Top 10 Single-Leg Exercises for Strength, Mass & Athleticism

Humans move one leg at a time.

If you’re not developing single-leg strength, you’re missing out on some of the most versatile and high-value exercises. You’re opening yourself up to some glaring weaknesses as well.

In this article, we’re discussing 10 of our favorite single-leg exercises to build muscle and strength while becoming a more functional and athletic trainee. With videos, of course, to check your form.

1. Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is the best place to start with single-leg training for strength and muscle gains, especially as a beginner. It adapts to your needs and scales to become easier or harder.

As you become more advanced, it’s also a great finisher or superset exercise because you can focus on adding more reps without over-complicating the movement.

Scaling and progression options

There are 3 main ways to make the reverse lunge more challenging and get more from each rep:

  1. Deficit: make the movement longer and build more muscle, strength, and stability by starting with the feet on a plate or sturdy object.
  2. Weight: add weight with dumbbells or a barbell, making this exercise much heavier, and building stability under big weights.
  3. Explosiveness: explode through the ‘top’ of the movement to build single-leg strength and improve leg and hip power.

These are easy to adjust for any goal, making the reverse lunge a great all-rounder.

How to perform the reverse lunge

  1. Stand up tall with your feet at hip width.
  2. Keep your torso straight as you step back with one foot onto the ball of the rear foot.
  3. Keep your weight balanced evenly between the front and back foot, bending both the knees and hips to lower your hips towards the floor.
  4. Go as low as is comfortable, or until your knee touches the floor under control.
  5. Reverse the movement, pushing the floor down, and you return to the start position.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a great way to build strength, balance, and power in the legs and hips. It’s a classic training tool for elite athletes in sports that involve any kind of running, jumping, or throwing.

This is amazing for building functional strength: control in a deep hip flexion position, a more stable knee, and amazing knee-hip-spine control. 

Progression and scaling options

There are only really 2 ways you need to progress the Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Depth: by elevating the front foot, you lengthen the movement and need to stabilize your lower body more actively. This is the main way to progress Bulgarians.
  2. Weight: adding more weight can be difficult, but it is very rewarding if you don’t have to change your technique. Add depth first, then add weight from dumbbells or a barbell.

How to perform the Bulgarian split squat

  1. Set up with your weights in hand, placing your rear foot on an elevated surface, such as a bench.
  2. Step forwards until your weight is distributed around 50% per foot.
  3. Keep your torso straight and upright, bending your knees to sink your hips toward the floor.
  4. Go as far down as possible/comfortable, focusing on good balance and keeping your hips’ square’ (don’t twist).
  5. Push down against the floor to stand up, returning to the start position and completing the rep.

3. Step Up

The step-up is one of the best single-leg exercises for building the quads and hip extensors, and it’s even more powerful as you work up to a higher box over time.

The step-up is a fantastic tool for true single-leg strength and power, as you’re not using the back leg to support the movement. For example, this separates it from the split squat where you always use the rear leg against the floor or a bench (like Bulgarians).

Of course, the added range of motion and loading makes them perfect for building big quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Progression and Scaling Options

The main priority for progressing your step up is working to a progressively higher box. This improves all the benefits of the step-up, without increasing the risk of injury, like adding weight too quickly.

A higher box places more challenge on the stability, balance, and “strength at length” that make this exercise so good.

Make sure you’re working on a box that puts your knee at a minimum of 90 degrees before you start adding weight – especially if you’re training for strength or athleticism.

How to perform the step up

  1. Place a box or sturdy bench in front of you, at a height that is comfortable to use.
  2. Place your front foot onto the box, transferring your weight into the front leg and lifting the rear foot off the floor.
  3. Keeping the torso straight and the knee and hip in a fixed, stable relationship, push down on the box and open the hips to stand up on top of it.
  4. Slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position to complete the rep.

4. Pistol Squat

The pistol squat is the most challenging but effective bodyweight variation for building strength and control in the legs and hips.

This exercise uses bodyweight through a very long range of motion on one leg – which requires a lot of practice and ankle mobility. Fortunately, scaling options offer an easier start for intermediate trainees.

