Single-leg strength-training exercises, like single-leg deadlifts, are critical for runners and other athletes.(Getty Images)
Running is a single-leg sport. At any given second, you’ve only got one foot on the ground.
“In running, you have to be able to absorb impact, adapt to uneven terrain and then launch yourself all from one foot,” explains certified strength and conditioning specialist Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta. “In walking, there is always a brief period of double support when both feet are on the ground, but with running there is a flight phase and no period of double support.”
That makes single-leg strength-training exercises, in which one foot stays planted on the ground, especially critical for athletes. Single-leg strengtheners are like a rehearsal for running, says certified personal trainer Lisa Niren, director of content and programming for the running-focused Studio app. Single-leg exercises prepare the body to handle the unique challenges of running from one foot to another, including mastering stability.
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In runners, poor stability in the hips, knees and ankles have been linked to everything from lackluster race performances to overuse injuries, such as patellofemoral pain and lower back problems. In a 2016 study published in the journal Manual Therapy, strengthening the hip abductors improved symptoms of plantar fasciitis, a common heel pain felt by runners. The hip abductor muscles, which are situated in the side of the hip and function to stabilize the femur in the pelvis, work primarily when the body is in a single-leg stance.
Single-leg exercises train stability not just in the legs, but in the core as well, Niren says. A strong core improves running form and posture to increase efficiency, while also improving the transfer of power between the upper and lower portions of the body. Even for single-leg sports, the arms still contribute considerably to running speed and performance.
When integrating single-leg exercises into your workout routine, Hamilton recommends prioritizing form first and foremost. “The trick is to work to the point where you feel the muscle fatiguing and sense that your form might falter if you keep going, and then stop,” she says, cautioning, “Stop before you lose form. You want to train the right motor patterns, not the wrong ones.”
For that reason, it’s best to perform the exercises with little to no weight at first and learn proper movement patterns before adding resistance. “As you get solid with the form and you’re not wobbling around, increase reps,” she says. “For many runners, targeting a set of 30 reps on one leg is a good and reasonable goal.” That way, you can primarily work the body’s slow-twitch muscle fibers that are most active during endurance events like running.
Read on for six fundamental, runner-specific single-leg exercises to boost core strength, increase stability and prevent injury.
Single-leg squats. Stand tall with your feet together, and extend one leg and both arms out in front of you. From there, bend the knee and hip of your planted leg to lower your body as far toward the floor as possible without breaking form or leaning to one side. Pause, then push through the heel of your planted foot to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Keep in mind that this is an advanced move, so your mobility and depth will largely determine how many reps you will be able to perform. Start by lowering yourself to a bench that’s about knee-height. Once you perform 15 reps on each leg, drop into a squat until you can lower all the way to the floor.
Single-leg deadlifts. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and an optional 10-pound weight in one hand. Lift the leg of the same side of your body just off of the floor. From there, push the hip of your planted leg back to lower your chest toward the floor, while you raise your lifted leg as a counterbalance. Allow a small bend in the knee of your planted leg. Your arm (or weight) should hang straight down in front of you, almost skimming your planted leg as you lower. Pause, then press through the heel of your planted leg to raise yourself back to standing. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. When you can perform 15 reps with the proper form, increase the weight used in your final few reps for an extra challenge.
Lateral step-ups. Stand next to a sturdy bench or step, and place one foot planted firmly on top of it. Transfer your weight onto that foot, so that there is no weight in the foot that’s on the floor. From there, drive through the heel of your lead foot to raise yourself to a standing position, with your trailing foot hanging in line with your lead foot. Pause, then slowly lower your trailing foot back toward the floor without putting any weight into the foot. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Start with 10 reps per side, using a step height that allows you to perform all reps with good form before increasing the number of reps. Then, increase the number of reps to 20; once you’ve mastered that, hold weights in both hands or increase the step height.
Single-leg banded hip abductions. Secure one end of a resistance band to the ankle of one leg, and the other end to a sturdy object just above the floor. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart next to the anchor point so that the banded ankle is farthest away from the anchor point and there is tension in the band. Keeping your knees straight, raise your leg out to the side of your body and away from the anchor point. Pause, then slowly return the leg to start. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Start with 10 reps and progress to 30 reps to challenge yourself.
Single-leg glute bridges. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Lift one foot off of the floor. From there, push through your planted heel and squeeze your glutes to raise your hips up toward the ceiling until your body forms a straight diagonal line from your shoulders to the knee of your planted foot. Pause, then slowly lower your hips to start. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Aim for about 30 reps per side, prioritizing form over the rep count.
Single-leg hip hitches. Stand tall on the edge of a sturdy bench or step, and place all of your weight onto one leg. Let the other leg hang off of the side of the bench, keeping both feet in line with each other. From there, with your planted leg fully straight, drop your hip to lower your hanging foot a few inches toward the floor. Pause, then raise your hip until your hanging foot is just higher than the planted one. Return to start. That’s one rep. Perform all reps, then repeat on the opposite side. Aim to perform up to 30 reps per side without losing balance.
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K. Aleisha Fetters, Contributor
K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a cert… Read moreK. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a graduate degree in health and science reporting, she has contributed to publications including TIME, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Shape. She empowers others to reach their goals using a science-based approach to fitness, nutrition and health. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, find her on Facebook or the Web or email her at [email protected]
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