Cal Dietz: Single Leg vs. Double Leg Training: Addressing the Controversy

In today’s post 2012 Seminar presenter Cal Dietz brings the great debate of single leg vs double leg lower body exercises to the forefront.  To squat or not to squat has been a polarizing question of late.  Coach Dietz gives his take on both tools, how he utilized both and his reasoning behind it.

In the past several years many controversial articles have been written about whether double leg training is superior to single leg training and even if bilateral exercises (i.e. heavy squats or leg presses) are necessary to achieve the same results. Keep in mind that results are relative to your particular sport that you are training for. Some sports don’t need very intensive measures to get these types of results. For example, I find that golf is a sport that if an athlete seems to be strong enough, he or she can reach their intended goals by doing mainly single leg work and those types of exercises to get the desired results. Please keep in mind that the following are my, as well as many other unnamed strength coaches, opinions.

So, in regards to the single vs. double leg debate, my thoughts immediately jump to getting results in testing. The testing results are not necessarily getting strong in the back squat. These are based on 10’s, 20’s, pro agility, vertical jump, and mainly the explosive sports and sports tests. In review of my records over the last decade and different transitions that have happened for athletes from the double leg training to the single leg training, I researched and thought about as many instances as possible within our own system of training and this is what I found: I was unable to find any records, testing results, or performance results based upon an athlete that had trained in our system over one year and as much as three years with the double leg back squat or front squat methods that were able to reproduce results in testing and/or performance based sports such as track and field.

I will give one example and one example only. I had a very athletic female athlete who I considered late to mature physically and was biomechanically gifted strength wise to start when she walked into the weight room. Her first test was a pro agility. These numbers were a 4.91, no hand touch, pro agility. She simply ran a pro agility by getting her foot beyond the line. After 15-16 months of training, including in season training protocols, she was able to run a 4.32 in the pro agility without a hand touch. After a couple of years of severe wrist and shoulder injuries, we were unable to load the body with a double leg approach. The best results she could get in a pro agility after an entire summer of training extremely hard was a 4.65 pro agility.

This is an obvious and simple example of how I am unable to reproduce efforts when single leg work is the main focus of a program. Trust me, I believe in single leg work, I use it in many of my programming methods, but I truly believe and have seen that I cannot get the results with these particular methods by only using single leg work. Here is something to we must think of when addressing single vs. double legwork. It would almost be impossible to do, but if an Olympic lifting athlete removed all double legwork except in the clean and snatch movements, would they be able to hit maximal effort lifts? I believe we know the answer to this without answering it. So then we get back to addressing why particular double leg exercises produce superior results?

I truly believe the main reason is a systemic effect over the whole body with a very intense response to heavy loads( instability via single leg lifts decrease motor unit recruitment). Essentially, in my system, back squats rarely go over 10 seconds in duration with a complete set and it is a very intense 3-10 seconds of squatting. It is more efficient to work the alactic system using bilateral lifts; when doing a single leg exercise, most people will raise the repetitions of it thereby stressing certain energy systems more than others due to the fact that both legs need to be exercised. For my system, which deals with many alactic and alactic-aerobic sports, I have found that single leg lifts cannot compare in intensity as their double leg counterparts. Please keep in mind, however, that one way to offset the exercise becoming so anaerobic-lactic would be to do the left leg, rest 30-40 seconds, and do the right leg. This will keep the emphasis alactic, though still the intensity will be reduced due to the inherent loading limitations of single leg exercised.

I have various methods of programming for the back squat and single leg work. Some of my programs have only squatting with minimal single legwork, whereas other programs have minimal back squatting and mainly with single legwork. Some of my methods use only single leg work. Some of the most beneficial programs I truly believe are the beginner variations where we’ll back squat and do single leg work initially, then transfer to single leg work based upon loads and speed of the movement. I truly believe that one can pull back squats 4-6 weeks out of the main competition and time of performance and still keep relative strength to the sports performance extremely high. Even if they lose strength in the squatting motor skill, it does not mean they lose performance; it can actually mean the opposite if you are doing the right exercises in the latter part of the program to peak for performance.

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1 thought on “Cal Dietz: Single Leg vs. Double Leg Training: Addressing the Controversy”

  1. Hi Cal,
    Really great to read your thoughts on this matter.
    I find single leg training beneficial in developing athletes while they learn to control their bodies during basic movements such as lunges and step ups.
    I think when they become more elite the bilateral exercises can expose them to greater loads and therefore improve force and rate of force production. But. Think it is important to then teach them to carry this new strength and power into the single leg movements they experience in their sport.

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