Perfect Your Single-leg Squat

Single-limb exercises, especially for the lower body, are essential for everyone, regardless if they’re a pro athlete or weekend warrior. The benefits of single-leg exercises are numerous, but a few key points to mention are that they recruit additional hip muscles that often get minimal stimulation with double-leg exercises, and they make the core play a larger role in each movement.

The single-leg squat has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. But there’s a problem: most people do it with terrible form, as evident by extreme spinal flexion. It’s not your fault, as the saying goes. You just haven’t been given the right information to make it work for you. To perform a full single-leg squat requires a lot of strength, mobility, and stability. So you must improve those qualities to get it right.

I could honestly write an entire book on perfecting this exercise. I mention this because I’m about to outline the common problems that are probably holding you back, but there could be other factors working against you.

Now, before I get to the good stuff I must differentiate between a single-leg squat and a pistol. A pistol is the exercise that requires you to squat on one leg with the opposite leg held straight out in front and off the ground. It was popularized by my friend, Pavel Tsatsouline. It’s a good exercise, but it’s extremely advanced. To get it right you must have crazy hamstring flexibility and plenty of strength. Most people are severely lacking the hamstring mobility needed to keep your spine from bending like a fresh twig.

Perfecting the pistol requires another set of guidelines. This post is about the single-leg squat for people who have average mobility. Here’s how to get it right.

Step #1: Start with a few minutes of rope jumping or similar exercises to increase your body temperature. Do some foam rolling at this time if you wish.

Step #2: Stretch your hip flexors: the rectus femoris and psoas. I’m not a big fan of static stretching before a workout, but when it comes to the hip flexors it’s usually a good idea. Stiff hip flexors can diminish your ability to build maximum tension in your glutes and lockout your hips. That’s why stiff hip flexors are often referred to as a “parking brake” that’s partially engaged, thus limiting your hip power. Another reason to stretch your hip flexors is that it allows you to remain more upright in the single-leg squat.

Step #3: Groove the right motor pattern with a single-leg squat facing a wall. When most people do a single-leg squat they shift their torso forward. This can be caused by subpar thoracic extension and a lack of dorsiflexion in the ankle joint. This exercise restores both. It’s a fantastic technique-builder that I learned from spinal expert, Dr. Craig Liebenson. Perform 10 reps with each leg.

Step #4: Activate your hip abductors. Another problem people tend to have is that their leg buckles in as they squat. This is caused by weakness in the gluteus medius/minimus muscles that must fire strongly to hold your leg in proper position. The hip external rotation exercise strengthens and activates those muscles. This can be used as a stand-alone exercise when weakness is evident, or as an activation drill.

Step #5: Perform the single-leg squat on a high bench. The first way to build this exercise is to start by standing barefoot (or with Vibram shoes) on a relatively high bench. The key point is that you must be able to maintain an arch in your low back. If you step down and you feel your low back round (your spine will flex), the bench is too high. Start at a height that allows you to maintain lordosis (low back arch) and increase the height – or the distance you drop down – to build your single-leg squat. The goal is to be able to perform a range of motion that allows your hips to drop below knee level while maintaining an arch in your low back. This can take time so be patient.

Perform these exercises a few times per week and focus on increasing your range of motion with the single-leg squat while standing on a bench. Your hips, legs, and core will get stronger and more powerful than ever!

Stay focused,
CW

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14 thoughts on “Perfect Your Single-leg Squat

  1. Sick post! Can this excrcise be used as a substiitute for lunges in the PLP program?

    Jason

    CW: Yes.

  2. Great Stuff Chad.

    My high school football coach had us doing single-leg squats and we were always known for being a winning tradition.

    Now, I work my patients towards getting the single-leg squat. It can do a lot for preventing knee and low back pain in the future.

    CW: Very true. Thanks.

  3. Heya chad. You mention you must have good hamstring flexibility. I been doing squats for a while and i moved onto pistol squats (may sound stupid but im looking towards beign able to do as many exercises as i can with just my bodyweight but decreasing leverage as progression… same thing as adding weight kinda..)

    Anyways, i been working on pistol suats for a while, with my leg right infront, and i am able to go down without my knee going infront of my toes, and i have to do deck pistols to get back up as i dont have the strength yet to get my self up on the posetive.

