It's all well and good smashing the heavy bilateral stuff in the gym. Staples like the Squat, Deadlift and the Hip Thrust will come to most minds. I'd be remiss not to argue for the efficacy of unilateral shenanigans like Lunges, Bulgarian Split Squats and Val Slide variations, too.
However, only when you take one leg off the ground will the working legs stability muscles really kick up into 6th gear. We're talking about Single Leg Deadlifts, Pistol Squats, Box Step Ups and Heidens. Cool stuff like this will really promote unrelenting strength/stability in the most challenging circumstances. As martial artists we really need this to be top notch.
Therefore. Single leg strength work is the snakes hips. Given that I pretty much gave away what exercises I'm talking about, let's expound further on each one and take your exercises choices from alright to awesomesauce.
Single Leg Deadlifts
You can pick up a Kettlebell, a Dumbbell, a straight bar.. hell you can pick up your grandma if you want. It doesn't matter. What does matter is execution. Starting with the main event which sits at the top of the difficulty ladder - without getting silly - I'll also throw in some simpler alternatives so we can bridge the gap.
I have my long time client and Karate black belt Abi rocking some KB Single Leg Deadlifts. Makes it look easy doesn't she? It's anything but. The main difficulty has to be balancing, I like to call it stabilising.
Cause it is. What's stability a corollary of? Tension. The more tension/stiffness you can generate around the only moving joints of the hip, knee and ankle. The better. Obviously your shoulder opens up a little but, whatever.
What's it do?
It torches the hamstrings and glutes on the working side. It also challenges the muscles in the side of the hip enormously. It's these muscles which aren't adequately challenged in bilateral or even unilateral work. Not enough anyway. If you're lagging behind in this department, you'll likely find it extremely hard to prevent your knee from rotating inward.
All the more reason to get on these bad boys.
Stuff to watch out for?
I've already mentioned the knee driving in. This is likely to be accompanied by a rotated upper torso and hanging shoulder. When you're performing this exercise, you still aim to maintain a square and rigid posture exactly as you'd find in a conventional deadlift. The onus is on you to generate stiffness and tension.
If this is too tricky, this is when I like to have people holding a weight in both hands to even out to pull on the upper body. Barbells work best as you can mimic trying to bend the bar around you. This creates tension in the Lats and thus, more stability.
Finally, you do need to bend your knee as you lower yourself into the rep. You'll find it all to easy to just hinge on the hip without much in the way of knee flex. You need knee flex. In summary -
Tension - grip hard, grab the floor with your foot, tight core, pull the shoulders down.
Onus is on you to get into alignment and maintain it. Hence the efficacy for stability improvement.
Make stupid noises.
Bend the knee, it's not a stiff leg deadlift, different purpose.
Want simpler, easier to grasp variations? I gotchu.
Single Leg Cable Deadlift
With the line of pull coming at you horizontally, I find it nudges people into the right positions just a bit easier. It helps you find the context and establish a groove. It's actually almost impossible not to feel it in the glutes, unless you're really making a hash of it.
Common mistake? Just don't allow your shoulder to get pulled all over the shop. Keep it set.
Wall Press Single Leg Deadlift
Here, Aleksandra - who's awesome at Yoga - shows us how to smash the wall press variation. It's one of the simplest as the foot placement against the wall offers you stability. It enables you to groove the movement with a little bit of assistance and thus, bridge the gap.
It's great for torching the hamstrings. My only point is not to go as low as you possibly can. It's not about that. Hips go toward the wall, tension builds up, snap, drive them forward. You still need to accommodate all the other elements from above, such as generating tension in your lats and making stupid noises, so don't miss out.
Box Step Ups
Comparative to Single Leg Deadlifts, you could say these are perhaps the more 'squatty' types of single leg strength work. And you'd be right.
What's it do?
Makes you look reasonably cool, does all the same hip stability stuff and, improves your single leg squat. So you'll feel your quads more with this bad boy. It's also a strong feeder towards attaining pistol squats. Personally, pistol squats aren't a mandatory skill, definitely nice to achieve!
Do I need Pistol Squats?
Hmmm. Well. When we think about transfer and differing hip/knee/ankle structures.. it's not always worth the effort. A very simple example is those with particularly wide hips, I don't think it makes pistol squats impossible but... really hard to attain without twisting and contorting into all sorts of funny shapes when lowering into the bottom portion of the movement.
It's called Q Angle and yes, it makes a huge difference to something like a pistol squat. Trying to keep your hip/knee/ankle running in a straight line is a huge ask with this exercise. So, is it worth working towards this goal? Depends, right. I personally found enormous success with attaining pistol squats after wrecking my knee.
Whilst ankle control and hip strength are vital for executing single leg squat technique
with sound alignment, we can see how the wider the hips, the harder this is going to be.
This show us why knee injuries are more prevalent in those with wider hips. One
ingredient which contributes to females being far more likely to suffer ACL ruptures.
Kinda means it's almost crazy not to ensure your single leg strength is awesome, right? Especially the ladies.
I felt it is was integral to getting me from the 3 board side kick club up into the 4 board side kick club. I had that much more power from further back in the side kick chamber, I also felt more accurate. Not to mention the confidence I gained in keeping that leg stable no matter the stresses. Sparring? No problem.
With a nice and narrow Q angle in my own hips, this kind of bodes well.
A simpler variation of this exercise is simply load. I'm holding a Kettlebell in the video demo, so go with just your own body weight. If this is too hard, I find the TRX/Some kind of thing to hold onto works nicely. In this video, I go from easiest to harder in terms of single leg squats.
Remember, it's not as though you must squat all the way to the ground. Stopping just below thighs parallel is plenty good enough. You can use the TRX/Band assistance with one leg up on a box like before, which serves as a good 'measure'. Either way, control and tension is the name of the game.
Stuff to watch out for?
Take another look at the picture with the guy performing a single leg squat. On the right you can see the ankle has rolled in, the knee is caving inward and the hips getting a little off level. Those are your three main things, keep all of this running in a straight line as best you can.
Using assistance like the TRX. The goal is to pull on the TRX just enough, that you can complete the movement with maximum effort but optimal technique. You cannot rely on the strap, as the goal is to get off the assistances later down the line.
Otherwise, you suck.
It's a wrap.
Yup. Your entire world has been changed for the better now.