Your workouts could be so much better than they are. When most people go to the gym they work with both legs doing the same thing at the same time. The problem is your body works unilaterally. You only use one hand to close and open doors and you only use one leg at a time when you climb stairs. If you already favor one side of your body, you should train that way as well. Here is where unilateral lower-body exercises can help.
Unilateral exercises are exercises that only use one arm or one leg. For example, a one-arm dumbbell bench press is a unilateral upper-body exercise. These types of exercises provide a few benefits for the lower body. Mike Boyle, personal trainer and strength coach for Boston University hockey, says that single-leg exercises are safer and also deliver outstanding results. Boyle says the safety comes from the fact that it's harder to turn a unilateral lower-body exercise into a dangerous low-back dominated exercise. And, without the benefit of two legs, it becomes difficult to perform reps with your body weight, for example, standing up with one leg versus two. This provides great results for functional training for living daily life as you become stronger with one leg.
Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat or rear foot elevated split squat is a great exercise to start unilateral training. While holding one dumbbell in each hand, reach one foot behind you and place it on a bench with your shoelaces facing downward. While maintaining a straight spine, bend your front knee to do a squat. If your front knee goes past your toes, move your front foot farther away from the bench. Once your back knee is within a few inches of the ground, push through your front foot to get back to the starting position. Start this exercise with three sets of five to eight repetitions on each leg and then add weight and repetitions as your strength improves.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
The single-leg Romanian deadlift, also known as a single-leg RDL, is an exercise that teaches the important mechanic of hip extension on a single leg. Hip extension is bending at the hip while keeping your back straight. Doing single-leg RDLs will develop hip extension on each leg individually. Start by holding a dumbbell in one hand, with your feet hip-width apart. If the dumbbell is in your right hand, swing your right leg back while maintaining a straight spine and a partially flexed left leg. Once you feel a stretch in your left hamstring, squeeze your left glute to bring yourself back to the starting position. Start with three sets of eight repetitions on each side and increase the weight and repetitions as you get better at the exercise.
Before beginning any exercise program consult your doctor. Drink water before and during exercise to prevent dehydration. Do a thorough warm-up for your lower body before beginning the workout. Start by doing some cardio for five to 10 minutes to work up a light sweat, and then do a few light sets of each unilateral exercise with minimal weight to further warm up the muscles. Because you're on one leg, unilateral exercises require more balance; if anything feels uncomfortable or dangerous, stop and practice the form before continuing. Work with a personal trainer to receive a personalized program to reduce the likelihood of injury.
Carl Galloway is a strength-and-conditioning coach at a high school in Southern California. He is certified as an Olympic lifting coach through USA Weightlifting and as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Galloway holds a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and a master's degree in coaching and athletic administration.