This is a great exercise if you can perform it properly, under control, without bouncing out of your knee.

Progression and Scaling Options

Most people will need to scale the pistol squat to make it possible, but you can also make it more challenging.

For less challenge:

This can relieve some of the load while you build the muscle, strength, and movement technique you need.

For more challenges: add a kettlebell or dumbbell in the goblet position to increase the challenge without changing your center of balance.

How to perform the pistol squat

  1. Raise one foot off the floor, keeping your core under control and weight centered in the foot.
  2. Slowly bend your knee, easing your hips back and down, as you raise the front leg to balance yourself.
  3. Continue squatting down by pushing the heel down and letting the knee move forwards.
  4. Squat as low as is possible/comfortable, before reversing the movement, pushing your hips up and in, and standing up again in the starting position.

5. Stagger Stance Deadlift

Stagger stance deadlifts are a great way to build lower back, hip, and core strength while training yourself to move on one leg. They’re the hinging equivalent of the split squat because they keep both feet in contact with the floor but clearly train single-leg strength.

This is a fantastic exercise to add to your workouts as an accessible way to build strength and control in the hamstrings, adductors, abductors, and – of course – the glutes.

Progression and Scaling Options

You can adjust the stance, weight, deficit, speed of the stagger stance deadlift, or even the range of motion or focus. It’s the most versatile option and is great for beginners and advanced trainees alike.

  • Weight: obviously, adding weight makes the exercise harder, but even light weights are effective because of the long range of motion in this exercise.
  • Stance: changing your stance width will change the movement. It can place more emphasis on the front leg, increasing challenge and results.
  • Deficit: you can add range by standing on a plate or similar, making this exercise more challenging (especially in the hamstrings)

You can also adjust to a stiff-legged variation for more hamstring and glute loading; or a Romanian deadlift variation to drive up more hypertrophy – with less weight or fewer reps.

How to Perform the Stagger Stance Deadlift

  1. Take a normal stance with a barbell or dumbbells in front of you.
  2. Take a single, short step back with your ‘back’ leg (the front leg does most of the work).
  3. Grab your implement, with a slight bend in the knees, and your hips square (no twist in the hips or spine).
  4. Set your torso straight, pushing your hips back and down, and projecting your chest forwards and up.
  5. Drive against the floor with the legs, extend the hips, and stand up as tall as possible.
  6. Slowly lower the weight back to the floor – reversing the movement – to complete the rep.

6. Single-leg Dumbbell Dead

The true single-leg dumbbell deadlift is a challenging core and hip stability exercise that you can use to build functional strength. It’s perfect for the hamstrings, abductors and adductors, and glutes.

By keeping your knee-hip complex stable, it also builds balance and coordination and can reduce knee pain.

Progression and Scaling Options

This is a versatile exercise with numerous variations you can use to add more strength, improve stability, or build power on one leg. These are great for sports but also perfect for the general population – being stronger, more stable, and more powerful is never bad.

  • For less challenge: reduce the stability demands by holding an upright like a squat rack or door frame.
  • For more challenge: use more weight, a single opposite-side dumbbell, or add a band to the arm which pulls forwards (causing you to resist the movement by hinging more aggressively).
  • For more stability: use band distraction on either side of the knee, one at a time, to get more knee and hip control gains.
  • For more power: perform your single leg deadlifts on a slightly bent knee, and perform a jump through the top of the exercise.

How to perform the single-leg dumbbell deadlift

  1. Stand on one leg, with a dumbbell in either both hands (easier) or a single dumbbell in the opposite hand (more difficult).
  2. Keeping your knee and hip stable and your torso straight, hinge at the hip.
  3. Lower the dumbbell slowly to the floor while drawing the biggest possible “arc” with your back leg.
  4. When the dumbbell touches the ground – or your heel is facing perfectly backward – hold the position before reversing the movement.
  5. Stand up straight by opening the hip, bringing the chest up, and pushing the back leg back to a normal standing position.