    Quick question, are those bench single legged squats simiar to going up the stairs but going up 3 stairs at a time (butt is much below parallel. Around calf area)?

    When i warm up for squats i just go up and down my stairs a couple of time, il go up one stair at a time 5 times, the 2 stairs, then 3 stairs (any more and i cant stretch, that point is where my but is lower than my ankle and its very hard for me)

    But im finding pistol squats all the way to the bottom quite easy, but i usually need some sort of assistance right at the bottom and ont he way up. Should i switch to single legged squats. Do they have the same emphasis on the muscles. Are they both good, is one better, should i do both?

    Thanks chad 🙂

    CW: Since you can do a pistol you’ll need to do a single-leg squat from a high position (3 steps as you mentioned). You don’t need to do the pistol and single-leg squat, but it never hurts to alternate between the two.

  4. Chad –
    I SO wish I had read this a month ago. Recently, I rapidly (impatiently) achieved a pistol-squat. The price: sprained knees. In retrospect, I had no business doing pistols with my tight hamstrings.

    Your variation calls for an upright torso and is, I suspect, a much safer strategy for my knees and will better call the glutes into play.

    Thanks!

  5. Awesome. Once one gets the gains the ability to do full single leg squats, what do you think about wearing an olympic lifting shoe for the added ankle flexibility?

    CW: You can wear those shoes, but I prefer barefoot since it works more of the ankle stabilizers.

  6. Would this be “better” than a Bulgarian split squat for increasing rom, hip flexibility, knee injury prevention, etc or just a good way to change things up?
    p.s. I’m on day 13 of the PLP program and can already notice a difference in my forearms.

    CW: The BSS is a great exercise. This is just a way to mix things up.

  7. This exercise must give some tremendous carry over into most traditional lower body exercises like back squats and front squats. It seems like a great exercise that could also be used for HFT too! If an individual were able to complete a few reps on each leg, what sort of HFT plan would you prescribe? I mean, if you actually recommend doing this as a part of HFT.

    P.S those 10×3 bicep exercises are killer, noticed some good gains in just a week and a half!

    CW: Just an a rep each day like I recommend in the Waterbury Challenge. That’s a no-fail way to do HFT.

  8. hi chad, great article.
    are the lunge, bulgarian split squat and step-up a single limb exercises for the lower body like the single-leg squat?

    CW: Yes, those are similar but the single leg squat is better to build glute medius/minimus (outer hip) strength.

  9. I coach high school water polo and I can’t wait to have my kids do the wall and the single leg squat. Thanks!

    CW: Yep, it’ll be perfect for them. Watch for the knee buckling in since that’s common with younger athletes.

  10. hi Chad, im doing 1 leg squats the eccentric portion mostly from a low box i can get about 10-12 reps each leg, plus heavy sled drags. and limited front squats mostly eccentric from low box, i just kind of fall onto the box, otherwise im not really able to bang out many reps

    i was wondering why is this, ive got 4 weeks to train as many times a day as i want, and i really want to gain size in my legs for my sport, ive gotten good glute activation from elevated bridges, single leg bridges, weighted hip thrust etc over 12 months, and for first time i can do a strict one leg squat (2 reps). i had very tight hamstring, calf and walking incorrectly landing toe first etc, and i reckon ive still got dorsiflection stuff i dont really understand

    anyway im living in south africa in a remote area so this is what ive got. i was thinking to go with high frequency squats and single leg hamstring barbell every day , as youve outlined before, plus lot of sled work, reverse and front.

    if you could give me any pointers i would really appreciate it, im going to incorporate the dying bug plus single leg on swiss ball immediatly as well

    CW: Do 8×3 for the barbell front squat twice per week with the heaviest weight you can handle. That along with your other exercises will build leg mass.

  11. Chad,

    I’m intrigued by this and plan on trying this diet within the next two days. Normally, I drink hot tea w/ Splenda in the morning, as I need a caffeine kick to get me going. Should I remove that from my daily intake while on this diet/cleanse?

    Thanks,

    Michael

    CW: A little hot tea is ok.

  12. Hey Chad- I can’t complete a pistol and my single leg squat on the box is poor. Should I still proceed with the “30 day Mass plan” tomorrow? I just finished training for a Can I substitute the single leg squat in that program with something else like front squats or barbell lunges and yield similar results?

    CW: Use lunges.

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