Unilateral Leg Training, Part 1: Historical Perspectives
Everywhere you look in the training world today you see single leg exercises. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was always this way. It wasn’t.
The purpose of this article is understand how we arrived at this point of popularity in single leg training, gain clarity of the intent and benefits of single leg training, evaluate whether the popularity and direction of single leg training is warranted, and provide insights into how you can optimize this training modality.
As someone who has made a significant contribution to the single leg training trend, I am taking this opportunity to clarify certain aspects that many may not be aware of and provide specific guidance from my perspective on this now dominant training modality.
Historical Perspectives on Single Leg Training
As difficult as it may be to imagine for someone who entered the strength training arena post 2000, single leg training has gained in popularity only since the turn of the century. There is no doubt that single leg exercises have a long history in physical training. However in the western world of training during the decades leading into the turn of the century (2000 AD) there was little if any attention, focus or application of them in what we could call mainstream strength training.
You may have found some abstract application such as specific sports applying them e.g. martial arts, dance and gymnastics, however conventional strength training for the most part eschewed them. The Eastern Bloc countries may have been more receptive, with authors such as Hartmann, Tunnemann, and Scholich referencing bodyweight and what we would call calisthenic exercises in their texts.1,2 Essentially during the period of at least 1960 to 2000 in the Western World bodyweight exercises, including single leg exercises, were considered military training, child’s play, or exercises reserved for female exercise classes.
Anyone wanting to confirm this only need review the content of single leg training in mainstream publications and programs. The following chronicles a period of history spanning the 1960s to current, using selected publications. Note that some of these were classic publications, while others were more industry commentary. I have made comment to that extent in the footnotes for each book referenced.
- 1966 - Weight Training: No discussion of or focus on single leg exercises.3
- 1976 - The Strongest Shall Survive: Focus on bilateral compound movements.4
- 1982 - Keys to the Inner Universe: The traditional quad dominant single leg exercises only.5
- 1984 - Hatfield, F.C., 1984, Bodybuilding. 6
- 1987 - Designing Resistance Training Programs.7
- 1992 - Weight Training: No discussion of or focus on single leg exercises.8
- 1997 - The Poliquin Principles: No discussion of or focus on single leg exercises.9
- 1998 - Strength Specialization Series: I released teachings of original & unique single leg exercises in seminar, video and audio.10
- 1999 - Get Buffed!: I released sample programs integrating original and bodyweight and other single leg exercise into convention strength training program design.11
- 1999 - Body for Life: Other than lunge and single leg hamstring machine curl, no discussion of or focus on single leg exercises.12
- 2002 - Home Workout Bible: The first signs of the ‘new trend’ of unilateral exercise awareness and inclusion of my training concepts and exercise innovations.13
Here’s an example of a program from a 1997 issue of Men’s Fitness. As you can see there were no single leg exercises in this program. Lunges were about the only exercise popular in program design in that era that comes anywhere near being a single leg exercise. Note this program was published about six months before I released my concepts and unique exercises in 1998.14
Stage 1: Weeks 1-4 – The ‘Bodybuilding’ Phase
A number of trends from that era are reflected in this program, specifically for the purposes of this discussion the absence of unilateral exercises. As with published texts, it would be rare to find a person publish a program post 2001-02 (allowing three years for the trend to develop post 1998/1999) that was devoid of unilateral exercises.
The above snapshot of writing on single leg exercise clearly shows unilateral or single leg exercises were not on the radar until the late 1990s when I began sharing my training concepts and innovations developed during the prior twenty years of coaching and training. From 2002 onward, it would be a brave author who didn’t include focus on unilateral training and some of my unique and original bodyweight exercises in their publication.
Unfortunately due to loose referencing, the origin of this increased focus on unilateral training, the art of integrating these exercises with more conventional exercises, and the origin of these unique exercises, has been diluted. One of my concerns with this is that the true intent and context of these training methods and exercises has also been lost.
Something Missing in Strength Training
I began physical coaching in 1980, and by late in the 1980s I had concluded something was missing in the dominant paradigms of strength training. The focus was on compound heavy loaded movements - for everyone, all the time. This meant athletes who really didn’t need loading or compound movements were being exposed and expected to do them. If you were a golfer, you did double leg barbell squats and power cleans, just like a football player would.
