5 Essential Unilateral Leg Exercises For Building Muscle, And Why You Should Be Doing Them

5 Essential Unilateral Leg Exercises For Building Muscle, And Why You Should Be Doing Them

clock-circular-outlinePosted 31 Jan 2023

When it comes to training legs, you’re probably familiar with most bilateral leg exercises, such as the squat or deadlift, but how often do you incorporate single-leg aka. Unilateral exercises in you training programme?

Kai- Fang Liao et al noted that the inclusion of both bilateral and unilateral exercises across your training programme can help improve strength and performance across

Another study by William Eliassen et al found that the unilateral squat achieved a ‘similar magnitude of muscle activity in the hamstring, calf, hip and abdominals whilst placing less load on the spine.’

We also know that unilateral exercises don’t just build strength, they also play a key role in developing balance and stabilization across a range of movements.

So, maybe loading up that back squat may not be the only way to greater strength, size and athleticism?

What Are Unilateral Leg Exercises?

Unilateral, basically means one-side.

So, when we talk about unilateral leg exercises, we mean an exercise performed with the majority of the load, or main focus, being on one leg at a time – for example, a lunge or step-up.

What Are The Benefits Of Unilateral Exercises?

The benefits of unilateral leg exercises are well documented, and can aid your physical performance in many ways, including;

  • Improved Balance

  • Greater Muscle Stabilization

  • Increase Core Involvement

  • Transfer of Power, Speed & Change Of Direction

  • Effect Muscle Activation

  • Reduced Spinal Load (in some cases)

The 5 Best Unilateral Leg Exercises:

Naturally, there are many unilateral leg exercises and all have their benefits and use cases – we’re going to focus on those that can help you develop strength, balance and muscle growth.

The 5 best unilateral leg exercises we’re going to discuss are:

  • Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

  • Pistol Squat

  • Bulgarian Split Squats

  • Lateral Squat

  • Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Main Target Muscle: Hamstrings

A much more challenging variation of the bilateral Romanian Deadlift, the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise for hamstring development, and it’s unilateral nature means it helps develop balance and core stability too.

One study found that the Single-Leg RDL activated the biceps femoris (one of the 3 hamstring muscles) to a greater degree than comparable hamstring exercises.

At first, the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift can feel a little awkward, or tricky – but be sure to persist, and nail the movement without weight before adding a dumbbell of kettlebell in your opposite hand to the working leg.

Pistol Squat

Muscle: Quadriceps

The Pistol Squat is a unilateral exercise that is no doubt one of the toughest bodyweight exercise around.

It’s not just a test of strength, but also mobility and strength.

One study found that a one-legged-squat elicited a higher peak of quadricep muscle activity than the leg press machine ­– ever tried 10 reps on each leg for Pistol Squats? Probably not, but maybe nos is the time to start working towards that goal.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Main Target Muscle: Quadriceps

Another great unilateral exercise for targeting your quadriceps is the Bulgarian Split Squat.

This also features in our best quad exercise article, and if you've done these before, you'll know they're not easy.

When it comes to this exercise, the load is predominantly on the quads, glutes and hamstrings – not on the lower back, making it a great alternative to back loaded exercises such as the back squat. This helps activate the quadriceps to a higher level.

Perfect for all abilities, the Bulgarian Split Squat can be completed with, or without weights. Once you've nailed the movement with your bodyweight, progressing to weights is as simple as holding one, or two dumbbells.

Lateral Lunges

Main Target Muscle(s): Quads, Glutes & Hamstrings

This exercise has the potential be one of the least known on our list of the best unilateral exercises, but it’s certainly one to consider when planning your next leg workout.

Our general habits in the gym often neglect the frontal plane, where are lateral movements take place, with us often prioritising push and pull exercises with little attention given to moving side-to-side.

Side Lunges, or Lateral Lunges, work an array of muscles, often underdeveloped in general leg training programmes such as your hip adductors.

One study found that 'Lateral lunges prompted greater ankle flexion and greater ankle and knee extensor kinetic contributions' in comparison to forward lunges, too!

This unilateral exercise can be easily progressed, by holding and weight in the goblet squat position, before moving on to heavier back loaded weight from a barbell.

Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Main Target Muscle: Glutes

It can be very easy to make all of your unilateral exercises quad dominant, however hitting your glutes is a sure fire way to increase strength and power.

The Single-Leg Glute Bridge replicates the traditional Glute Bridge, however with this unilateral variation you'll want to keep one leg off the ground.

This is going to place more emphasis on the glutes on that one side of the body, and also help even out any muscular imbalances.

If performing these with your bodyweight is too easy, then add a weight plate or dumbbell across your hips for added resistance!


You should now have a good idea of the benefits that come with incorporating unilateral leg exercises in your training programme, along with a list of the best unilateral leg exercises for you try when you next hit the gym.

Do you already include unilateral leg exercises in your workouts? Let us know your favourites in the comments section below!

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Chris Beck is Senior Editor at Gymshark, with a passion for writing informative conditioning and health content. Chris is an experienced Personal Trainer, and also holds qualifications in Nutrition, Sports Performance and is a certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer.

Chris BeckBy Chris Beck

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