesn’t get pulled out of neutral position.

The Bulgarian Squat – Starting Position

The Bulgarian Squat – Finishing Position

3.  Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat

This progression is very similar to the previous movement except that in this one you’ll elevate the front foot on a plate or low box in addition to the rear foot elevation.  In doing this, you’ll dramatically increase the range of motion that you’ll need to work through, and this will make the whole exercise much harder.  Again, keep the abs tight while you perform this variation.

Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat – Starting Position

Both Feet-Elevated Split Squat – Finishing Position

4.  Walking Lunges

I love this exercise because Ronnie Coleman did it in a parking lot and he’s huge.  Since pro bodybuilders are all natural and their success has nothing at all to do with genetics, I just copy their exercises.  Just kidding.  I love walking lunges because they have both an accelerative component and a declarative component and tax the stabilizers of the hips and core in so many ways.

If you really want to take this movement up a notch, try performing it with a heavy dumbbell on only one side or two lighter dumbbells held overhead to make the whole body work.  Aside from the muscle building elements, walking lunges are also great for conditioning.

5.  Single Leg-Supported Squat

If you’ve never done a full range single-legged squat, you may find this movement to be one of the most humbling you’ve done in a while.  Simply hold on to a squat rack, Smith machine (it does have a use), or the cute girl next to you at the gym for balance and crank out a set of these.  Your back foot must remain flat on the ground so that the heel does not rise up, and you should avoid bouncing at the bottom of the movement.  Bouncing allows you to use the elastic component of the muscle and takes away from the muscle-producing contractions you should be using.

Single Leg-Supported Squat – Starting Position

Single Leg-Supported Squat – Finishing Position

6.  Single-Leg Squat to a Bench

At this point you might be wondering why on earth I’d go from a full range single-legged squat to a partial range movement.  However, I must emphasize that there is a distinct difference between a supported movement in which you get to hold on to something and one where you don’t.  Squatting down to a bench with no support will engage the hip stabilizers to a high degree, and if you’re unable to do this, you’ll never be able to progress to an unsupported version of the full-range exercise.

To do this exercise, stand in front of a bench or box and lower your body in a controlled manner until you land gently.  Pause for one second and then drive through the planted leg to stand up.  Make sure not to rock your body to assist.  Generally speaking, many people find it helps to hold light weights out in front to counterbalance this movement.  If the exercise is too hard, find a higher bench.  If it is too easy, add weight or find a lower bench.

Single-Leg Squat to a Bench – Starting Position

Single-Leg Squat to a Bench – Finishing Position

7.  Full Range Single-Leg Squat (a.k.a., Pistols)

This time you’ll be doing exactly the same movement as above except that you’ll have absolutely nothing to stop you from falling over and looking like a fool.  I’d suggest practicing this one at home first.

To do a pistol, the best advice I can give is to become very proficient at an extremely low box height (using the exercise above) before you even try it.  Hold a weight out in front of you and move slowly as you descend to the bottom.  At this point you’ll want to assure that you’ve got your balance before you attempt to stand up.  Once you can do this, you’ll have mastered the most difficult of the single leg progressions.

Full Range Single-Leg Squat – Starting Position

Full Range Single-Leg Squat – Finishing Position


All in all, single leg variations can be a substitute for squats when a trainee does not yet have adequate hip mobility to perform a squat (many of you) and as extremely valuable supplemental exercises when you are able to squat with good form (the rest of you).

The benefits are numerous, and I’m sad to say it took me so long into my career to really see the value of incorporating such a powerful set of tools into my training arsenal.  In putting this material out there for you, I’m hoping you won’t make the same mistake.

Get out there on one leg and kill it!

Written by Mark Young

Note: You can read part 2 of this article here.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Unilateral Hypertrophy – Killing it One Leg at a Time discussion thread

About Mark Young

Mark Young is an exercise and nutrition consultant from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

In 2000 Mark completed a degree in Kinesiology and a minor in Psychology from McMaster University.  He later followed that with graduate research in both biomechanics and exercise physiology under the guidance of Dr. Stuart Phillips.

Rather than blathering on any further about his credentials and clientele, he would prefer you check out his website at www.markyoungtrainingsystems.com and check out the content for yourself.