Add Stability to Your Single Leg Training for Strength, Skill, and Performance

Andrew Coates
August 25, 2023

By: Andrew Coates

Single leg training is a pillar of athletic performance training. Only three sports move in perfect bilateral symmetry all the time, powerlifting, rowing/dragonboat racing, and potato sack racing. The absurdity of including the third example should prove the point of how rare it is to exclusively move our legs in unison. Everything else has a significant component where each leg must move individually so it makes sense to do a lot of your training single leg.

One of the main challenges with single leg training is the limit on overload potential because of lack of balance and stability. And while balance and stability are skills we desire and are best trained with “unstable” single leg exercises, we don’t want to artificially limit our ability to overload them.

Stability isn’t a binary state as much as it’s a spectrum where we apply more or less stability to achieve the desired effect. The more points of stability or “external ground” we create by contact with the ground or stable external surfaces like racks and benches, the more we can overload an exercise. Pure overload isn’t the singular goal of training, but we want to provide enough to force muscles, tendons, joints, and bones to adapt stronger.

We think of a squat as stable, but it’s stable only compared to a lunge or pistol squat, and relatively unstable compared to leg press. A squat has two points of external ground, the surface area of both feet. Compare this with a leg press where your back, hips, hands, and feet are all grounded across a greater surface area. It’s why the average person can leg press more than they can squat. Sometimes a squat is the right choice for a goal, sometimes a leg press is. There are also in between options along this spectrum like a Hatfield safety bar squat where both our hands hold onto bars pinned to the rack in front of us.

Meanwhile we desire more single leg training to develop more athleticism. But for some people, skill and balance are a work in progress and a limiting factor. We can address this by adding added points of external ground to provide stability and increase our ability to not only load these exercises, but to control them through greater range of motion, which develops skill and mobility. The more we load and better we control movement through range of motion, the greater strength, skill, and ability we have to move into that range, and to exert force. Greater mobility and force production translate into better performance in life and in sport, whether getting up and down from the ground to play with grandkids or breaking tackles in rugby.

Bottom line: it’s ok to add stability to single leg exercises, and to use a combination of exercises of varied stability across the spectrum of options. Here are five excellent single leg exercise variations with added stability to add to your program for greater athleticism for life:

1) Supported Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts

Single leg Romanian deadlifts(SLRDLs) create a loaded stretch and three dimensional tension around your hips, glutes, and hamstrings no other exercise including bilateral RDLs can replicate. The downside is most people struggle with the balance to perform SLRDLs well, let alone with meaningful load. We have a perfect compromise to gain the benefits but remain stable.

The supported version is also a great teaching tool to gain strength and skill toward performing these without support.

  • Hold a dumbbell in one hand and brace against a inclined bench or similar object with the opposing hand.
  • Stand on one foot, the same side as the hand holding the weight.
  • Elevate your opposite foot with a slight knee bend(soft knee).
  • Start with your planted knee soft.
  • Lock your chin neutral to your collarbones and lock your ribs down to your pelvis to maintain a neutral spine.
  • Hinge slowly with control at your hips by leading with your back heel “kicking” high and away, toes pointed down.
  • Allow your torso to pivot forward in response to elevating your leg.
  • Keep your braced elbow soft and allow your elbow to bend to absorb your body lowering toward the bench.
  • Keep your shoulders, torso, and hips level, avoid rotating “open” on the bench side of your body.
  • Hinge to the point of maximize range at your hip without rounding your lower back or squatting down at your knee.
  • You should feel a deep stretch into your hamstrings and glute.
  • Reverse direction with a quick thrust of your planted hip forward and kicking your free leg forward until you stand upright.
  • Your planted knee will finished locked.
  • Soften your planted knee and repeat.
  • Perform 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps per leg.

2) Supported Bulgarian Squats

Bulgarian squats are torturous and universally loathed. They’re taxing and soreness inducing. They’re also one of the best strength, athleticism, and mobility building exercises available. They require skill and balance, and sometimes trading off some loading potential is worth the added stability and control, especially if you’re recovering from injury or de-loading.

-Setup in a rack and place a bench or single leg squat stand behind you.

-Hold the pillar of the rack with one hand and a dumbbell in the other.

-The hand you hold the weight in can be the same or opposite of the working leg, just as long as you’re consistent when you switch sides.

-Elevate your back leg on the bench or squat stand behind you, laces down.

-Lock your chin neutral to your collarbones, and your ribs down to your pelvis to maintain a neutral spine.

-Breath in, brace down.

-Squat by loading your front leg, while allowing your back knee to bend down to nearly touch the ground(or padding).

-Squat back up pushing your front foot into the ground.

-Finish with a soft lockout of your front knee, finish an exhale, breath in, brace, and repeat.

-Perform 3-4 sets of 5-10 per leg.

