We all know that we should do more core work and that working in the gym is highly effective at both improving performance and preventing injury. The thing is that most runners I know dread the idea of using a gym (and even more hate the idea of paying for it!) However using your bodyweight, your home and some ingenuity you can get all the benefits. Niall O’Crualaoich is a highly qualified coach in a number of disciplines as well as being an experienced Ultra runner, triathlete, kyaker and cross channel swimmer. In the first of an occasional series he takes us through the single leg squat.
The gym basics series is supposed to acquaint you with some of the basic exercises that a runner will need. But if you’re not doing the single leg squat then your time doing strength and conditioning is more or less wasted. While this is a basic exercise every runner should be doing, it is by no means an easy one. I still struggle with the single legged squat and its many many variations myself. Most fitness professionals will have a squat of some form in every program because if you don’t, you haven’t got a program (or you haven’t got squat so to speak). Any squat will work your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. It will also to some degree work your abductors, adductors and erectors. All your major leg muscles in one small exercise.
Why is the single leg squat so important? Well for a start since it is single leg it will improve your balance and body awareness. Most people need to sit down while putting on their socks and shoes. Next time you’re in the pool, stay standing while putting them on. It will also balance the legs out. Two legged squats allow your body to create muscle imbalances and leads to a dominant leg doing the majority of the work. Single leg squats force both legs to develop and strengthen. And if you have weak knees, the single legged squat also works the knee stabilisers. And for the runner it is a functional exercise as when we run, we general have one foot off the ground while the other cycles through the weight bearing portion.
To my clients I usually recommend that you can do at least 20 bodyweight two legged squats before commencing with the single legged kind. While in this article I will concentrate on the off the bench single legged squat it is worth building up to it by starting with a swissball single legged squat. Start by standing with your back to the wall and the swissball between your lower back and the wall. Then squat down using the correct technique. The swissball acts as a stabiliser for the movement.
The off the bench (or step) squat:
If you wish to progress more slowly then start on your stairs at home, this give you the added safety of the handrail for support. Stand on a bench or step that is knee height. Stand with the right leg parallel to the side of the bench and the left leg hovering in the air beside it. Keep the left toes level or higher than the left heel (foot flat). Raise your hands in front of you for balance and bend your right knee and slowly lower yourself. Think of it as trying to sit down while standing on one leg. Keep your back straight and look straight ahead, focus on a point ahead of you. Keep your chest up and ‘open’. Don’t lean your torso forward. Your knee should be over your second toe (the one next to the big toe) and shouldn’t travel further forward than your big toe. Be aware that your knee should be over your foot and not to the left or right of it. Lower yourself till you feel your balance go or your left foot touches the floor. Do not drop your left hip. It is to remain in line with your right hip. The aim is to squat not tilt. Sit back rather than lean forward, as if you are going to sit down. If you find yourself falling over backwards, I like to add two light dumbbells in my outstretched hands to help with counterbalancing myself. It also adds to the difficultly of the squat as you are doing more than your bodyweight.
Now raise yourself back up. Do not lock out the knee when it is straight; keep the knee ‘soft’. That is one repetition. Lower yourself on a count of 2 and hold for 1 and raise yourself for a count of 2 (I find saying “one one thousand, two one thousand” works out as 2 seconds for me). See how many reps you can do. And switch to the other leg. Use that as a basis for your training program. If you can do 6-10 reps per leg and that 3 times (3 sets) then try the pistol squat.
The pistol squat:
Is the free standing version of the off the bench squat. It is also hugely more difficult and demands quite a lot of flexibility from your hamstrings. Since you can’t lower your leg into the ground you hold it out in front of yourself. Keeping your right foot flat on the ground and holding your left leg straight out in front of you, squat down. Your torso will have to come forward quite a lot to counterbalance and I find keeping the left quad contracted helps. The best tip I can give is to keep the control tight throughout the whole exercise. If you have muscle imbalances and/ or an unresolved injury you will find the pistol squat extremely difficult. If your having a lot of difficultly with this then stand facing a pole and put your right toes against the pole and hold the pole with your hands and use the pole to assist you doing the pistol squat. Then wean yourself away from the pole.
Progressing from nothing to the pistol squat:
So far I have described the single leg squat without helping you get yourself ready for one. My usual progression is from two legged squats to two legged squats with dumbbells. When you’re squatting with a barbell and have good technique it is time to start with the swissball single leg squat. If it is too difficult (at any stage) on a single leg then start with doing the exercise partially and/ or negatively. Partially means you come down halfway and go up again, getting progressively deeper. Negatively means you squat down (with say a bench or chair behind you) with a single leg and stand up again using both legs. After the swissball single leg squat with some light dumbbells, try the off the bench squat. Add some dumbbells to the off the bench squat and then progress to the pistol squat. Between the off the bench squat and the pistol squat some trainers add the step of a single legged squat but keeping the floating leg behind you instead of in front (as in the pistol). It is really all quite simple…….in theory. J
One of the variations is to put the non load bearing leg behind you and squat down. I find this leads to too much pelvis tilt (leaning the torso forward) when starting out.
There are many variations out there and YouTube is your friend. But nothing replaces a qualified coach. Why learn incorrectly or try to puzzle it all out. A proper coach or instructor will teach you the correct form and technique. You should never try technical exercises without qualified instruction.