Here are some examples:
- Assessment - “…Functional strength tests for the lower body include squatting 1-1.5 times bodyweight or squatting 5 repetitions at 60% of bodyweight in 5 seconds or less….”15
- Basketball - “…We love the squat and try to progress everyone to it as soon as possible….we also incorporate back extensions, Romanian deadlifts, leg curls, lunges, single –leg squats, leg curls, lunges single-leg squats, heel raises, step=ups, and other lower body exercises…”16
- Cycling - “…Exercises such as the power clean, back squat, and plyometric drills are good activities for sprint cycling…”17
- Jiu Jitsu - “….Core exercises include basic multi-joint strength (squat, bench press) and power (power clean, push press, snatch). Assistance exercises include single joint ones…. (leg extension, arm curl)…”18
- Snowboarding - “…After the pre-requisite strength is obtained, Olympic lifts, plyometrics and optimal power jumps…The clean is the primary Olympic lift used…”19
- Older Populations - “…some resistance training exercises such as maximum squats, deadlifts and leg presses result in extremely high PB values….Many of the risks of resistance training can be avoided by stressing proper training guidelines…The actual program used for older people is not much different than that used for younger people…”20
In a review of the six issues of the 1998 NSCA Journal year, I could not find a single reference to a single leg that was what I categorized in my Lines of Movement concept as hip dominant exercises. The only single leg exercises I could find were the squat, bench steps (neither of which I categorize as pure single leg exercises), single leg squats and single leg leg presses. All four of these exercises were what I defined as quad dominant exercises.21
Periodization of Strength
To give further historical insight into the focus on compound loaded movement, a historical insight into strength periodization is valuable. The dominant strength sub-qualities during the 1980s, including the influence of the significant contributor Tudor Bompa, were limited to the following:
- General strength
- Specific strength
A traditional model of strength periodization is presented in the table below. This model is also obtained from the Tudor Bompa text Theory and Methodology of Training.
A New Model of Strength
During the 1980s, I had reached the conclusion that something was missing. I hypothesized that control and stability drills needed to be integrated seamlessly into strength training program design and periodization. After a number of years of confirming the effectiveness of this strategy, I began to teach my unique model of the strength qualities from the early 1990s, where I proposed that stability and control be treated as sub-qualities of strength.25,26,27
I proposed this model or inclusion of control and stability as an alternative to the dominant model proposed by Bompa, which contained no reference to or inclusion of control and stability as a strength sub-quality, nor did it present the strength sub-qualities in the organization structure I proposed consistently since.28,29
The following alternative model for the periodization of strength is perhaps not as different to the traditional model as the alternative speed periodization model was to the traditional speed periodization model. The model I present takes into account a greater range of strength qualities. Literally applied, this model presents training as progressing in the sequence shown below. To implement this model will require an understanding of the theory and methods of developing control and stability.
This shaped the consistent model I have been teaching for the last twenty plus years:
- Control and stability
- Hypertrophy and general strength
- Maximal strength
- Explosive power
- Quickness and stretch-shortening cycle (SSC)
- Strength endurance
Proposing Practical Solutions
I shared my concerns with this hyper-focus on loaded bilateral compound movements and the absence of progression from more isolated unilateral exercises from the 1990s onwards:
Not only does the excessive focus on loading have questionable superior transfer, it also involves greater injury risks for a number of reasons. Firstly, higher loading may result in a higher incidence of trauma e.g. torn muscles, ligaments. Secondly, the added loading increases joint wear, which over time will accumulate and manifest as an ‘injury’. Thirdly, the athlete will inevitably compromise technique to lift heavier, and develop muscle imbalances as a result.31
I formed a hypothesis that loading was being overused, that it was over-rated.32 I combined this with an awareness of the need to ensure bilateral strength balance: “In short, this movement gives you an opportunity to development unilateral strength and gain muscle balance feedback regarding joint stability.”32
And I began to develop a range of single leg exercises.
During the 1980s, I developed concerns about muscle imbalances epidemic in the dominant approach to strength training and sought a solution that I could use to analysis and teach a more balanced approach to strength training. In essence, in relation to the lower body there was a glaring absence of exercises to balance out the squat, lunge, leg press, etc.
