In what I'm going to create as a weekly "Exercise of the Week" blog, I'd like to introduce you all to one of my favorite squat variations - the Single Leg (Pistol) Squat! There are a variety of ways to modify this exercise to fit your needs, so it makes it perfect for all skill levels!
There are so many reasons why I like this squat, so let's start:
Build leg strength & power.
First and foremost, the squat is commonly considered the "King of the Lower Body." This is true because of the muscular integration of the hamstrings, the quadriceps, and the gluteus muscles. Together, they create the chain of muscles that we use in running, biking, or daily life. If there are any "kinks", or weaknesses in that chain, we usually experience pain that inhibits us from performing the activities we love. Training the squat focuses on strengthening all these key muscles simultaneously, helping to prevent any unwanted compensation.
However, training on one leg is even more crucial to runners. Let's look at a still frame-by-frame shot of elite marathoner Shalane Flanagan running:
As you can see, she spends a considerable time "in the air." Running, in essence, is a series of single leg landings before a single leg power explosion. Making sure that each leg is both strong enough to brace the impact of landing and recoil into a powerful push off for the next stride, is crucial in becoming both a faster and stronger (read: efficient) runner.
Correct asymmetrical imbalances.
As humans, we naturally tend to have a dominant side. Sometimes, it appears in the same side as your dominant hand. Other times, leg dominance can be completely reversed. As with any sport, making sure that imbalances are kept to a minimum helps prevent injury. By training on one leg, you are able to identify your weaker side and focus on correcting the inconsistencies. It is highly unlikely that anyone is perfectly symmetrical, even elite distance runners. But, as many injured runners can testify to, a strength imbalance in one leg will lead to compensation by the other, leading the path right back to injury. Coming back from a long break due to injury is never ideal, so if we can prevent injury completely, we are already one step ahead!
Increase hip mobility.
Increasing mobility is never a bad thing! At Rogue, we commonly discuss and demonstrate the "Myrtl" exercises as a pre- or post-workout routine to increase hip strength and mobility. However, there are over 15 muscles in the girdle alone! Keeping the hips mobile allows for greater range of range of motion during sport, which in turn, reduces injury and boosts performance and power. The hips are also a crucial junction for the lumbar spine and the legs, so maintaining mobility reduces the strain or tightness on the low back and hamstrings.
Improve general balance, stability & proprioception.
This is the easiest one of the whole bunch! Forcing yourself to balance in any exercise will increase the stability in both your hips, as well as your ankles. For most people (athletes too!), balance is one of the hardest exercises to master. Try just standing on one leg and see how long it takes you before you waver! Being able to adjust your center of balance, as well as be aware of the placement of your body, is heightened by stepping out with only one foot.
So how should you squat?
1. Start by standing on a box (bench, risers, stairs), with one foot placed firmly on the box and the other foot slightly off. Shift your weight so that 100% of your body weight is in the standing leg. Be aware of how this feels.
2. Maintaining an upright torso, slowly shift your hips backwards, bending your knee, as you slowly "sit" down, as in a squat. Make sure that the knee tracks in line with the ankle.
3. Lower yourself down as far as you can comfortably balance while still maintaining control. Beginners: Focus on balance first, forcing yourself to remain as steady as possible. Advanced: Focus on getting more depth from your squat.
4. As you push back up, focus on driving through the foot on the box, using 100% of your body weight and effort in your leg to stand yourself back up. This counts as one repetition.
Repeat 5-8 repetitions on the same leg before switching.