The throwback, old school, powerlifting strongmen are going to fight me on this one…but I’m ready to come out swinging. In my experience, single leg training (in the form of heavy Bulgarian split squats, pistol squats, physioball single leg curls, single leg RDL’s and weighted step ups to name a few) can have a more significant impact on leg growth than traditional squats, deadlifts and hamstring curls.
Having worked with some of the most elite professional athletes (and yes…incorporating many of those same olympic power lifts into their workouts at times) I can tell you from experience that the most significant results that I could get from my clients almost always came when the single leg lifting was the focus. Why is that?
Muscle Recruitment and Overload
To me it’s simple…it’s all about muscle recruitment and overload. When you’re doing huge multijoint exercises like heavy back squats and deadlifts, the tendency is to call upon every muscle you can that might remotely be able to pitch in even just a bit of force to help you overcome the weight and complete the rep, set or drill.
While this is good for developing total body power, it can have a sacrificial effect on muscle size as the brunt of the work is being distributed across multiple muscle groups instead of the ones you’re trying to target in the first place (in this case the quads, hams and glutes). Spreading the force out makes it more difficult to reach muscle group overload and total momentary muscle failure (that is a prerequisite for new muscle growth).
On the other hand, performing many of the same exercises, or at least movement patterns, but instead switching to single leg varieties makes you have to decrease the weight a bit but at the same time increase the overload. When you do a single leg squat…you’re immediately easing the burden on the spine and lower back by switching from the “bar across the back” posture to a “dumbbells at your side” position.
This alone allows you to stay more upright, maintain a better back posture throughout, and distribute the weight more into the quads than the hips. Since quad growth is what you’re after, you’ve boosted the effectiveness by actually decreasing weight…..just by targeting the load better.
Adapting The Prone Hamstring Curl
Same goes for a prone hamstring curl. Sure you may be able to lift over a 100 lbs when doing this exercise on one of the machines that you’ll often find a line waiting to use, but what does that really matter? You’re lifting the weight up with equal parts momentum, lever arm advantages, and strong leg domination compensating for the weaker leg.
If instead you switch that out to a single leg physioball bridge and/or curl…now you’ve instantly increased not only the difficulty of the exercise but also the targeted effectiveness of it. Don’t believe me? Try a couple reps of a high hamstring bridge on a physioball and tell me if you don’t feel the right muscles working at the right time?!?
It lights a fire in the hamstrings unlike any other exercise. Overload them by placing a weight plate across your lap if you’d like and you’ll better be able to recruit the fibers of the currently dormant hams and be able to rely upon them when you need them the most!
The direct, targeted focus again…allows you to streamline your efforts, increase your focus, but then still apply the same amount of intensity and determination to just one or two muscle groups instead of 6-7 at one time. Same effort, targeted focus. For me and my athletes I work with it can be just what the doctor ordered for explosive new muscle growth to occur.
Want to learn more about the effectiveness of single leg training and how to incorporate it into your workouts for explosive new growth? Simply visit Athleanx.com and see how the pro athletes use the same exact training principles to get lean, muscular and powerful physiques that help them to both look and function at the top of their game
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.