I continued to test and refine my solution to this imbalance challenge, and late in the 1990s began teaching it more openly. I called it the Lines of Movement concept:
Now I am going to show you how I break the muscle groups up:
- Quad dominant
- Hip dominant
- Horizontal plane push
- Horizontal plane pull
- Vertical plane push
- Vertical plane pull33
I provided this clear teaching about muscle balance in lines of movement:
Balance: all things being equal, and independent of any specificity demands, the selection of exercises should show balance throughout the body. For example for every upper body exercise there would be a lower body exercise. For every upper body pushing movement, there would be an upper body pulling movement. For every vertical pushing movement there would be a vertical pulling movement. For every hip dominant exercise there would be a quad dominant exercise. And so on.34
In relation to the lower body, I wrote:
Historically the focus in lower body strength training has been on the quads, and quadricep dominant exercises such as the squat. This has been OK for say bodybuilders, whose worst case scenario is to have poor posterior leg muscle development. Even in track and field you will find authors admitting that during the 70’s the focus in power development in sprinters etc. was via leg extension as opposed to hip extension. If you take this fault in program design and training into strength training for athletes in general, the price can be a lot higher. It is my belief that an imbalance between quad dominant and hip dominant exercises where quad dominance is superior results in a significantly higher incidence of injury and adetraction from performance.35
Challenges in Developing Unilateral Leg Exercise Options
In addition to the lack of hip dominant exercises on offer, there were virtually no hip dominant unilateral leg options. Basically the only single leg exercises used during the 1960-1990 era were the lunge and bench steps, which in my opinion not fully unilateral movements.
In addition to the lack of options, there was some inclusion of single leg squats in weightlifting programs, but this was not mainstream. The first challenge was there were an inadequate number of exercises. The second challenge was that these exercises were a quad dominant exercise.
Solutions in Unilateral Leg Exercise Options
So I set about innovating and renaming exercises more popular in other arenas as my range of single leg exercises that provided balance between quad and hip dominant options. Here are some examples of my exercise innovations:
You can see from the above that I innovated more hip dominant movements to counter what I saw as an existing bias towards quad dominant options.
Sharing the Single Leg Training Concepts
I first released these single leg training options in the late 1990s. First, in my 1998 Strength Specialization seminar tour of Australia, of which Australian strength coach Andrew Read was in attendance. This seminar was then released in DVD and audio format. Further to that, I shared a generic twelve-week program incorporating these single leg exercises in my 1999 book Get Buffed! and the 1999 T-Mag (now T-Nation) programs (hard copy and online) known as the Limping programs.36
This was the first time anyone had proposed to the hard core, male-oriented, strength training fraternity that they should do single leg training integrated into their strength programs and still get the results they sought. You can see in the words of the T-Nation editor TC Louma in his introduction that he felt the need to encourage people to be open minded and give them a go:
The following article is Part I of a two-part leg training article that's very different from anything you've ever done. How so? Well, for starters, some of the exercises don't even require you to use any weight beyond that of what you've got piled on top of your hip bonesand dressed up in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. Secondly, this workout has a nasty side effect. It hurts. Real bad.Cast aside your skepticism and try the following workout this week. Part II will follow next week. Alternate between the two workouts for a period of three weeks or so. If it isn't everything Ian says it is, and if you don't think it's all that tough, keep doing things the old-fashioned way. Of course, if it is everything Ian says.37
This is how I introduced the programs:
The following is a hip dominant routine that balances out the previous quad dominant routine. This workout contains even more "unique" exercises, including some of my own creation - if I do say so myself, it took a very creative mind to arrive at some of them! But they weren't developed out of a drive to create something different for the sake of being different. They were born out of a desire to ensure that equal emphasis is placed on the upper thigh musculature.38
Conclusion - Acceptance and More
Within a few years of 1998 when I began publishing my ideas on single leg training, the strength training fraternity had embraced the concepts and options. In the years post 2000, a number of new “experts” were born who touted the benefits of the new “functional” approach to leg training, some of whom were touting the dominant trend in the prior decade.
Within a decade of releasing these unique unilateral leg exercise no one would require the disclaimer used by the T-Nation editor. For example, the twelve-week Get Buffed!/Limping program reappeared in full in the November 2011 Issue of Muscle and Fitness. The only problem was now it had a new author! (Perhaps they were feeling very bulletproof about copyright infringement.)
In the sixteen years since I initiated this trend, not only has unilateral leg training gained mainstream support, we have also - in my opinion - witnessed what I describe in my original saying that humans over-react in the short-term to a new trend. I will address these issues in part two of this series.
1. Hartmann, J., and Tunnemann, H., 1989, Fitness and Strength Training for All Sports, Sportsverlag, Berlin.
2. Scholich, M., 1986, Circuit Training for All Sports, Sportsverlag, Berlin.
3. Rasch, P.J., 1966, Weight Training, Wm. C Brown Company Publishers, Iowa, USA. A classic early text.
4. Starr, B., 1976, The Strongest Shall Survive, Port City Press, Maryland, USA. I rate this as the best book I have ever read on strength training for sport.
5. Pearl, B., 1982, Keys to the Inner Universe, Typecraft Incorporated, CA., USA. A true timeless classic providing readers with exercise education.
