Strength Training: 7 Single Leg Exercises I’m Loving

I’ve started this winter training block with a serious dose of strength training. I use the word dose, because it almost makes it sound medicinal. Which of course, in a way, it is. It’s making me better. I’m not specifically talking about injury, although there’s lots of evidence to suggest that strength training does reduce that risk. But what I really mean, is that it’s making me a better runner.

There are numerous studies that have shown that strength training can improve a runner’s race time. The problem, is that most are not specific enough about what type of strength work, optimum number of reps and sets etc. My physio head would love an exact prescription, but like most things in life, the reality is that it probably varies from person to person. What works for one runner, may not work for another.

So how have I decided what to include?

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve gone for what has worked for me in the past with a few tweaks because it’s always sensible to learn from your mistakes. To be honest, I think calling it strength training might be slightly misleading. Yes, I’m still heavy squatting along with a lot of the other big compound movements, but the exercises I feel REALLY make the difference are the control and explosive, plyometric style ones. Especially those on one leg, which is, after all, predominantly what running is.

I’ve been doing at least one session a week purely dedicated to this single leg work, and as lots of people have asked what exercises I’ve been doing, I thought I’d share some of my favourites.

WARNING: mostly I make these up to serve the purpose I want, so they don’t have neat, conscise names, like ‘squat’ or ‘lunge’!

Single leg burpee immediate hop onto box

Single leg burpees are a great exercise in their own right. They really make your calf muscles burn, not to mention they need a whole lot of core strength to stabilise in the plank position. Finally, getting back to standing from the plank forces your glutes to work really hard both in terms of power and control. Adding a hop up onto a rebook step exaggerates this even further which is why I’ve added it here.

As a coaching point, watch out for your knee drifting inwards when you land the hop. This is often a sign of glute weakness. You want your pelvis to remain level throughout and not dip to one side.

Barbell clean to catch with one foot on box, immediate step up

This is a fairly technical exercise, and I’ve been using a 17.5KG barbell and a 50cm box. I start on two feet as with a normal clean, but as I pull the bar, I transition to land one foot on the box at exactly the same time as the catch. I do the step up with the bar in front squat position. This really works your core as you have to resist the weight pulling you forwards.

The weighted step up is also a great way to work your glutes, and again, you want to concentrate on keeping your knee in line with your toe and not letting it drift inwards. I tend to stay on 1 leg on the box and then slowly lower back to the floor as this eccentric part of the movement (controlling against gravity whilst the muscle you are using lengthens) is challenging, but a really efficient way to strengthen.

Single leg dead lift with a dumbbell through to single leg heel raise and bicep curl

Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you about the long winded names! Holding each end of a dumbbell, I’ve been using 6KG, stand on one leg and keeping your knee soft slowly lean forwards taking the weight towards the floor in front of you. Your other leg will lift up behind you (Like a T shape). Try to keep your hips square. As you return to standing, still on one leg, keep your free leg moving smoothly, bringing your knee up towards your chest. As you do, lift the weight up into a bicep curl and raise onto tip toe. Slowly lower back to the start position and repeat as fluidly as possible.

This is a posterior chain exercise, or in other words, it works the muscles down the back of your leg, primarily your hamstring, calfs, glutes and lower back muscles. All of these are essential for running, but the most important point is that as well as strength, it’s an excellent way to improve control. It’s sort of like a slow motion, exaggerated version of the push off phase of the gait cycle, which is the other reason I like it.

One of my pet hates as a physio was watching people doing endless clam type exercises and double leg bridging thinking it was helping their running. Sure it’s a great place to start, but lying on your back, non weight bearing through your legs, is about as far away from running as you can get. Running is hard, and therefore any exercises you do to prepare your body for it need to be equally tough. The more specific you can make them, the more beneficial they are likely to be. That’s why I love these 7 so much.

Jumping lunges

These are fantastic at working just about every muscle in your legs in a very dynamic way. You can do these on the floor, or sometimes I’ll do them with my front foot on a reebok step to make me concentrate on generating more upwards power.

180 degree turning squat jump with one foot on step

I set this up exactly like the picture (yes, even the ski Sunday vibe!) and then swing my arms to generate some extra power on the jump. Both legs should push fully straight as you power up into the air. You can keep these facing the same direction and do a whole set on one leg before swapping, or for the added core challenge, you can turn 180 degrees on each jump before landing with the other leg on the step. This way you also have to jump high enough to give you enough air time to complete the turn.

As with lots of the other exercises here, this is very plyometric and all about power. You want to control the landing into a full squat and then explode as fast and high as you can up into the air each time.

Reverse lunge drive knee through to a power hop

From a reverse lunge, swing the back leg through as you stand up, into a high hop. Go straight back into the lunge as you land to keep moving. You should stay on the same leg until you’ve completed an entire set before swapping.

I like this exercise because you can do 20 or 30 in a row, so they are great for fatigue resistance. When you train both legs together, it’s easy to sub consciously hide a weaker side. For example when you squat you might push 45% on your left leg and 55% on your right. With single leg work you can’t do this which is the other reason I’ve added it into my programme. Most of running is on one leg after all, so having equal strength, power and control bilaterally is critical.

Plate snatch starting on box and jumping to catch in a reverse lunge

Not the snappiest name for an exercise, I’ll give you that, but this one is a killer. I used a 5KG plate. Stand on the step, two feet together and hold the plate down by your thighs. As you jump to land in a reverse lunge, keep your arms straight and swing the plate straight up to catch overhead at the bottom of the lunge. Rebound out of the bottom of the lunge to land back on the step and repeat on the other leg.

Another one thats works your legs and core in combination (and your arms too, now I think about it). Oh, and your breathing!

This is one of my favourite sessions at the moment. The crazier the exercise and the more challenging the better. I love coming up with new ideas each week, and I don’t think there are any rights and wrongs when it comes to single leg work like this.

My background is in gymnastics and this is the kind of conditioning training we used to do daily. When you look at how strong female gymnasts are, remember almost all of that has come from body weight exercises like these. Every so often we’d add the odd ankle weight for good measure, but I can’t remember one occasion where we ever lifted anything. So, fast forward 10 (cough, 15) years and I’m revisiting this theory to see what the effect is on my next marathon cycle. So far, I’m loving the results. The power seems to be translating into speed and I feel stronger than ever on the hills.

Whatever strength training you’re doing, because I’m not saying this is the magic answer for everyone, remember the golden rule. If you are not challenged, you will not change. Happy training!

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