My single leg squat experiment
One week before my college graduation back in May, I tweaked my back trying to get a duffel bag from underneath my bed. I wish I had a better story, but that’s the truth. At first I thought it was just a minor pull, but several hours later it seized up to where I could not even stand up straight and I had sciatic pain radiating down my leg and causing my foot to burn. I spent the next three days lying in bed with my only activity being flipping over from side to side trying to get comfortable. The pain gradually got better over several days and I went along with the graduation festivities as normal. The weights were the furthest thing from my mind. After the dust settled and I got home, I knew that even though the pain was better, it would be prudent to ease back into things slowly in the gym so as not to reaggravate it. This meant nothing that would load the spine excessively, making leg training difficult. In the past, this would have meant a steady diet of belt squats for awhile until my back felt 100% again.
Around this same time, however, I was also solidifying an internship working with Mike Boyle at his facility (MBSC) in Woburn, Massachusetts starting in the fall. This gave me about three months to prepare. From my readings, I knew that they did a lot of things at MBSC that were very different from how I was used to training myself. The most glaring example was in regards to leg training. For those that are unfamiliar with Coach Boyle’s work, he does not have his athletes back squat. He did have them front squat for awhile, but has since dropped that exercise too and replaced it with rear-foot elevated split squats (RFESS) and single leg squats. Why you ask? He gives a lengthy description here, but I will try to condense his argument into several bullet points. Keep in mind that here he is comparing RFESS (commonly known as Bulgarian Split Squats) to traditional back squats.
1) The back squat is essentially a low back exercise, meaning the limiting factor in the lift is not leg strength but rather low back strength. The low back gives out before the legs do. When doing a RFESS, the low back does not limit the lift so you can effectively train the legs to a greater degree.
2) RFESS allow athletes to work their legs to a high degree without loading their backs with excessively heavy weights, which is important for long-term back health. Basically, they are safer.
3) Not only are RFESS safer than back squats, they are also more effective because you can load each leg heavier individually than you can when doing bilateral squats. He cites examples of his athletes doing 115×15 on the RFESS that could not come close to doing 230×15 with regular squats.
This is his argument in a nutshell. I remember watching his argument in the video The Death of Squatting back when it came out and reading the tremendous backlash that ensued. Some people agreed with his argument, but most people were strongly opposed to his ideas. My stance was somewhat neutral. My first reaction was to disagree, just because it went against everything I had ever learned. I had always been told that to get strong legs or big legs, you HAVE to squat. I never really understood why it was so essential, but I just knew it was. Wanna get bigger? Squat. Wanna get stronger? Wanna jump higher? You guessed it: Squat. Hell, from a lot of the stuff out there, you would think squats cure cancer. Not wanting to miss out, I squatted, and squatted a lot: back squats, front squats, Anderson squats, box squats, zercher squats; you name it, I tried it. I did get a lot stronger for sure. For this reason, it was hard for me to agree with Coach Boyle’s position.
At the same time, being new to the field of strength of conditioning, I think I would be remiss to immediately discard an opinion from a man with so much experience. Nobody gets to where he is by being an idiot. Thus, I tried to look past his conclusion for a second and examine his rationale. The more I did that, the more his ideas intrigued me. Basically, he was purporting a more effective way to train the legs that was also safer for the lower back. This was very appealing to me given my history of back problems. To give a brief history, I had a surgery to repair a disk at L5-S1 and have three degenerative disks in my back at the age of 24. To be clear, these injuries were not a result of squatting. However, with issues such as mine, I have to believe that repeated spinal loading with heavy weights cannot be a good idea for long term back health. I am no doctor, but just intuitively, it seems like it’s playing with fire. As I get older, I am trying to think of things not just in terms of today, but in terms of the rest of my life. Maybe single leg work would be my answer, allowing me to keep getting stronger while reducing the load on my spine. I was not sold on the idea to be honest, because I am generally skeptical of anything that goes against the grain to such a high degree. Nevertheless, regardless of my feelings, I knew I was going to need to coach these exercises anyway in a couple months, so it would be wise to practice them. As Ron Burgandy says in Anchorman, “When in Rome…” So began my single leg experiment.