6. Hatfield, F.C., 1984, Bodybuilding – A scientific approach, Contemporary Books, Illinois, US. A classic book reflecting a mix of practical experience and science of the time.
7. Fleck, S.J., and Kraemer, W.J., 1987, Designing Resistance Training Programs, Human Kinetics, Illinios, USA. A reflection of the dominant science perspectives of that time.
8. Baechle, T.R., and Earle, R.W., 1992, Weight Training – Steps to Success, Leisure Press, Illinois, USA. A reflection of US strength & conditioning paradigms of that era.
9. Poliquin, C., 1997, The Poliquin Principles, Dayton Publishing, CA., US. The first book to publish my Speed of Movement concept, and different to the post 2000 authors and publishers, the author referenced the origin.
10. King, I., 1998, Strength Specialization Series DVD/Audio, King Sports International, Brisbane AUS. Content that changed the way the world did strength training.
11. King, I., 1999, Get Buffed (book), p. 77
12. Phillips, B., 1999, Body for Life, Harper Collins, NY US. A book that took transformation programs mainstream.
13. Schuler, L, and Mejia, M., Men's Health Home Workout Bible 2002, Rodale, USA. These books are little more than industry commentary, publishing trends. Not surprising therefore these authors picked up on the ‘new trends’ – reference to my Lines of Movement concept (unreferenced), a number of pages dedicated to the new buzzword ‘uni-lateral’, and inclusion (unreferenced) of some of my exercise innovations.
14. King, I., 1998, Strength Specialization Series DVD/Audio, King Sports International, Brisbane AUS. Content that changed the way the world did strength training.
15. Ebben, W.P., and Watts, P.B., 1998, "A review of combined weight training and plyometric training modes: complex training," NSCA J, Vol 20(5):18-27
16. Owens, J., 1998, Strength training for basketball building post players, NSCA J, Vol 20(1):16-21
17. Graham, J.F., 1998, Strength training for elite sprint cyclists, NSCA J, Vol 20(4):53-60
18. Ratamess, N.A., 1998, "Weight training for jiu jitsu", NSCA J, Vol 20(5):8-15
19. Kipp, W.R., 1998, "Physiological analysis and training for snowboard’s half pipe event", NSCA J, Vol 20(4):8-12
20. Hedrick, A., 1998, Resistance training with older populations: Justifications benefits, protocols, NSCA J, Vol 20(2):32-39
21. King, I., 1998, Strength Specialization Series (DVD)
22.King, I., 1993, Multi-year Periodization of Strength, A presentation at the Resistance Training Seminar for the Australian Coaching Council High Performance Course, Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, 11-12 October.
23. King, I., 1995, Periodization, ASCA Seminar Series, Brisbane 11 April 1995, p. 10.
24. King, I., 1999/2000, Foundations of Physical Preparation (course/book), p. 75
25. King, I., 1993, Multi-year Periodization of Strength, A presentation at the Resistance Training Seminar for the Australian Coaching Council High Performance Course, Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, 11-12 October.
26. King, I., 1994, Strength training for tennis, Seminar presented to Tennis Professionals Queensland, Sunday 27th Nov 1994
27. King, I., 1995, Periodization, ASCA Seminar Series, Brisbane 11 April 1995, p. 10.
28. King, I., 1995, Periodization, ASCA Seminar Series, Brisbane 11 April 1995, p. 10.
29. King, I., 1994, Strength training for tennis, Seminar presented to Tennis Professionals Queensland, Sunday 27th Nov 1994
30. King, I., 1999/2000, Foundations of Physical Preparation (course/book), p. 75
31. King, I., 1997, Winning and Losing, p. 44-45
32. King, I., 2000, Heavy Metal Q & A, t-mag.com, 12 April 2000
33. King, I., 1998, Strength Specialization Series (DVD), Disc 3, approx 1hr 03m 00sec in.
34. King, I., 1998, How to write strength training programs, p. 38
35. King, I., 2000, How to Teach Strength Training Exercises (book), p. 99
36. King, I, 1999, "Twelve Weeks of Pain, Part I - Limping into October", T-nation.com, Fri, Sep 17
37. TC Louma, Editor T-mag.com, Sep 17 1999, in the introduction to my workout A in my unique bodyweight based strength and bodybuilding program, a pioneer program at that time.
38. King, I., 1999, "Limping into October Pt 2" (now showing as ‘Hardcore Leg Training - Part 2’) T-mag.com, Fri, Sep 24, 1999
Images courtesy of Everkinetic.