A personal trainer teaching how to do a unilateral leg exercise.

3 AMAZING UNILATERAL EXERCISES FOR STRONGER AND BETTER LEGS

Why unilateral exercise to build strength and size? 

I go into detail on the benefits of unilateral training in an earlier blog post, which you can read here, What is Unilateral Training and Why it’s Important

You can expect to get more than what you are looking for. Better stability, better mobility, and overall move and feel better. It is a win-win situation. 

Even better, the carryover of unilateral strength training directly translates to your bilateral lifts, back squats for example. 

If you play sports, that’s also another win for you, as mentioned earlier, it increases stability and mobility, which are much needed in sports. 

So overall plenty to benefit from unilateral training. Enough of the benefits, let’s dive into the exercises to turn your tree limbs into tree trunks. 

1. REAR FOOT ELEVATED SPLIT SQUATS 

The first unilateral leg exercise is the rear foot elevated split squats, also known as Bulgarian split squats. 

A great exercise to build your quads, glutes, calves, and core. You can load this in many ways dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, sandbags, squat safety bars, and just body weight. 

You will need something to elevate your back leg to get started with the exercise. I suggest using a bench or a 12-18 in box. If you are lucky enough to be in a gym that has a stand just for this exercise, use that. 

You will want to find your foot placement before you elevate the back leg. To do this, start in front of the box, or bench and take two steps forward then elevate the back leg.

Keep a neutral spine, and use your front leg to squat down. Go as low as you can without breaking form, depending on the height of your elevated leg, you might be able to tap the knee to the ground. Drive the foot into the ground and push back up to the starting position. Keep the foot flat, do not let the heel rise. 

Starting with this exercise, I suggest body weight and working up from there. When you are going to use weight, there are a few ways you can do this. 

  • 2 dumbbells 
  • Single dumbbell contralateral (weight is on the opposite side of the working leg)
  • Single dumbbell ipsilateral (weight is on the same side of the working leg)
  • Goblet position 
  • Double kettlebell rack position
  • Single kettlebell rack position (contralateral or ipsilateral) 
  • Overhead position
  • Squat safety bar 
  • Barbell in the front rack position
  • Barbell in the back position

As you can see many variations that can challenge the body in many ways. Again, start with body weight to practice the form. You can start with reps of 8 for 4 sets and rest 90 seconds between sets. 

2. LATERAL LANDMINE SQUATS

This next one is not a common exercise you see in the gym, but it should be. Our bodies are meant to move in all planes of motion, not just forward and backward. 

Challenging your body in the frontal plane is not just a recommendation but a requirement. You don’t just want big and strong legs, you should also want them to be mobile and healthy. 

Lateral squats are great to build your legs and hips in the frontal plane, the side-to-side motion. This exercise is great for building muscles and mobility around the hip. The inner thigh and the adductors get stretched and strengthened at the same time. This is great for reducing your risk of pulling the groin. 

Before I incorporated this exercise into my routine, I would get pain in my adductors, and all the stretching did nothing to help. 

Once I started this exercise and strengthen those muscles, the pain went away. Since then I always have had some variation of this exercise. 

You want those muscles to be strong with a full range of motion so you can reduce your risk of injury. This is especially important if you do any kind of running and jumping around. Obviously, athletes can benefit, but I would argue everyone should be able to run and jump. 

You never know when you need to use those skills so train for them and keep the body safe while doing so. 

Staying injury-free allows you to stay consistent with your training and keep progressing. You can start with reps of 8 for 4 sets and rest 90 seconds between sets. 

3. SPRINTER STANCE DEADLIFTS 

I already provided two lower body squat variations, it’s only fair that I provide a hip hinge pattern as well. 

The sprinter stance really allows you to push the weight without worrying about the balance aspect like a single-leg RDL. The back foot is there to stabilize so that you can focus on the movement and push the weight and not have to balance. 

Less worry about balance means you can push more weight. Strengthening this exercise will carry over to the normal bilateral deadlifts. You will feel more stable during the movement while lifting more weight. 

I prefer doing this exercise with a trapbar, but if you do not have a trapbar, you can use dumbbells/kettlebells and do this as a Romanian deadlift style. 

To perform this exercise, balance on one leg while the back leg is slightly behind you. Most of your weight should be in the front leg, the back leg is just for support. 

Hinge back your hips with a neutral spine and grab your weight, lock in your shoulders and push the front leg into the ground. At the same time drive your hips forward to stand up. You can start with reps of 8 for 4 sets and rest 90 seconds between sets. 

If you never train unilaterally before, I bet you will see some great gains and move better. Also, watch how much better your squats and deadlifts feel when you train them again. 

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