The main exercises that Coach Boyle uses to replace squats are RFESS and single leg squats done to various depths. I could not even come close to doing a single leg squat without falling over, so I decided to start with the RFESS. I had done this exercise off and on before, but I always felt awkward doing it. Sometimes it felt great, other times it felt terrible. I could never seem to get comfortable or find my groove, and I felt a big difference between my right and left leg. It felt fine with lighter weights, but got ugly once the weights got heavier. I had always loaded these by holding dumbbells at my sides, which is the most common way I see them loaded, but I kept finding that as the weights got heavy, I would lean way forward and lose my balance. Balance was the limiting factor, not leg strength. I remember the first few workouts I would throw in some belt squats at the end because I did not feel my legs got worked sufficiently. Things changed when I made one simple adjustment. I put down a small pad in front of the bench, and learned where I had to put my front leg in relation the pad so that when I came down into the squat I was in the proper position. Before, I would stand too close sometimes and feel jammed, and too far away other times and feel like I was going to slip off the bench. The pad cured that issue, and had the added benefit or providing padding to my back knee so it did not bang the floor. It’s funny how little things like that can make such a big difference. I highly suggest you use this method yourself.
I also changed from holding the dumbbells at my sides to holding one dumbbell goblet style. I had read Dan John’s work about how goblet squats can help teach proper squatting form, and had experienced good results myself, so I applied the same concept to the RFESS. It worked like a charm. Holding the dumbbell in that manner forced me to keep my torso upright and got my form in check immediately. Want to teach someone proper form quickly? Have them load up Goblet style. It teaches itself. I think a lot of people see goblets as a sissy exercise, but I found that you can actually load them quite heavy, which has the added benefit of increasing core strength. After some heavy goblets, I promise you your abs will be sore the next day, as will your legs. Using this method, I maxed out the dumbbells at my gym at 120lbs.
From here I moved to loading the RFESS with the barbell. It was suprising to me how fast my numbers increased on this lift once I figured out the proper foot placement and improved my posture. Over the course of the summer I worked up from doing 155 lbs to topping out at 275×5.
Some of this improvement can be attributed to getting stronger, but I believe most of it is a result of getting familiar with the lift. I felt like I was able to focus on getting stronger rather than worry about balancing. This is huge. For the more in-depth look at some different progressions to the RFESS, you can also check out this awesome blog post from my buddy Kevin Carr from MBSC and Rearick Strength here.
At this point I decided to tackle the single leg squat, known to some people as the pistol squat. At MBSC they teach the lift by starting with a one leg squat to a high bench and gradually increasing the depth. This is exactly what I did. At first it felt very awkward because I was entirely on one leg throughout the entire set. Surprisingly though, after banging away at the RFESS for awhile, they were not nearly as hard as they had been before. I attribute this to getting acclimated to the feeling of being on one leg while still having the back foot in contact with the bench, improving my balance, and strengthening the small muscles (i.e. glute medius) that were not getting worked doing my bilateral leg work. Over the span of a few weeks I increased the depth to where I was able to do full pistol squats without a box, at which point I started adding weight. If you experience any knee pain, I would not do full pistols. There is no problem at all doing them to a parallel box. I find that if I put a small wedge under my foot, it helps me get to full depth without rounding my back and it feels better on my knee. My current best is double bodyweight, or 177 pounds added (I weigh 176) for 2 reps.
Like with the RFESS, I am to a point where I can focus on strength increases and not worry about falling over. This was not the case when I first started, as balance was the primary issue.
So, can single leg training really get you stronger? I guess some of this depends on how you define strength. Personally, I would say yes and no. When you first try it, probably not. In the initial learning phase, it will be about learning how to balance and get used to the exercises. I believe this process is valuable in its own right because it teaches you important movement skills as well as how to control your body, but for those people that are only looking to get stronger, I don’t think you will in the initial learning phase. Sorry. One could make the argument that you are actually getting stronger by learning the movement, but I would say this is more an issue of learning the skill. Once you learn the skill, however, I absolutely believe that single leg work can make you stronger. You can apply progressive resistance just as you can to any other lift. Moreover, while the total loads will be less than bilateral counterparts, the load on each leg will be greater with certain variations. Going back to the example of the RFESS for example, I did 275×5 on each leg, but there is simply no way in hell I could squat 550×5. Not a chance. Not even close, really. Now some people may argue that during the RFESS, you get some assistance from the back leg or that there is a difference in depth between the RFESS and the back squat. I will submit that this is a valid point. I would not expect a back squat to be double that of the RFESS. Still, the difference is just too great for me to overlook. And for those of you that use soreness as an indicator of efficacy, the RFESS will have you hurting the next day as much or more than any other leg exercise I’ve tried.
Furthermore, you get the added benefit of balance. Here, balance takes on multiple meanings. First, in the most obvious sense, you have to balance on one leg. This, in turn, will work the small stabilizing muscles like glute medius that are not activated as much during bilateral work. This part is even great in the pistol squat as compared to the RFESS, though the total loads are less so there is a tradeoff. Secondly, in any single leg variation, you also develop balance between legs. Single leg work will make it abundantly clear if one leg is stronger than the other and allow you to address any disparities, which will pay long-term dividends in the overall health and function of your body.