7. Single Leg Glute Bridge/ Hip Thrust

The single-leg glute bridge and single-leg hip thrust are related versions of the most powerful option for building glute strength. They’re incredible exercises you’ll find the world’s super-elite sprinters using to get stronger, faster, and more powerful.

The glute bridge is one of the best exercises to build strength and power in the hips, boost sports performance, maximize power for running and jumping, and keep your spine healthy – all in one.

Progression and Scaling Options

There are 3 different variations on the classic single-leg glute bridge:

  • Hip thrust: a big, heavy barbell or dumbbell to focus on pure strength and muscle gain
  • Explosive single-leg glute bridge: all the power and strength benefits of the hip thrust, but faster – perfect for athleticism and strength gains. Also, a perfect warm-up for heavy lifting!
  • Banded: the band-resisted single-leg hip thrust is a truly disgusting glute builder, combining the best benefits of the previous two variations – better muscle growth and end-range power.

How to perform the single-leg glute bridge

  1. Place your upper back on a sturdy object, or a bench against a wall.
  2. Take a narrow stance with your single foot on the floor, around your midline.
  3. Keeping your foot, knee, and hip stable, lower yourself down until your hips touch the floor.
  4. Extend your hips, pushing your hips as high as possible, and holding the top position while squeezing your glutes as hard as possible.
  5. Slowly lower yourself down to the floor, completing the rep.

8. Cossack Squat

The Cossack squat is one of the best unilateral exercises, offering some of the best value on a single exercise. It strengthens hips and legs at the same time, builds lateral core control, and is perfect for keeping your knee-hip region healthy.

The Cossack squat is one of the best ways to get more value in less time, and perfect for HIIT or shorter workouts.

Progression and Scaling Options

Cossack squats don’t progress easily, and you don’t necessarily need to push them with weight, as they’re more complicated than something like a split squat. Here are some alternatives:

  1. Reps & sets: spending more time with the movement – as pure reps and sets – is the best way to get more from it. Progress by adding a rep or two, or an extra set, to your workout.
  2. Weight: patiently load up with weight, and lower reps, to ensure you’re progressing sustainably.
  3. Speed: slow down your Cossack squats & add pauses in the bottom position to get the most out of them. They’re a powerful exercise for stability and muscle, especially when slower.

These are all great options, and you can probably do all 3 at once as a beginner in the exercise – which means enormous progress in a relatively short time.

How to perform a Cossack squat

  1. Take a wide stance with a kettlebell in the goblet position, pulled into the chest.
  2. Rotate one foot out, and raise the toes off the floor.
  3. Bend the other knee, keeping the foot facing forwards, or rotated slightly outwards.
  4. Squat into your flat foot, sitting your hips back and down, keeping your weight centered in the foot.
  5. Go as low as possible while keeping your torso straight, hips engaged and lengthening your other leg.
  6. Reverse the movement by pushing the floor down, extending the hips, and driving back to your standing, balanced position to finish the rep.
  7. Repeat on the other leg.

9. Single-leg Hip Flexion

The single-leg hip flexor raise is a huge group of exercises aimed at strengthening your core and – specifically – the hip flexor group. This muscle group, including the iliopsoas complex, raises the leg towards the torso.

Strengthening this area is key for better spine stability, core strength, and even speed and power in athletes. It also helps you strengthen your squat and builds core muscle mass.

Don’t neglect your hip flexors – they keep your knees, hips, and spine healthy.

Progression and Scaling Options

There are many variations for this exercise – and you can use them all. or just choose depending on your current experience.

  1. Kneeling hip raise: this is a simple way to start developing the hip flexors in a limited range for immediate benefits.
  2. Hanging single leg knee tuck/ leg raise: a more complex challenge that progresses by extending the leg. A common choice for gymnasts, so it’s definitely a good exercise.
  3. Banded hip flexion: great for athletes, but also perfect for building core and hip flexion control at the same time.
  4. Weighted: a great way to build up your hip flexors, keep your knees healthy, and develop the abs.
  5. Hip switches: speed is a great trait to build for everyone, and this is a perfect way to build faster running speed while building better hip flexor control.

