As time goes by and as I gain more experience as a strength coach, the 1-leg squat off a box or a bench is quickly becoming one of my favorite strength exercises for the lower body.
It is a very challenging exercise to perform even without weights. It requires a decent amount of relative strength (strength to bodyweight ratio) to only be able to do it correctly.
If you have been following my blog for a while, you should know by now that I’m a huge advocate of single leg exercises. Of all the lunges, split squats and others, I believe that the 1-leg squat off bench can give you the most benefits. Compared to a lunge or a split squat, you don’t have any support of your non-dominant leg. That makes it very hard to compensate or use too much of a push with the support leg.
Also because of the lack of support from the non-working leg, it makes it pretty challenging on your stability. I am not a fan of unstable surface training, but I’m all for improving stability on a stable surface. If an athlete can’t keep his balance trying to perform a 1-leg squat that tells me a lot about his stability.
The lack of stability in single leg support may lead to a host other problems. Think about it for a second, all sports are played on one leg at a time with actions such as running, jumping, skating, cutting, etc. If an athlete can’t be stable when performing an unsupported 1-leg exercise, he’s setting himself for injury.
The 1-leg squat usually requires little external loading compared to exercises such as a reverse lunge or a RFE split squat. I am not saying that external loading is necessarily bad, and I do use these exercises myself with my athletes. But even if you can load lower body exercises safely, it still adds compression to the spine. According to research, axial loading (as in this case) is not what causes injury; repetitive and excessive flexion, extension and torsion combined with loading is what causes spine injuries. However, even if axial loading doesn’t translate into injury there is still some wear that accumulate on the spine if you lift weights for years. In the case of a pro athlete or an athlete trying to maximize the longevity of his career, it would be smart to lean towards exercises with less axial loading on the spine more than just once in a while.
Since the 1-leg squat can be a difficult exercise to perform for some athletes who’ve never done it before, you may be facing a couple problems.
One thing very common with young athletes performing the exercise is that they won’t be able to go all the way down and touch the ground. An easy fix for that is to lower the box or stack plates on the ground, so the distance the athlete needs to travel to touch his heel down is less.
Another common problem with a lot of athletes is the inability to control the valgus collapse (the knee going in). Some coaching cues can help solve the problem, but if it doesn’t seem to be working too well, you can use a technique called reactive neuromuscular training (RNT). The idea behind RNT is to force the body into its natural compensation pattern to make the brain automatically correct it. In this specific example, you would wrap a band around the athlete’s knee and pull it towards the valgus collapse. The brain will naturally want to resist the tension, which will also correct the problem because you’ll be activating the muscles that actually prevent that valgus collapse.
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