Single Leg Strength: the leg day solution for lifters with lower back issues
Probably the most common problem I see in the gym is lower back pain. From occasional minor aches to chronic pain this is an issue that effects a huge number of lifters, athletes, and everyday people. Not only is the pain itself an issue, but one of the biggest draw backs of lower back issues is that it causes many of you to either skip or slack on leg day.
“I can’t squat, it hurts my back”…I’ve heard this so many times, and I’m not just pointing fingers. I myself have 3 bulging discs from an injury over 15 years ago. I have a bad back and for years I let it limit what I could do on leg day. There is only so much machine work (leg press, extensions, leg curls, etc.) I could do without getting bored, and I never felt like they built the same functional strength as squat movements. Although I can deadlift without issue, for years I had trouble with the position, and to this day any type of barbell squat - front or back - has a tendency to fire up the muscles around my low back and leave me limping for a few days. Yes, my loyal Muscle & Strength family, believe it or not, I once someone who copped out on leg day or avoided doing too much heavy weight out of fear of throwing my back out. What finally saved me from a life of curling in the squat rack was switching my focus on leg day from bilateral to unilateral movements.
Now before I get into the difference between bilateral and unilateral exercises, let’s first discuss what is at the root of the problem for myself and many lifters out there. Having grown up boxing and wrestling, my body adjusted to standing in a staggered stance with one foot in front of the other. In just about any other sport you move with a natural gait - one foot in front of the other. As a boxer you always stand, move and fight with the same foot in front of the other no matter which direction you are going. To further complicate things you consistently twist and rotate your hips to the same side as you throw punches. So where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with back pain? Well all of that activity spent in a staggered stance can lead to some strength imbalances as your hips get used to rotating in one direction. Then when an athlete - typically a boxer or wrestler - loads their spine in a square stance, the hips may torque in one direction if they have a strength imbalance, leading to low back pain and injury.
In my case it is a relationship with my psoas on the left (front) and my QL on my right side lower back that gives me problems. As the Strength Coach for the Ohio Regional Training Center for Olympic wrestling I see similar problems in many of my athletes, from their decades spent competing on the mat in a split stance. The solution is to stop loading the spine and focus on unilateral leg exercises.
The term bilateral is used when referring to an exercise where both sides of the body are loaded evenly, such as a barbell back squat, deadlift or bench press. Each side of the body is symmetrical in position and in weight distribution. Unilateral exercises, such as split squats or pistol squats, refer to when only one side of the body is doing the “work”. Unilateral exercises allow the legs to work independently of one another and since most are done with dumbbells, you can really tax each leg with out loading the spine. Is this the answer for everyone who experiences lower back pain while squatting? Of course not. But I have found these exercises to be beneficial and tolerable for many lifters with back issues, particularly wrestlers and fighters who train in a staggered stance.
Another (and separate) issue involves poor warm up. I am guilty of this myself from time to time, but for this workout we are going to focus on getting nice and warm and also activating our glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or riding in your car, there’s a good chance that something in your posterior chain is shut off or not firing properly. Use this warm up routine to get everything “online” and ready to go before the heavy lifting starts.
kneeling hamstring holds 3 x 10 seconds
glute bridge 3 x 5 seconds
adductor isometric holds 3 x max effort squeeze
Begin by biking for 5 minutes or until your legs are warm. Next up, perform three 10 second kneeling hamstring holds. Kneel down facing a wall with your arms out for balance. Point your toes and curl your feet up towards your glutes, squeezing the hamstrings as hard as possible for 10 seconds. Next, lay on your back in a sit up position with your legs bent and feet on the floor. Push thru your heels, squeezing the glutes and bringing them off the floor slightly. Do not arch all the way up so your lower back tightens, the goal is just to activate the glutes. After completing 3 bridges, stay in the same position and place a foam roller or towel between your knees. Squeeze your knees together as hard as you can to activate your adductors. Now that your legs should be firing on all cylinders, finish the warm up with 3 minutes of walking lunges.
10 each leg (no weight)
5/5, 4/4, 3/3, 2/2
DB Step Ups - 5 each leg
Pistol Squats - 5 each leg 5/5/5 tempo (5 seconds down, 5 seconds at the bottom, 5 seconds up)
Single Leg Glute Bridge - 5 each leg, 3 second pause at the top
Single leg hamstring bridge - 5 each leg, 3 second pause at the top
Begin with 5 sets of Bulgarian Split Squats, with the first set done unweighted to get the movement pattern in place. Move up in weight on each subsequent set. Follow the split squats up with 3 sets of walking lunges holding heavy dumbbells. Make sure on the sets of 5 and 3 to treat each lunge as a single - check your step for stability in the middle rather than stepping thru.
Up next is a superset of Dumbbell step ups and pistol squats. On the Pistols utilize a 5/5/5 tempo - the rep begins with a 5 second eccentric or negative emphasis as you lower down. Pause for a 5 second isometric contraction at the bottom of the rep before taking a full 5 seconds on the concentric (or way up) portion of the movement. Next up is a superset of single leg glute and hamstring bridges, before finishing up with Hammy Tourture aka Partner Hamstring Iso-curls. End the workout with my favorite exercise for cross body core strength, Stability Alternates.
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