7 reasons why single leg training trumps double leg

Perhaps a controversial discussion point – after all the squat and the deadlift have been the central pillars of most functional lower body training for years. As we have discussed elsewhere the squat and deadlift are 2 great full body functional exercises and are light years ahead of time wasters like leg pressing and leg extesions and machine hamstring curls when conditioning for athletic purpose. They certainly are still very relevant in a handball conditioning program, and indeed are both included in Strength & Power Training for Handball, however I raise this discussion topic to highlight just how good single leg training is when conditioning for handball. Especially when considering how little of it is done by most players out there. Indeed renowned strength and conditioning coach mike boyle has dropped traditional double leg deadlifts completely from his athletic programs, and performs far less squatting movements with his athletes than split squats and lunge varieties. So lets take a look at 7 reasons why single leg training is superior to double leg training when training for handball.

Greater contribution to injury reduction

Note: this doesn’t mean single leg training is superior because you are less likely to get injured doing them than deadlifting – after all you should never get injured in strength training – any program which causes injury even minor in training is a bad program, period! Rather this means that the single leg training exercises will have a greater carryover to injury reduction when performing movements and tasks in a game. This is because the stabilisers around the joins of the lower extremities (hips, knees, ankles) have far more work to do in a single leg stance than a double leg stance. These stabilisers are vital when injury avoidance or reduction is a goal, as it is this stability which comes into play when the joints are put under stress or put in high impact and compromising positions (landing from a jump, and decelerating, pivoting and changing directions just to name a couple.)

When performing a double leg strength training exercise, the stabilisers of the lower extremities have far less work to do – as both feet are in contact with the ground, meaning very little stabilisation needed. When taking one foot off the ground, the stabilisers of the hip, knee and ankle all of a sudden have much more work to do – meaning that when strength training, you are also getting a large amount of stabiliser training in to a functional movement pattern. Just try a single leg deadlift for a few reps, and see how long it takes before the side of your hip and around your ankle starts to feel a light burning sensation (in a fatiguing tired way.)

An example of this contribution to injury reduction is ACL injury – which is far more common in female players than male players – but still relevant to both genders. Any quality strength training program for female players must have an ample amount of single leg strength training work, but in particular single leg unsupported/unstable strength work.

Carryover to game day

Look at all the movements and demands in a game of handball and think about them closely. Accelerating, deceleration, changing directions, jumping, shooting – the overwhelming majority of movements are performed on 1 leg at a time – or pushing off one leg at a time. The only relatively common exception is a double leg vertical leap or landing – which can be ‘semi-common’ depending on the position you play. In other words, for a training modality to have the highest level of carryover to game day possible – it should closely mimic the requirements of game day – which would in this case mean strength, power and balance executed in a single leg stance. This ties in very closely with the next point.

Single leg strength transfers to double – but the reverse is not true

What this means is that strength from a single leg stance, or attained from training in a single leg stance, will transfer over and be applicable when you then need that strength in a double leg stance. However, strength attained from performing training in a double leg stance will have far less (minimal in fact) carryover to when being required in a single leg movement or stance. Part of this can be put down to the stability factor from point 1. However there is more to it than that. When performing a single leg exercise, a greater proportion of the associated muscle fibers are activated than they are in a double leg movement requiring the same muscle groups. Or to put it more clearly, a 40kg single leg rear foot elevated squat will activate a greater proportion of the muscle fibers in your quadriceps for example than an 80kg double leg squat, despite it hypothetical being the same proportional weight. The take home point here is that single leg strength can also be used in a double leg stance or action, however double leg strength will not necessarily transfer over to single leg tasks.

Greater activation of muscle fibers

This greater activation of the associated muscle fibers in the associated muscles in a movement is also an added advantage in itself. This is because whether it is strength or hypertrophy (muscle mass) that you are looking to achieve from an exercise or program, the greater the proportion of muscle fibers within a muscle that you are able to activate the better. More muscle fiber activation means more potential strength in a movement and therefore more strength development.

Your ability to perform the exercise will not be limited by your torso, lower back or grip

Whether it is squatting or deadlifting, and you reach a point where you cant lift any more – whether it is weight, or reps – the thing that gives out on you is rarely ever – if ever at all – your legs. This is of course incredibly frustrating, as after all this is what you are looking to train. How often does your deadlift set end because your glutes and hamstrings are fried? Or, is it actually because your lower back is getting tight, or your grip is giving way on you? Additionally, if you come up a little sore the next day (as in ‘niggly’ sore, not DOMS/standard post-training muscle soreness), or worse yet injure yourself performing the exercise, it is likely rarely the lower extremities that are sore or injured, but rather your lower back. Again, another frustration, when your primary target of training was the lower body.

When performing an exercise like a single leg squat, aside from multiple other benefits, the fact that you get a tremendous amount of loading through the leg without additional weight already, means that for all this loading going through the key target area (the quadriceps primarily), there is no real loading on the spine, nor the legs, meaning that failure will come from the legs (unlike a deadlift for example where it will be grip or back that give way long before the glutes and/or legs do.)

This highlights a further real benefit of the single leg training in that the failure to complete reps, or not lift any more weight, will be far more down to your legs giving way, or your stability fatiguing to a point where you cant go anymore – all good things – since it is the strength and stability of your lower body that you are aiming at training. This is a key reason that mike boyle constantly reinforces when discussing his preference for the single leg work over double leg work – in that the legs will be the limiting factor, rather than the torso and grip. This also means far less potential wear and tear and niggle torso/lower back injuries associated with things like heavy deadlifts and squats. An additional benefit that ties in very closely here is our next point.

Less likely to get caught up in the number on the bar

This is simply because there is less weight required to get an equal benefit – and in many cases a superior benefit. There is no disputing that you will squat more than you will single leg unsupported squat. No doubt will you deadlift more than you will single leg deadlift. But don’t forget – the aim of your training (if handball after all is your primary goal, and the strength work is supplementary work aimed at improving your condition) is not to stack as much weight on the bar as possible just for the sake of it, but rather to develop an amount of usable functional strength, that will transfer over to the movement demands on game day. And for the reasons we have covered so far, it should be clear to see that this doesn’t need to mean lifting large amounts of weight in a double leg stance, when less amounts of weight in a single leg stance will be at least as beneficial, but we argue, more beneficial.

Greater potential for progression – with power and plyometrics

As is laid out in detail in Strength & Power Training for Handball, the strength based training for handball is merely laying the platform. It means nothing if this strength isn’t then tied in to handball specific expressions of power. These expressions of power are things like jumping, landing, accelerating and decelerating. In other words, all the strength on the gym floor – regardless of how functional and specific, doesn’t mean anything if it cant be applied in a handball setting. Plyometric work is the missing link here that ties these together. We have discussed plyometrics elsewhere here as well as the books so will not go into detail here. But the key point is that single leg based work allows for a greater potential link in with plyometrics, as much of the plyometric exercises that can be performed to have the greatest level of carryover to handball are actually single leg based.

Additionally, when looking to tie this work in with the running based training you are doing, the single leg strength exercises and plyometrics allow for a greater link. As we have discussed, far from being separate forms of training, in a functional well laid out program, strength and running based work should actually complement each other. Additionally, if you are taking into account acceleration, deceleration and changing of directions in your running conditioning – as you should or you are selling yourself short – single leg based strength work, and then plyometric work, will allow for the greatest contribution to these movements as they require powerful force absorption and application off of 1 leg at a time, not 2.

Fitness Coach