Single-leg squat

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Single-leg squat

There is a huge achievement gap between squatting on both legs and squatting on one leg (single-leg squat). The former requires squatting half of your body weight on each leg with a larger base of support and two points of contact with the floor. The latter requires squatting all of your body weight on one leg with a smaller base of support and only one point of contact. It’s a night-and-day difference for the muscles of your lower body (and your nervous system). This is a good preparation exercise for far more advanced quadriceps & glutes exercise – the pistol squat.

Exercise instructions for single-leg squat

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the single-leg squat.

single-leg squat exercise

  • Stand upright, with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent.
  • Position a sturdy chair or other support on your right side. Rest your hand on it for balance. Skip this step if your balance and coordination is satisfying. In that case your hands can remain on the hips or reach out to the front for counterbalancing.
  • Stand on your right leg and extend your other leg either in front of your body or hold it behind your body (with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle).
  • Begin to squat on your right leg. In just one motion, sit back, lean forward, and reach for the foot on the floor. Don’t round your back, and make sure that your knee doesn’t pass in front of your toes. As soon as your right thigh is parallel to the floor, press yourself back up to the starting position. Instead of reaching for your foot, reach for the knee or shin of the standing leg.
  • Do all of your repetitions on one leg before switching to the other leg.

Additional tips (Performance pointers)

  • Keep your back straight (avoid rounding your lower back).
  • Keep your weight placed on the center of your foot (right in front of your anklebone).
  • Briefly pause in the bottom position and then extend your working leg and push your hips forward to come to full standing.

What is the difference between a single-leg squat and a pistol squat?

Since both squatting exercises are performed with one leg only, it’s important to note the difference between a single-leg squat and a pistol squat. A single-leg squat is any squat on one leg to a depth where your hip crease is just above your knee crease. In other words, you’ll be lowering your body by moving your hips back and bending at your knee and waist until your upper leg is (nearly) parallel with the floor. It doesn’t matter what you do with your nonworking leg. You can, fore example, hold it behind your body, with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle.

A pistol squat is a rock-bottom squat on one leg where your working leg hamstring rests on your calf in the bottom position. So you will have to extend your nonworking leg in front of your body (requiring a great deal of hamstring flexibility), which is why your body resembles a pistol at the bottom of the move.

Muscles engaged

  • Primary muscles: quads, glutes
  • Secondary muscles: hamstrings, lower back

The single-leg squat elicits a higher level of gluteus maximus and medius activation than the double-leg squat, lunge, or step-up. The hamstring/quadriceps co-activation ratio is also higher in the single-leg squat compared to the double-leg squat or lunge.

Exercise variations

Single-leg squat on a sturdy box

Here you will need to stand on a sturdy box, preferably one that has a base broader than its top, as this design is more stable. Without this box you would have to keep one leg (non-working) elevated throughout the entire exercise, which can be be quite challenging and detracts from concentration.

Single-leg squat on a sturdy box

Single-leg squat on a sturdy box

Stand on the side edge of the box and let your one leg rest in open space. If necessary, the spotter can stand at the side, place one hand on your wrist and the other hand just above the elbow. Keeping the knee of the working leg in line with the long toe, squat down until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep the foot of the working leg flat—don’t allow the heel to rise.

Replacement Exercises

With all the different types of squats to choose from, you can say goodbye to workout boredom. Try these  squats for every need and fitness level.

Closing thoughts about the single-leg squat

Though your ultimate goal is to be able to gradually build up to a perfect pistol squat, keep in mind that this takes a lot of work, especially for larger and taller individuals. It also requires the hip and ankle mobility of a mutant and full pain-free flexion of the knee. That’s why most people will do best with the self-assisted pistol squat variations or pistol box squats on a low box or step. The bottom line is that a single-leg squat provides 80 percent of the benefits of a perfect pistol squat. Therefore, don’t sweat it if you feel like you’re light-years away from the real deal.

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