If you want to hammer your legs while sparing your low back, try single leg squats. Last time I gave you 10 fantastic benefits of this exercise, but I left you hanging. I didn’t explain how to get to the more advanced progressions. Well, today, it’s time to look at those progressions. Here is a step-by step guide to rocking a single leg squat.
Single Leg Squat Prerequisite: Squatting on 2 legs
If haven’t mastered the basic 2-leg squat pattern, this is where you want to start. One of the best tools I’ve ever used for teaching the squat is Coach Dan John’s Goblet Squat. If you don’t know how to Goblet Squat, check out this video and work on the mechanics of the Goblet Squat.
This keeping a full squat movement in your training is great - especially as you are using some of the beginner single leg squat progressions.
Single Leg Squat Progressions 101
Before we get to the single leg squat progressions, I just want to make sure we are all on the same page. The lower you go in the squat, the harder it is. This is why squat numbers mean nothing without seeing the depth. A 400lb squat below (real) parallel is a completely different ball game than a 400lb quarter squat.
When it comes to single leg squats, you can’t just add or remove weight from the bar to get to your optimal training load. You have the challenge of progressing or regressing the exercise while working with a fixed weight – you. To work around this, we can the varying mechanics of squat depth to our advantage.
Shallower = easier
Deeper = harder
Progressive Range of Motion History Lesson
The late great Strongman Paul Anderson was the first may to unofficially squat 1000lbs. One of his methods was progressive range of motion. Now this was back before the invention of the power rack. Big Paul would dig a pit in the farmyard, roll a barbell over it, stand inside the pit and do a partial squat. Then we would gradually add dirt to the pit – which meant his range of motion gradually increased. After a while, he was parallel squatting the weight. Below is a very short clip of this style of squats. For information of this amazing man, click HERE and for more training footage click HERE.
Now, back to single leg squats…
Single Leg Squat Progression 1: Single Leg Squat from Step
In this first progression, you simply start by doing a single leg squat/side step-up. You start with a shallow box or step and gradually increase the range of motion. The trick is that you need to learn to not use the down-leg – which usually happens with step-ups. Check out this video to learn how to do it:
Single Leg Squat Progression 2, Option 1: Single Leg Squat to
The next progression is to move to single leg squatting to a bench. If you are not strong enough to squat to the bench, you can stack plates on the bench to decrease range of motion and gradually remove them. Check out this video for details:
Note: once you can squat to the height of your bench, you can further progress the range of motion by putting a plate or plates under your squatting foot. I showed this in an older video HERE.
Single Leg Squat Progression 2, Option 2: Single Leg Squat to Box
This is basically the same as option 1. However, if you have higher boxes as I do in this video, it is a nice variation because you don’t have to raise your other leg as high. Check out this video for details:
Single Leg Squat Progression 3: Single Leg Squat to Box on a
Here is another variation of this where you stand on a box and squat to another box. I learned this variation Coach Mike Boyle. It is a little tricky to set-up, but it works well if you have the boxes. You can still use range of motion progression by decreasing the height of the box you squat to until you get to around parallel.
Single Leg Squat Progression 4: Full Squats from Box
This is my favorite style of single leg squat because it allows full range of motion while keeping your spine in neutral (i.e. its natural curves). This time you stand up on a box or other sturdy object and do a full squat (note: with your structure you may not get quite as low as I do). Again, here is a video of this in action:
Single Leg Squat Progression 5: Loaded Single Leg Squats
Once you have mastered the full single leg squat, you can start to load the exercise to challenge your leg while staying in your desired rep range. You could add a weight vest or my personal favorite – chains (chains look way cooler and are easier to slip on and off between sets). Here is a video demo:
What About Pistols?
I fully admit that pistols are really cool. A full pistol squat is a great display of relative strength, flexibility and balance. As impressive as they are, you run into the following problems:
- Pistols suited to those with a poor squat structure (i.e. short limbs and a long torso)
- Pistols go really deep and force your knees forward. As you hit the bottom position, you can smash your hamstring into your calf and can create a prying effect on your knee.
- When you hit a deep squat on one leg, your knees can’t move out to create room for your hips so they jam up against your thighs. This, combined with the other leg held straight out force your lower back into flexion. Of course, this is not as bad as tail tucking with a heavy barbell on your back, but it can still cause problems and enforce a movement (squatting with spinal flexion) that you don’t want when exercising.
However, if you still want to work to a full pistol squat, you can use the single leg squat progression 4 and gradually decrease the height of the box/object you are standing on. This forces you to get used to holding your other leg higher and higher.
Happy single leg squatting! If you choose to try these progressions, let me know how they go. As always, I welcome your comments and questions below.
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