3) Supported Safety Squat Bar Bulgarian Squats

Luka and I are big fans of this exercise. One of the limitations of single leg training is potential for overload. Luka can still hold 100 pound dumbbells and wrap chains around his shoulders and crank out Bulgarian squats, but adding just a little stability allows for a lot more overload, in Luka’s case over 315 lbs for upwards of 8 reps per leg.

-Setup a safety squat bar in a rack and place a bench or single leg squat stand behind you.

-Setup the safety spotter arms high enough to touch with your hands while standing, or hold handles attached to the rack in front of you.

-Elevate your back leg on the bench or squat stand behind you, laces down.

-Lock your chin neutral to your collarbones, and your ribs down to your pelvis to maintain a neutral spine.

-Breath in, brace down.

-Squat by loading your front leg, while allowing your back knee to bend down to nearly touch the ground(or padding).

-Hold the safety spotter arms or handles firmly. You can push through them, but most of the work should be done with your legs.

-Squat back up pushing your front foot into the ground.

-Finish with a soft lockout of your front knee, finish an exhale, breath in, brace, and repeat.

-Perform 3-4 sets of 5-10 per leg.

4) Kickstand Romanian Deadlifts

Supported single leg Romanian deadlifts fix a big issue with balance, but having only one hand to hold weight limits loading potential. We can instead switch the added support to the opposite leg, freeing both hands to hold weight and allowing for more overload, while keeping the work primarily in one leg. Combined with the added stability of your off leg touching the floor, Kickstand or B-Stance RDLs serve as a great single leg hinge variation.

  • Stand holding dumbbells or a barbell in both hands.
  • Stand with the foot of your working leg flat on the ground and knee in a soft bend.
  • Stand on the toes of your kickstand foot in line with the heel of your working foot, or a few inches behind, and elevate your heel.
  • Lock your chin to your collarbones and ribs to your pelvis to maintain a neutral spine.
  • Inhale and brace your core.
  • Initiate your hinge by pushing both hips back, while maintaining the soft knee angle of the working leg.
  • Avoid squatting down with the working leg.
  • Pushing your hips back will pivot your torso forward, creating a slow and controlled stretch of your working hamstrings and glute.
  • Pivot to maximum stretch/hip range of motion, then thrust your hips forward, reversing direction in a quick but controlled push.
  • Lockout your hips and working knee at the top, resist the urge to lockout at your lumbar spine.
  • Exhale through the positive portion of the rep or at the top, then inhale and brace, soften your working knee, and repeat for reps.
  • Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps per side.

5) Suspension Strap Pistol Squats

True pistol squats are difficult or outright impossible for most people. They’re far more often a feat of performance than a useful training method. For a skill to be useful to people it needs to present achievable challenge. Single leg squats to a box or skater squats are great single leg training alternatives, as is holding suspension straps for added stability while doing a pistol.

Though hard to overload beyond bodyweight, even bodyweight here provides excellent training stimulus and allows for the development of skill, balance, and joint strength and stability. If your progress leaves the too easy add load by wearing a weighted vest or chains across your shoulders.

  • Stand holding suspension straps in fully extended arms.
  • Walk you feet forward to create a 30-45 degree angle between your torso and the ground.
  • Place your weight on one foot while lifting the other outstretched forward and off the ground.
  • Breathe in and brace your core.
  • Initiate a single leg squat by dropping your working hip down, absorbing your descent with your planted heel.
  • Control your descent into the fullest depth you can through knee and hip flexion without rounding your back.
  • Keep your torso straight and leaned back with fully extended arms.
  • Reverse direction by pushing the ground away under your foot until you fully extend your knee and hip at the top.
  • Do 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps per leg.

How to incorporate these exercise into your workout:

None of these exercises require a special plan. Use any of these exercises as an alternative to any single leg exercise in your program. If you want to increase your ratio of single leg work, substitute for any current bilateral exercise like leg press or seated leg extensions.

If your program calls for a hip dominant movement, the kickstand or supported SL RDLs substitute flawlessly. If your program calls for a knee and quad dominant exercise, the suspension strap pistols or either supported Bulgarian squat variation sub seamlessly.

If the goal is overload for strength, bias toward the supported safety squat bar Bulgarians and kickstand RDLs. If you’re seeing more skill development as a bridge toward unsupported less stable variations, bias toward the supported SLRDLs and supported Bulgarians. All options work if your main goal is developing strength and control through greater range of motion(mobility).

Sometimes we just need some variety in our training. Doing the same exercises can irritate joints or feel mentally stale. A novel variation that’s fundamentally sound and trains the same qualities we need from our program is often the answer, especially when compared against the circus chicanery you’ll find all over social media. Modify the fundamentals to your needs instead of throwing out the whole program.

None of these exercises is “superior” to standard lunges, Bulgarian squats, or single leg RDLs, they’re just refined tools that may be the perfect fit for your goals and challenges. Having more tools makes you a better coach or a more versatile athlete. We want to give the gift of athleticism for life to more people.


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