Take Your Leg Day Workout to the Next Level!

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Everyone talks about leg day; those sessions that really make your legs and glutes burn, and help you build muscle. But how intense is your workout really? If you think it’s time to take things up a gear, these unilateral exercises (where you focus on one leg and then the other) are a great way to really crank up the intensity of your leg day workout.

One reason for this is that most people have one leg that is stronger than the other. In unilateral exercises, your weaker leg is no longer supported by your dominant side, so your workout helps create balance across your body. In addition, you can move more weight (relatively speaking) with unilateral exercises than with bilateral exercises such as the classic back squat or deadlift—and that means you can increase your leg strength faster and more efficiently. Scientists call this phenomenon the bilateral deficit. Michael Boyle, a US-based expert in strength and conditioning, defines the bilateral deficit as “the difference between the maximum force generating capacity of your left and right limbs when they are exercised alone and the weight you can lift bilaterally.” And if that wasn’t enough, a meta-analysis using data from 785 participants showed that when you are training one side of your body, you are also stimulating the other—a finding that is especially interesting for people returning to training after an injury.

You can learn more about the benefits of unilateral exercises here, but right now let’s take a look at five intense single-leg squat exercises that you absolutely must try.

All of these exercises can be easily adapted to suit your fitness level, and it’s up to you whether you want to use dumbbells or kettlebells, or simply train using your own body weight. 

#1 Split Squats

The classic split squat (lunge) might be part of your workout already. If not, add it in right now! To start, get yourself in a standing position. Step back with your right leg and bend your right knee down to the ground. Then push through your front foot to return to standing. 

Muscles: Thigh muscles, especially your extensors, and glutes
Remember: Make sure your weight is over your front leg. Contrary to the old fitness myths, it’s fine for your knee to be slightly over your toes. The key is to make sure your knee stays strong and doesn’t tilt inward. 

#2 Reverse Lunges 

This lunge variation uses the same movement as described for the classic split squat. The difference is that you push through your front foot, bring your back foot forward, and return to your initial standing position after each repetition. This gives you a more intense workout than with the split squat, boosting your strength endurance, stability, and balance. 

Muscles: Thigh muscles, especially your hamstrings, and glutes

Remember: If you feel off balance, slow the exercise down. To improve your muscle strength, it’s more important to focus on doing the exercise cleanly, not on speed. 

#3 Lateral Squats 

This exercise also starts from a standing position. Take a big step to the side with your right leg, making sure your feet are in line with your toes pointing slightly outwards. Lower yourself into a side lunge position by bending your right knee and straightening your left leg. Return to center and switch sides. Or, if you want a more intense workout, perform all the reps on one side and then the other. 

Muscles: Thigh muscles, especially your adductors, and glutes
Remember: Keep your back straight and your core engaged.

#4 Curtsy Lunges 

This exercise again starts from a standing position with your core muscles engaged. Take a step back and to the left with your right leg, so that your foot is diagonally behind your standing leg. As you do this, bring your back (right) knee toward the floor and bend your front (left) knee to about 90 degrees, keeping your upper body straight all the time. Then push up through your front (left) foot to return to standing and repeat. 

Muscles: Thigh muscles and glutes
Remember: It’s important to keep your front knee strong while performing this exercise. 

#5 Step Ups

Stand in front of a weight bench or plyo box. Step onto the bench with your right foot and push up onto it. Then step back onto the floor with your left foot. Just like the other exercises, you can choose to alternate sides or really get your muscles burning by working one side and then the other. 

Muscles: Thigh muscles, glutes, and core
Remember: If you want some extra weight training, you can also do this exercise with dumbbells or kettlebells—simply hold them in front of your chest or with a firm grip down by your side.

More interesting facts from foodspring: 

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