Unilateral strength is the primary goal for all athletes and people for that matter in order to provide functional strength and to prevent injury. The muscles that stabilize the hips are often neglected due to typical bilateral training programs (squats, deadlifts, bench presses etc.) Most often times people are injuring their low back, hamstrings, and hip flexors but rarely do you see injuries to the glutes. This is usually do to lack of strength and motor control of the gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus). We see this with most people/athletes because people sit too much causing their hip flexors to become overactive thus making the glutes weak through reciprocal inhibition. What also occurs? The erector spinae (low back muscles) and hamstrings become overactive because the glutes are not doing their job, a term known as synergistic dominance.
Superior benefits of unilateral training
- Additional recruitment of the stabilizing muscles
- Increased core activation
- Less spinal load
- Functional because running, cutting, and moving are done on one leg. Simple, but a fact.
Specifically though, this blog post is about how to groove what most would say is the ultimate king of strength/stability exercises, the single leg squat. The problem is that most people perform these terribly wrong and forget that technique is of utmost important. Most times you will see people simply dropping their butts down to the ground, followed by excessive spinal flexion, which is a no-no. Would you normally squat that way? I hope not. To single leg squat it takes quality motor control, strength, stability, and mobility. These are just a few steps and ideas to incorporate to improve 1-leg hip strength and stability.
#1- Start off by foam rolling your TFL and hip flexors. Restoring and improving muscle quality and length is essential for mobility as well as proper muscle contraction. Hip flexor stretches could be used. No, stretching will not get you injured before you lift UNLESS you stretch and IMMEDIATELY go into lifting. At Endeavor, we foam roll (5-7 mins), do a short stretch circuit for muscles that tend to be tight/overactive (pecs, rectus femoris, calves etc) which is only 30s each muscle. Then we go into our warm-up (10mins) so by the time we get into the actual training session everything is good to go.
#2 Groove the 1-leg squat pattern. This was the idea I got from Chad Waterbury’s post, well the whole idea came from his post but I tweaked the activation exercise for something I like better. A huge problem with squatting of any person can be poor thoracic extension or ankle mobility (dorsiflexion), so using a wall here can help this. For most people, this would be a great place to start. You want to think of reaching your back foot back while keeping the front knee stabilized over the foot.
#3 Activation exercise between sets- The lateral mini-band walk is a great way to activate the hip abductors specifically the glute medius/minimus and external rotators which are essential to learn how to decelerate internal rotation at the hip. Sometimes people may feel their TFL (which is on the front side of the hip) spasming which is a sign that this muscle is overactive. Consequently, doing exercises that can wake up the any of the gluteal muscles is going to be beneficial. For lateral mini-band walks, the hips and shoulders should not “hike” up in a resulting in a rocking motion. The shoulders should stay level throughout and you want to drive off your back leg to the direction you are headed. Your feet should never come closer than shoulder-width. x10 reps each way (2-3 sets)
#4 Bodyweight single-leg squat- Once you can master the wall1-leg squat it is time to start incorporating bodyweight single leg squats. The height that is usually used is off a normal bench. However, in the video I just stacked up some 45lb plates to a lower level to demonstrate a regression as some people cannot start out off a bench. As you get stronger and can control the motion (chest up, no lumbar flexion), you can increase the height (performing it off a bench now) and add weights.