Once you’ve been on the planet long enough, you’re bound to have some wear and tear.
You might not have had ACL reconstruction or hip replacement surgery, but with a whopping 80% of U.S. adults dealing with lower back pain at some point in their lives, and millions more dealing with knee and/or hip issues, it would behoove most of us to lay off the heavy barbell work and put a premium on single leg training.
All of this adds up to better feeling joints and less systemic fatigue on your system, which is great if you don’t like to feel like a rusty door hinge every day and have an actual life to live outside of the gym.
Inevitably, whenever the single leg talk comes up, the “shut up and squat” crowd chimes in that it’s impossible to get stronger or build any appreciable muscle without traditional barbell squats and deadlifts.
While I’m not of the either/or mentality when it comes to deciding between bilateral l and single leg training, as both have their place, the reality is most everyday people don’t have the necessary prerequisites to squat or deadlift with a straight bar without making some kind of compensation.
How do I know this?
Because I’ve trained people for 20,000 plus hours in my life and see it day in and day out. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just speaks to addressing the needs of most people, which is often less traditional barbell work and more single leg stuff.
The fact is, there are no magic exercises. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a rock, a barbell, or a dumbbell, it just knows that it has to overcome the force you are placing on it. If you train with progressive overload, then you will get stronger, and if you eat accordingly, you’ll build muscle as well. It’s physiology 101.
The problem is most people look at single leg work as an afterthought, or at the very least not through the same lens as they look at other traditional strength builders. This leads to them not challenging these exercises to the degree in which they could, which leads them, well, nowhere. More so, people tend to shortchange the range of motion, or aggressively crank through their lower back and hip flexors rather than bending through their hips.
While forward lunges can tend to piss off your knees if you have some preexisting issues already, reverse lunge variations tend to be better choices, as they’ll be a bit more glute dominant since you have a more vertical lower leg.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and make up some new movements that the world has never seen before, simply adjusting the position of the weight or utilizing a different loading tool can radically change the traditional exercise. Here are, in no particular order, the 5 best:
For all of these, 2-4 sets of 5-8 challenging reps will give you a ton of bang for your buck while remaining joint friendly.
After you use one of these variations for 3-4 weeks, try doing them from a few inch deficit to get a bigger range of motion for the next 3-4. Drop the weight down a touch for the first week, but strive to get back to using the weights from the version you used previously (but now from a deficit.)
That’s how to keep getting stronger for the long haul, without beating yourself into the ground.