In this brand new series, Wolf looks at some of the not so often examined topics in bodybuilding and working out. We start off with the step child of leg workouts: single leg exercises.
This article marks the beginning of a new series that will, on a weekly basis, bring in short articles in which I’ll give out training tips and ideas. As always, I’ll try to bring up topics that are seldom covered and discussed, especially since a lot of tips will concern people who train at home with minimal equipment and in inadequate conditions. Some articles will serve merely to expose the reader to an uncommon idea, while others will bring more in-depth analysis of a training concept or practice.
Single Leg Execises
Imbalances and asymmetry between opposite sides of the body are a normal and common thing, and tend to occur on basically every bodypart. Some get noticed more than others, as witnessed by a plethora of Internet forum topics titled “My left biceps is 0.2 cm smaller than my right, how do I correct it?” You can put “pec”, “forearm” and sometimes “shoulder” instead of “biceps” for a more complete picture. Likewise, there is a difference in size and strength between left and right side of your lower body. It rarely gets under the spotlight, but still requires addressing.
The aesthetics side of the whole story is actually of lesser importance here. Most people, especially if they’re bodybuilding oriented, don’t seem to get that this humongous asymmetry they see every time they step in front of a mirror (and that’s ten or more times a day ;)) actually goes completely unnoticed by other people. This is because people 1) don’t spend that much time looking at you, 2) don’t see you from all angles, and 3) don’t spend half of their day looking at bodybuilding physiques so they can’t really spot all these small details that concern the training population. So, again, the size difference, even if you are a bodybuilder, isn’t that important. What is important is the strength difference, for it can, in the long run, adversely affect both your health and performance.
Most people try to remedy this problem by putting a lot more work on the weaker side in terms of doing extra sets and/or exercises. While this does have a purpose (the stronger side doing more work in bilateral exercises which needs to be compensated by more unilateral work by the weaker side) it derails people from the important thing, and that is to focus on getting both sides equally strong in unilateral exercises.
The Cause Of Imbalances
Imbalances are sometimes caused by slight form glitches, like hips swaying a bit to one side during the squat, or the torso being tiled a bit to one side during a bent-over row. A more subtle example is one arm, being inherently stronger, pulling a bit faster during a chinup, thus doing more work, which accumulates over time and leads to an upper body asymmetry. Again, when approaching such a problem, a fundamental step is making sure that both limbs are equally strong in an unilateral movement.
In my opinion and experience, the barbell split squat is generally the best single leg training exercise, especially for people who train at home, yet it somehow doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. For a long time, my weapon of choice was the DB lunge – the “stationary” variant, since I don’t have enough room for more two strides if I do the “walking” one – and I didn’t really like it, so I switched to pistol squats. Those worked quite well until my knees began to bug me from time to time, with the frequency of issues increasing along with the added weight. I tried going back to doing lunges, but then I faced the issue of having to use large, heavy dumbbells to add enough resistance. (People who train at the gym and don’t plate-load their DBs rarely understand the inconvenience of having to wield ‘bells with an excessively large diameter). Barbell lunges weren’t an option due to space and gym arrangement constraints, so I decided to do BB split squats.
The BB split squat lets you move an appreciable amount of weight without having to worry about your grip giving out or DBs rubbing against your thighs. There is no forward (or backward) stepping involved, making it somewhat safer than the lunge. Also, if you fail, you can always place some load on the back leg to help you get the weight up. This brings us to the issue of how far away should you place your feet, and also how deep should you go. Aim for a stance as long as that in a medium stride lunge. I’m saying this mostly because people tend to take excessively long strides while doing lunges, and then they (wrongly) replicate this movement when doing split squats.
A good rule of the thumb is to have your hips at the same height as your forward leg at the bottom position, which happens when the knee of the trailing leg hits the floor (you obviously can’t go deeper than that). Another thing to watch out for is being stabile. The majority of your weight should be placed on the front foot, but the rear foot is here to provide you with a strong pivot point. Distributing the weight between the forward and rear foot is a matter of practice and experience, but you’ll probably feel it when you hit the sweet spot.
Split Squats – Essential Or Not?
Most people out there consider split squats to be exclusively an accessory movement and treat it as such, prescribing sets of up to 20 reps on it, but I beg to differ, especially if you train at home. The reason being, a lot of home trainees (and occasionally gym trainees as well) face the problem of not having enough plates or not having a rack sturdy enough to make their squats as heavy as they’d need to be. In that case, try making the split squats your main lower rep range leg exercise. The great thing about this is that the rest of your body (mainly core and upper back) won’t be as stressed from this weight as they would be from doing a 5 rep bilateral squat, giving you an opportunity to focus more on moving the weight with your forward leg.
Another thing is rarely mentioned is how should the set be performed in respect to side of the body being worked: should you do just one leg, then the other, alternate, rest between doing one leg than the other, etc. In my opinion, especially if you treat the split squat as a serious exercise, the best approach is to train one leg, rest 30 seconds to a minute, and then train the other. This allows you to renew your mental focus, as well as to reset your position by racking and then unracking the barbell again.
A question that might arise is whether you should do regular or Bulgarian split squats (the difference between the two being in whether the rear foot is placed on the ground or if it is elevated on a bench). Personally, I prefer doing regular (floor) split squats when I load them with a barbell, and Bulgarian split squats when I load using dumbbells. The reason stems from what I had explained in the previous paragraph: I use the split squats as my main lower rep lower body exercise, and prefer the added stability of doing them with my rear foot on the floor. That being said, I consider the Bulgarian split squats to be overall a somewhat superior exercise because they enforce better form and allow for a larger variety of setups by changing the height of the bench/box and its distance from you.
Up next: Cheating the Right Way!