Squats are for everyone! There’s no one who won’t benefit from doing some form of this exercise. That’s why it’s so often called the king of exercises. Squats are one of the most popular strength exercises, partially because they work so many muscle groups at once. Who doesn’t want an exercise that calls lots of muscle groups into play? Plus, squats work large muscle groups in the lower body, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and even the muscles in your core get in on the action as they help stabilize your body as you squat. Working more muscles increases the calorie burn, anabolic effects, and the potential for fat loss.
Chances are, you do most of your squats with both feet planted firmly on the ground. But, there’s another variation, single-leg squats, that can be a valuable addition to your routine. As the name implies, with a single-leg squat you bear weight on only one leg as you squat and it’s a harder exercise to do. Despite being a harder move to master, mastering them is worth the effort. Here’s why.
Single-Leg Squats Are Easier on Your Back and Spine
If you have back issues, single-leg squats are a safer move because they place less shearing and compressive forces on your spine. As an aside, rear leg elevated split squats also place less compressive force on the back than standard back squats. Plus, they’re another alternative for those who have orthopedic issues. Single-leg squats also improve back health by strengthening the stabilizing muscles that support your back. Since you’re balancing on one leg, the stabilizing muscles in your core get more of a challenge than when you do a standard squat. If you have back problems and can’t do back squats with two feet without discomfort, this is a safer alternative.
They Develop Balance Skills
It’s easy to see how doing a squat on one leg challenges your sense of balance. It’s not easy to descend into a squat on one leg in a controlled manner. You probably won’t be able to do a one-leg squat the first time you try but keep working at it and it will get easier. It’ll also pay off with some unique fitness dividends.
As mentioned training with one leg forces the stabilizers to work harder. When you squat on only one leg, it strengthens the muscles that stabilize your hips and pelvis and that helps you improve your ability to balance when you carry out your daily activities. Do them regularly and you’ll also benefit from a lower risk of injury when you play sports, especially sports where you quickly shift directions.
When you do many of the activities you do every day and when you play sports, how often do you have both feet firmly planted on the ground? Training with one leg, at least some of the time, helps your body adapt in a more functional and sport-specific way. This type of training more closely mimics the moves you do daily.
They Help Correct Asymmetries
If you have a strength imbalance between your two legs, focusing on that one leg a bit more can help correct strength discrepancies and imbalances. However, it’s also a good idea to know WHY you have a strength imbalance. An old injury can do it, but a strength imbalance could also be due to a pinched nerve or other nerve issue that a physiotherapist can help with. So, if you’re not making progress correcting the imbalance or have other symptoms, get checked out medically.
Being Able to Do One Is Impressive!
Finally, everyone knows single-leg squats aren’t easy. And being able to do one is impressive! So, congratulate yourself if you can execute a full single-leg squat, sometimes called a pistol squat. If not, keep working on it! You’ll get there – and it’s good to keep challenging yourself. Once you’ve mastered the basic squat, and be sure to get your form right before trying variations, you can increase the resistance or do a more advanced version of squats to challenge your muscles in a different way.
There Are Downsides to Single-Leg Squats
The biggest drawback to adding single-leg squats to your routine is they’re tough to execute. Don’t expect to do a single-leg squat right off the bat, especially a full, pistol squat If you’ve never done them before, try doing a move called a single-leg squat to box.
To this variation, sit down on a bench. Holding your arms out in front of you for balance and leverage, elevate one foot off the floor as you sit on the bench. Now, lean forward, shifting your body weight onto the other leg and stand up. Then, slowly sit back down in a controlled manner. Repeat. This move will help you develop the strength and balance you need to do a full pistol squat or a single-leg goblet squat.
Build a foundation with the single-leg squat to box technique before attempting the more advanced, single-leg goblet squat or move up to a pistol squat. Even then, don’t expect your first attempts to be easy. You’ll probably sway a bit, fall forward, or feel your knees wobble. Keep practicing and you’ll get better over time.
How effective are one-legged squats for building strength? In one study, participants who added single-leg squats to their routine developed as much strength as those who included backs squats in their routine. So, you can build strength with single-leg spots, despite the fact that you’re more limited in the amount of weight you can use.
But, don’t make single-leg squats the mainstay of your squat workout, unless you have back issues that limit your ability to do back or front squats. Nothing beats standard squats for strengthening multiple muscles groups simultaneously, burning calories, and eliciting a metabolic response. However, you’ll get some unique benefits when you add single-leg squats to your routine. Enjoy the additional challenge and benefits they offer!
GirlsGoneStrong.com. “Exercise spotlight: Single-Leg Squat”
Stack.com. “How to Master Single-Leg Squats”
OutsideOnline.com. “The Benefits of the Single-Leg Squat”
Int J Exerc Sci. 2014; 7(4): 302–310. Published online 2014 Oct 1.
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