Written by Jamie Bantleman
While there are an abundance of exercises for the lower body, many will be based purely on improving the aesthetic development of either the quadricep, hamstrings, glute muscles or calf muscles. However, maintaining strength in your legs requires specific strengthening exercises.
To initially improve strength you should focus on gaining balance between both legs by trying to keep the ability to move the weight the same as the other. I often find that when training clients they have imbalanced muscle development in both legs and when performing bilateral movements one leg over dominates, therefore creates a further imbalance. Weakness in one leg is very common and shouldn’t be overlooked. However, how do you work just one leg at a time when at the same time you are trying to grow the muscle tissue and lose body fat?
The answer is actually very simple, you can basically do many exercises in a single leg or unilateral movement very easily, even a squat or deadlift.
Single Leg Variations To Improve Muscular Strength And Endurance
Often you may find that you lean to one side when you are squatting therefore creating balance and strength issues in the leg that is taking less tension through the muscle fibres. Therefore you may look to do an assisted pistol squat. You can use a TRX or simply move a bench close to where you are doing the exercise to balance on. Although I personally would not give this to a beginner as its a very advanced movement, if you are someone who is quite experienced and finding slight weakness when squatting this could be a very good exercise to create better balance and power in both legs.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
When deadlifting, I personally feel more tension down one hamstring than the other, and others I train feel this on a regular basis. To combat this, you can do a split stance deadlift, where you are holding dumbbells in the same position as you would with the bar, keeping it close to the body and letting it drag down your legs until you reach maximal tension in your hamstring. With the back leg bent and front leg locked out at the knee, slowly going down through hip flexion to then come up into hip extension will allow both hamstrings to be focused upon to then find better balance and strength in this unilateral movement.
Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
This movement is one I often use for a beginner to achieve better balance and strength primarily in the Vastus Medialis (often known as the VMO), through the inside of the quad leading down to the knee cap. When watching someone in a squat position you may often see weakness at the knee as it falls inwards, however this exercise is perfect for developing strength in that particular area. Simply, you start in a position very much like a lunge, however you have your front foot in an elevated position on top of a step or weight plate at a slight angle (outwards). If your foot is at 0 degrees, take it to a 15-20 degree angle to ensure it is in the right position. Slowly lower the body in this position and maintain a vertical position all the down and all the way up. Pay particular attention to keeping tension in the Vastus Medialis.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Very similar to the movement above, a Bulgarian Split Squat is with elevation of the rear foot in a static lunge position. Maintain a straight back, a dumbbell can be placed in hand of the front leg. Slowly lowering the back knee downwards focusing on contraction of the hamstrings and glute muscles. When you reach just above the floor you should drive upwards in a vertical plane of movement.
Single Leg Press
When leg pressing, it is very easy for the stronger leg to over dominate. Therefore using this exercise in a unilateral capacity can be very beneficial in terms of achieving improved strength and balance in the legs. Take your foot position to the middle of the leg press plate, and slowly lower down your knee towards the chest, again finding maximal contraction in the glutes and hamstrings. Slowly driving upwards will help you achieve maximal contraction in the quadriceps.
Single Lying Leg Curl
In the lying leg curl position you can simply take one leg out and use the other to find balance in both hamstrings. This can be a very good exercise for both a beginner and an advanced trainee. Initially keeping your hips down, and squeezing the glutes you can slowly contract the hamstring by knee flexion until it is under maximal contraction without raising the hip to engage any other muscle.
Single Leg Extension
Leg Extension is focused solely on the quadricep muscle and alike the leg curl you can simply switch this to a single leg exercise by taking one foot out of the machine. Once under the weight, drive the leg upwards until the knee is locked out and the quadricep is fully contracted, holding this position in an isometric hold for around 2-3 seconds can be very beneficial. Slowly lower your leg until the knee is at an 180 degree angle and repeat the exercise.