Developing Strength One Leg at a Time

If I had a dollar for every time a client asked me to “show me how to do a pistol,” I could go on a pretty decadent 5-star vacation.

Usually, I reply and ask a few questions like: “Can you back squat your body’s weight for five reps?” “Can you do a Bulgarian split squat at 50 percent of your body’s weight?”

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More often than not, the answer is no.

Whether or not your goal is to be able to do pistol (a single leg squat) or not, it’s valuable to spend some time on single-leg strength as it is a great way to iron out any strength imbalances you might have. It’s also a great way to improve your balance.

Back to the pistol for a moment. Once you gain this prerequisite, non-negotiable strength via single-leg strength training, you won’t need a coach to “teach you” or “show you” how to do a pistol. You’ll just try one day and voila: a successful pistol will ensue.

Five Great Exercises for Building Single-Leg Strength

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

Place your back leg on a box or bench and your other foot on the ground. Make sure your front foot is in front of your hip so you’re in a sort of elevated lunge position.

As you descend into a squat, make sure your shin on your front leg is perpendicular to the ground (i.e. don’t let your knee come too far in front of your foot). Think about dropping your hips straight down and keeping your chest proud. The goal here is to descend until your hip crease is below your knee, just like during a squat.

Another option is to add a tempo. Take three seconds to descend and hold for three seconds at the bottom. You should feel the glute on the leg you’re standing on working super hard when you’re doing these.

Start with 5 sets of 5 reps per side with a light weight and go from there. If you eventually can do five sets of five reps holding on to 50 percent of your body weight, my guess is you’re probably strong enough to do a pistol.

2. Single Leg RDLs

This stiff-legged, single legged hinge movement is a great way to develop strength in your hamstrings and glutes and is especially useful for improving balance.

These should look pretty much the same as a two-footed hinge or good morning in terms of your body position, only now you’re standing on one leg only.

When you’re doing these, pretend like there’s a dowel on your back and keep three points of contact on the dowel (your head, your back, and your bum)—meaning everything should be in perfect alignment.

3. Skater Squats

To be honest, these are almost as challenging as pistols; they just don’t require the same amount of hamstring or ankle flexibility. The idea here is to squat on one leg and touch your knee to the ground, but not your foot.

If you’re not quite strong enough, use your foot lightly until you feel strong enough to stand up the rest of the way without using assistance from your foot. The eventual goal, however, is to touch just your knee to the ground and then stand back up again unassisted.

4. Single Leg Glute Bridges

These are great as an activation drill for the glutes. They’re just like a regular bridge only way harder as only one glute and hamstring is at work. You can do these slowly, or more dynamically (see the video for more).

5. Single-Leg Weighted Stand

Again, this is more of an activation drill than anything, but can also go a long way in improving both balance and single-leg glute strength.

Stand on one leg with good posture while holding a KB or DB in your opposite hand. Think about building as much tension in your body as you can and squeeze your glutes hard the entire time.

Start with 60 seconds per side. If you’re not feeling the burn, add weight, or just try harder to build tension by squeezing your muscles a little harder.

Extra challenge: try this with your eyes closed. It’s harder than it looks.

When it comes to building single leg strength and being able to do a pistol, you can’t skip steps. Take the time, build the single leg strength, and pistols will come.

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