How to perform single-leg hip flexion

  1. Stand with your hands on a wall and your feet far enough away to create an inclined torso.
  2. Keep your hips “in” so you’re straight from heel to head, with your core engaged.
  3. Raise one leg, bringing your knee as high as possible without losing core tightness.
  4. Hold in the top position, squeezing the knee as high as possible, crunching the hips upwards.
  5. Lower to the floor and repeat on the opposite side.

10. Single-leg Calf Raise

Calf raises are often overlooked because the calves are slow to develop, and most people don’t really care about calf strength. This is a mistake: weak calves lead to knee pain and injury.

By strengthening the calves, you improve your knee stability and health, reduce your risk of rolled ankles, and build a balanced physique. Single-leg calf raises offer a more effective load and develop better stability.

Progression and Scaling Options

  1. More angles: using 3-position calf raises lets you develop 3-dimensional calf strength and a more resilient knee.
  2. More depth: adding a deficit to your calf raise is probably the best way to get more value from calf raises. Develop patiently over time.
  3. Weight: you can always add more weight, but make sure you’re loading patiently – especially on a single-leg calf raise.
  4. Ankle hops: pogos are a great exercise to strengthen the ankle, build power, and improve athleticism. Use with caution, as they can be more demanding than you think!
  5. Tib Ant raises: the opposite side of the calf. These are great single-leg variations, especially when used in a superset.

How to perform a single-leg calf raise

  1. Stand on one leg, with your hands on a wall or other supporting, sturdy object.
  2. Set your whole body straight, with active hips and core, so you’re straight from heel to head.
  3. Keep your knee and hip extended, and raise yourself as high as possible with the calf, extending the ankle as far as possible.
  4. Squeeze your calf as hard as possible, before lowering back to the bottom of your ankle range.

Pro tip: never let your heel touch the floor to maintain full tension on the calf. This is a great way to get to the effective reps sooner, and keep movement as the key focus of the calf raises – great for the Achilles tendon!

Try This Great Single-Leg Workout

So, you know the exercises – how do you put it all together? Here’s what a single-leg focused leg workout might look like:

  1. Heavy Step up: 4 sets of 6
  2. Heavy Cossack squat: 3 sets of 8
  3. Stagger stance deadlift: 3 sets of 10
  4. Bulgarian split squat: 2 sets of 12-15
  5. Single-leg glute bridge: 3 sets of 20
  6. Single leg hip flexion (raise): 3 sets of 20
  7. Superset (single leg calf raise + single leg tibialis raise): 2 sets of 20 each

This is a simple workout but offers the benefits of many of the best exercises together, and in an order that lets you start with the ‘big’ movements and slowly move towards muscular endurance. This is perfect for functional strength gains, as well as an excellent pump and better joint health.

FAQs About Single Leg Exercises

Why Are Single-Leg Movements Good?

Single-leg movements are good because they build more stability and challenge the body in more functional ways. They’re more relevant to everyday life.

Single-leg training lets you build muscle, strength, and athleticism all at once. It helps you stay safer and become stronger working on one leg at a time – the most natural movements for your body and the most important in most sports.

The time you put into single-leg training will also make your 2-leg lower body movements (like squats and deadlifts) stronger and safer.

Are Single-Leg Exercises Better?

Single-leg exercises are better for most people, most of the time – but not always. They need to be balanced with 2-leg exercises for a better workout routine.

Single-leg exercises’ focus on stability makes them great for coordination, health, and building some ‘neglected’ muscles. However, it means they’re also lighter overall and may build less strength in the ‘big’ muscles (like the quads) because of it.

The best workout routines combine single- and two-leg exercises to achieve the best results.

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Chris Thompson
Hi, I'm Chris. I'm a personal trainer, writer & co-founder of OxygenFitnessCT. I've been writing hundreds of articles on strength training & muscle building for several fitness websites & apps since 2017. Our goal with OxygenFitnessCT is to help you pick the most effective, suitable exercises to improve your workout & achieve your fitness goals.

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