I can only speak for myself, but I think there are two primary reasons why you don’t see more people incorporating single leg work.
1) It goes against everything we have always been told.
2) It is awkward to learn, so people get a negative first impression.
The first point is true of most things in life. Many people, myself included, are resistant to change. I understand this point, and part of my reason for writing this article is to bring another idea to the table to hopefully inspire more people to give it a try. As it stands, most of the people you see on You Tube doing RFESS or pistol squats are small people using light weights. It is no wonder that we do not take these exercises seriously for getting stronger and/or bigger. However, I think this is an issue of the big and strong people not using these exercises, not an issue of these exercises not being effective for getting big and strong. I am confident that if there more big and strong guys out there manhandling impressive loads in the single leg exercises, more people would follow suit and reap the benefits.
The trouble is that these exercises take time to learn, and most strong people are not willing to put in the time. If you are used to squatting huge weights, the idea of wobbling around trying to attempt a single leg squat does not sound very appealing, and it can be downright embarrassing. Again, I understand this. The first time I tried the RFESS I was shaking like leaf and couldn’t get comfortable with getting on the bench, and the first time I tried a pistol squat was downright ugly. However, I do not think it is a good reason to avoid the exercises. Working on your weaknesses will only make you better in the long run and your overall strength will improve.
I want to be clear here that I am not advocating that everyone drop all squatting and other bilateral leg work in exchange for single leg work. I have a big problem with new coaches acting as if they know it all just because they have read some books and tried some things out a few times in the gym. I am just breaking into the world of coaching. I have seen Coach Boyle get great success with his athletes doing single leg work almost exclusively, but I have also seen many other coaches get great results with heavy squatting. As much as I respect Coach Boyle’s opinion, I am not prepared to base my opinions solely off one man’s opinion. Based on my limited experience, I am no position to make ubiquitous recommendations. I myself have had great luck with certain bilateral leg exercises that do not load the spine as much, such as belt squats, goblet squats, and even front squats. The purpose of this article is simply to:
1) Give single leg work an honest try
2) Give tips and show progressions for learning the RFESS and pistol squat
3) Say that I think it is absolutely possible to get stronger and/or bigger without squatting.
The last point is particularly important for people with low back problems that continue to squat because they have brainwashed by the dogma that says it’s the only way to get results (I know, I was one of them). Healthy individuals may be fine to squat. It all comes down to risk-reward. Do the rewards outweigh the risks? For healthy individuals, it very well might, but for people with low back issues, I believe they are setting themselves up for problems down the line. Interestingly, I have read several studies that show that a large number of asymptomatic people revealed disk bulges of varying degrees via MRI. There are similar studies, but the results are all very interesting. Jenson and Modic et.al (1994) took a random sample of 98 people with no history of back pain which revealed that 64% had an abnormal disk (bulge, protrusion, and/or extrusion). 1n 1995, Dr. Norbert Boos won an award for his study of “high-risk” asymptomatic volunteers (people involved in jobs like require heavy lifting, bending, etc.) and MRI- false positives that showed that 76% had at least one disc herniation. The take-away message from these studies is that disc herniations are a poor predictor of low-back pain. This is certainly true, but I had a different reaction to these studies: Damn, that’s a lot of messed up spines! Admittedly, my reaction is surely a result of my experiences with back pain and surgery (I believe we are all products of our experiences). Nevertheless, with so many people having disk abnormalities, I think it is even more important that people rethink continual heavy spinal loading. Even if you aren’t drinking the single leg Kool Aid, think of things like belt squats, goblet squats, or front squats. These are all great exercises and put significantly less stress on the spine.
I do encourage anyone to give single leg training a try, even if you still want to keep squatting as well. It does not have to be an either or. Most people will experience carryover from their single leg work to double leg work, but they will not experience carryover from double leg to work to single work initially due to the learning curve of the exercises. I have provided progressions for the RFESS and the one leg squat. I focused on these because that is what I have been doing, but there are many others. Lunges, reverse lunges, walking lunges, step-ups, etc. My best advice is to take your medicine in the beginning and work through the progressions. Do yourself a favor and get comfortable with the movements before you start slapping on the weights. It may be frustrating at first, but I have a feeling that in time, many of you will be drinking the Kool Aid too.
Boos N, et al. “1995 Volvo Award in clinical science: The diagnostic accuracy of MRI, work perception, and psychosocial factors in identifying symptomatic disc herniations.” Spine – 1995; 20:2613-2625
Jensen MC, et al. “MRI imaging of the lumbar spine in people without back pain.” N Engl J Med – 1994; 331:369-373