Are You Getting the Most Out of Your Single Leg Training?

Jul 25, 2022

First let me start with a confession. I’m a thief. I regularly steal information. In fact, I think stealing and cheating are great coaching techniques. I like to say in my seminars that they should teach cheating in school. It’s the key to success later in life. They should sit you down and say, “OK, look around the room. Figure out who you think will do well in this class and sit next to them”. This would be a great life lesson. Some call it modeling successful behavior. I just call it what it is, cheating. With that being said, I’m also an equal opportunity cheat. I steal from people that I like and from people that I don’t like. During my long career I have stolen from some of the best in the business. Charles Poliquin, Gary Cook, Mike Clark, Paul Chek, Mark Verstegen. I’ve stolen from every one of them. You know what’s even better, it’s all legal. Intelligent people call it research or gathering information. Really, why think outside the box when you can just look in someone else’s box?

With that being said, I’d like to steal an idea. I reread Charles Poliquin’s Structural Balance Training ( and it made me think. Could we come up with similar numerical relationships similar to what Poliquin had done for upper body strength when we look at lower body strength? I’ve been working on this for a while and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Posterior Chain Training

I’m going to be a bit of a heretic here. I’m not sure how much longer I will be doing double leg exercises like squats and deadlifts. I know this will make more powerlifters and bodybuilders hate me. Please get in line, the bus is getting crowded. In fact I have already eliminated back squats from my training programs (7 years of front squat only, big reduction in back pain). In addition we do almost no double leg deadlifts or straight leg/Romanian deadlifts ( by the way, I hate the term Romanian Deadlift or RDL, I heard a speaker say he had been doing that lift for years before he had ever met any Romanians.) What does this mean? Basically it means that once I can better calculate single leg loads in the squat, I may just stop squatting and use just the single leg versions. I’ve already done this with our Modified Straight Leg Deadlift.


I use only the single leg version and base loads off the hang clean 1 RM (a lift I’ll never stop doing). We progress from a single leg Good Morning (a great low-load teaching exercise but a bad strength exercise) (see figure 1), to a Single Dumbbell Modified One Leg Straight Leg Deadlift (we abbreviate 1 L SLDL) (see figure 2).

When the dumbbells get too heavy to hold in one hand, we switch to a two dumbbell version or to a straight bar. I think the one dumbbell version is more functional but, somewhere around 80 pounds the dumbbell gets heavy to hold in one hand. When you suddenly switch from one eighty to two forty-fives the load increases by ten pounds on the posterior chain but seems significantly lighter.


These single leg posterior chain exercises present two distinct advantages. For non-powerlifters, most of life occurs on one leg. As a result the single leg versions are more muscularly specific. In addition, by loading only one leg, the load on the back is decreased by 50%, another huge advantage. We can get great posterior chain loads; involve more muscles ( adding in hip rotators, and ab/adductors) with less back stress. Sounds like win-win-win to me. The problems that we initially ran into when switching from conventional straight leg deadlifts to the single leg versions involved technique and load selection. We made two critical mistakes.

1- The leg was too straight
2- The load was too light.

The answer to the first questions came by way of Paul Chek. Chek has always contended that a straight leg (extended knee) over-recruits the hamstrings. I modified my technique as specified by Chek and voila, glute soreness. Chek recommends a consistent twenty degree knee bend and I would concur. I think many athletes are weak in the glutes and synergistically dominant in the hamstrings and this leads to hamstring problems.

The second problem related to load. How heavy is heavy? Because we don’t do conventional deadlifts, I needed another parameter to base my formula on. As we test the hang clean, I decided to use a percentage of hang clean 1 RM as a starting point as the hang clean should give a reasonable estimate of the strength and power of the hip and back extensors. We began with twenty percent of hang clean max (55 lbs for an athlete with a 275 hang clean) which proved to be light, and progressed rapidly. I have found that most athletes will be able to handle 80-100 pounds in one hand in a 1 Leg SLDL if pushed. I have done 70 for 8 at 185 lbs and 46 years of age. Interestingly enough, we had to progress to a straight bar or a two dumbbell version because one dumbbell became too difficult. When the load was split, it was actually easy. I think that athletes will easily be able to work up to 50% of hang clean max with a bar or two dumbbells (a pair of 70’s for our theoretical 275 max hang clean)

Progressions Review Weeks 1-3 Single Leg Good Morning- back must remain slightly arched, all motion occurs at the hip, knee is bent to twenty degrees. Loads need not exceed 45 pounds.

Weeks 4-6 Single Dumbbell One Leg Straight Leg Deadlifts- as the load increases, the load is now moved closer to the point of rotation. This results in less back stress. Works great up to approximately 80 pounds

Weeks 7-9 Double Dumbbell One Leg Straight Leg Deadlifts- for loads 80 pounds and up.

Knee Dominant Single Leg Exercise

When you start to develop loading parameters for knee dominant single leg exercises things get really interesting. True single-leg exercise must take into account both the athlete’s body weight and the external load (dumbbells, weight vests, etc.). In the past many single leg exercise loads were either arrived at randomly or, calculated from a percentage of squat max. The reality is that in single-leg exercise body weight functions as the majority of the load. Because of this many coaches find it difficult to determine loads for one-leg squats. We have found it useful to follow the same process we developed for jump squats for many of our single-leg exercises. In order to determine an athlete’s load we first calculate total system weight Total system weight consists of the weight on the bar plus the weight of the lifter.

Total system weight = Body weight + front squat max

Example: A 200-pound athlete capable of a 400-pound front squat would have a total system weight of 600 pounds.

Why does this matter? In order to fully understand, it is necessary to look at two examples.

Athlete 1 400 lb Front Squat @ 200 lbs BW – Total System Weight equals 600 pounds

Athlete 2 300 lb Front Squat @ 300 lbs BW- Total system weight equals 600 pounds.

Obviously, athlete 1 has a far better strength to body weight ration than athlete two. If we simply took a percentage of their squat max for single leg exercises, we would under-load athlete 1 and provide an inadequate challenge, while overloading athlete two and risking injury. Although most people don’t consider this aspect, it becomes critical in single leg squats. We generally begin at 40 percent of total system weight then subtract body weight and divide by two to get a dumbbell weight. Recently as the loads have increased we no longer divide by two we simply tell the athlete the total external load. The load is then accomplished through a combination of dumbbells and weight vests.

In others words, 40 percent of 600 is 240. 240-200/2 = 20.

In this example, athlete one would begin single leg squats with 20 lb dumbbells in each hand or, a twenty pound vest and two ten pound dumbbells.

Athlete two would actually get a negative number due to the poor strength to bodyweight ratio. In our training system, negative numbers always get five lbs per hand regardless. Strangely enough, single leg squats are easier with five lb dumbbells than with bodyweight, due to the counterbalance. Athlete 1 could use 20-pound dumbbells for sets of five reps. If the load progressed to 50 percent of total system weight, the external load would be 100 lbs (. 300-200= 100 lbs.) This might necessitate a 40 lb X-vest and 30 lb dumbbells.

I hope this article makes you consider loading patterns for single leg exercises. The knee dominant equation can also be used for exercises like Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (I know Bulgarian squats. What is with our eastern European fascination anyway?) or for exercises like Slideboard Lunges or Back or Front Split Squats. If you are an athlete yourself, or train athletes give the math a try.

Michael Boyle is one of the most respected professional strength coach's in the world. Check out his revolutionary Functional Strength Coach 10-DVD Series here