Single-leg squat progressions for vitality and athletic performance
Coordination and balance are signs of strength and are tied to vitality and overall quality of life, not just athletic performance. Working on coordination and balance is an important part of strength-training regimens, especially for adult athletes as they experience age-related muscle loss.
One way to improve coordination and balance is to improve your strength in a one-legged position. This will not only improve quality of life in daily activities, but will also help you unlock additional power in your hips and legs for athletic movements.
If you’re unfamiliar with the different categories that your strength program should cover be sure to review, Strength Training: A Balanced Approach.
Here are the categories that you should train consistently for a balanced program with a focus on injury-reduction and performance enhancement:
- Push (horizontal and vertical)
- Pull (horizontal and vertical)
- Squat (single- and double-legged)
- Hinge (single- and double-legged)
- Core (prone, supine and vertical)
In this article, I’ll be reviewing squat progressions in a single-leg position. I’ll explain how you can progress to gain more control and stability in the legs, leading to increased strength.
Important: Before you begin, review the videos of all of the exercises and progressions so you understand all of the movements and variations.
Important: If you are new to strength training, consult with a qualified trainer or strength and conditioning coach to ensure that these exercises are appropriate for you.
For the initial assessment to help identify which level you should start your training, stand on one leg with the other leg off the ground out in front of you. Squat down as low as you can go while maintaining control. Repeat this for 4 to 6 reps. If during the majority of those reps your femur or thigh of the leg you’re standing on reaches horizontal or your hips are going lower than your knees, you should be able to start on Level 3 exercises. If your thighs are close to horizontal but not quite all the way there, you should start on Level 2 exercises. If you’re barely able to squat or control your balance on one leg, start on Level 1 exercises.
In addition if any of these actions occur during your squat, it’s best to start on Level 1 regardless of how deep your squat was:
- Excessive movement from knee
- Chest falling forward
- Heel comes off the ground
These beginner exercises help to establish neuromuscular control for strength and balance in a single-leg stance.
- Single-leg Sit-Down. Stand about 6 inches in front of and with your back facing a bench, chair, or step. While standing on one leg, sit back and try to lower yourself as slowly as possible into the chair. Maintain control without freefalling all the way until you’re in a seated position. Keep pressure in your heel and be able to wiggle your toes the whole way down. Then use both legs to stand up and start another rep from the top down. Repeat for 4 to 8 reps on each leg.
- Split Squat. Start in a kneeling position on the ground, kneeling on your left knee, with the left knee directly under your hip. Place your right foot on the ground in front of you, with the right knee at 90 degrees. Drive through your right heel to stand up while never moving either foot from its original position. Move up and down for 6 to 12 reps on one side before switching positions with your legs.
- Reverse Lunge. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and lunge back with your left foot until your left knee is under your hip and at 90 degrees, while keeping your right foot still. Keep the pressure in your right heel and dig into the ground to stand up from the bottom position. Alternate sides until you’ve completed 12 to 24 reps total.
If you’ve got some control while squatting on one leg, these exercises will further increase your strength and control.
- Rear Foot Elevated Squat. Place your left foot on a bench, chair, or step behind you and place your right foot out far enough that you can squat down and have your right shin stay vertical with your knee over your ankle. Your left knee will either be under your hip or a little farther behind. Drive through your right heel to squat up and down for 4 to 8 reps and then switch sides.
- Single-leg Step-Up. With your right foot up on a step or bench, bring your shin in a vertical line with your right knee over your ankle. Your left leg should be straight and on the ground. Drive through your right heel to stand up on the step or bench and then slowly sit back as you lower yourself down. Do not use your left leg to assist. You can keep your left foot’s toes off the ground and knee straight through the movement to ensure you are only using your right leg to stand up. Repeat for 4 to 8 reps on one side before switching.
- Assisted Single-leg Squat + TRX. While standing on your right foot, hold a TRX, other suspension system, or dryland bands at an angle where you’ll have tension. While keeping your right shin vertical, sit back into your heel as you move your hips back and squat down. You can use as little or as much assistance as you want with your arms to stand up. Over time, you want to lessen the amount of assistance you’re getting from the bands so that you can soon squat on one leg without assistance from the upper body. Perform 4 to 8 reps on a leg before switching.
Once you’ve shown the ability to be strong in a single-leg position and squat, you’ll want to continue to strengthen that movement with these advanced exercises.
- Single-leg Squat to Box. Stand about 6 inches in front of and with your back facing a bench, chair, or step. While standing on one leg, sit back and try to lower yourself as slowly as possible until you simply touch the bench with your butt. Then stand up through the heel, all while keeping tension and not relaxing on the bench. Keep pressure in your heel and be able to wiggle your toes the whole way. Repeat for 4 to 8 reps on each leg.
- Single-leg Squat Elevated + Dumbbell. Begin with your right leg straight and standing on a box or step with your right foot hanging in the air. In your left hand, hold a weight that’s comfortable for you. Sit your hips back and keep the pressure in your right heel with your chest up. Squat down as far as you can control and then stand back up. Repeat 4 to 8 reps and then switch legs.
Remember to watch the videos of all of these exercises to ensure that you’re performing them correctly.
- Technique and Training