When’s the best time to focus on single leg training?

Best time to focus on Single leg training

When’s the best time to focus on single leg training? If you had asked me this question 10 years ago I might have given you a different answer.  Early in my career I was influenced by the NASM Personal Training certification and their method.  [Full disclosure: I never took the exam but my best friend did and I looked extensively through the course material he was using].  When I think back to S&C programmes in my early career I remember starting training blocks with what I guess you would call Neuromuscular Training (NMT) using lower loads, higher reps and SINGLE LEG (SL) work for lower body strength.

The rationale was that the SL work would identify and then even out any imbalances/asymmetries in strength, in preparation for the higher bilateral loading to come in later cycles.  This was influenced by my understanding of the NASM methodology, where the first cycle was called a stabilisation phase aimed to do exactly that.

This blog will add to the previous blog I wrote on single leg training and offer some new reflections.  I also want to talk about the timing in your programming where single leg work might make more sense to focus on.

Who cares? Aren’t they just two different patterns?

For a long while I’ve not really felt the need to emphasise single leg or double leg, and I’ve seen the idea of having to make a choice over one or the other as a non starter discussion point in my book.  I simply view them as two different movement patterns that will both be incorporated into a session, or a week.

Normally I run my programmes like the example below if I am training two legs sessions per week.  I only do this during pre-season (as part of a 4-day strength programme) or for more advanced athletes who I don’t think can handle the loading of two sessions at >85% 1RM for the same exercise because of the high intensities that will impose on their bodies (otherwise I do three whole body sessions):

Day 1:

Heavy Bilateral Knee Dominant Exercise (KDE): Squat 5×5 (>85% 1RM)

Light Bilateral Hip Dominant Exercise (HDE): Deadlift 3-4 x 6-10 (<85% 1RM-if programmed in at all for that day)

Unilateral Hip Dominant Exercise (HDE): Single leg glute bridge 3 x 15-20 each leg


Day 2:

Heavy Bilateral Hip Dominant Exercise (HDE): Deadlift 5×5 (>85% 1RM)

Light Bilateral Knee Dominant Exercise (KDE): Squat 3-4 x 6-10 (<85% 1RM if programmed in at all for that day)

Unilateral Knee Dominant Exercise (KDE): Single leg pistol squats 3 x 10-15 each leg

Brownlee Brothers

By the way, Ian Pyper S&C coach for British Triathlon said that he would often split his off-season S&C programmes into two strength workouts- one on a Monday and one on a Friday.  One workout would be a heavy DL exercise such as a squat or a trap bar Deadlift, and the other day would be SL exercise such as split squat.  So it is interesting to see how he would also programme in both.

Personally I have also done this approach in the past but normally when I am still working with an intermediate athlete who is starting to warrant greater variation in load through the week.  Often I would plug in a SL exercise as the primary strength in the mid week session to go between a Squat (Monday) and a Deadlift (Friday).  So for me it’s not about either or, it’s about both.  But I always like to take some time to reflect and so what follows are some key points to consider that like a lot of subjects boil down to injury risk and performance benefit.  Ultimately the question to ask is whether the DL or SL variation has the greater capacity to produce FORCE and in a way that will transfer to sport, with manageable injury downside.


Heavy Bilateral Squats are a lower back exercise, right?

Recently I wanted time to reflect on how appropriate it is to ALWAYS use BILATERAL loaded exercises as my PRIMARY STRENGTH exercise.  After all, Mike Boyle was one of the first coaches to show that there is a bilateral strength deficit.  He said that he had many guys that could split squat 115lbs on each leg for 15 reps but there was no way on earth they could bilateral squat for 230lb, and probably not even for 5 reps!

And even if they could would you want that much load being transferred through the spine?

Mike Boyle says the heavy back squat is a lower back exercise.  From an injury risk standpoint there may be some links to back pain which might be associated with the back being exposed to forces from the legs that it cannot cope with.  But perhaps part of the problem is that it is not too much force per se but the wrong distribution of force going through the lower back due to immobilised joints down the chain- or the lumbar spine is not stable enough?

What about performance gains? Perhaps I am more capable of achieving a higher total load across a single leg exercise? I know that an elite level goal is to be able to hold 22.5% of Back squat 1RM (or 45% body mass) in each Dumbbell for a single leg primary strength exercise such as a split squat or a walking lunge etc.   Assuming I can squat 160kg at 80kg body mass, that works out at 36kg dumbells in each hand (just under my 80kg body mass).  And by the way I can’t bilateral squat 160kg!!!!!!!!  But yet I’m pretty confident I could hold the 36kg dumbbells in my hands!!!  For a Barbell split squat this would be 50% of my 1RM back squat.  Again, the idea of having 80kg on my back for a barbell split squat seems a bit more achievable than 160kg on two legs.

Listening to Mike speak on the Pacey Performance Podcast he is actually looking for you to be able to hit the target of 100% body mass (50% held in each dumbbell) for 5-6 reps for most of his single leg progressions including RDLS.  Again, I feel pretty confident I can do that.

So perhaps there is something there?  But if that means my torso rigidity is the weak link that is not letting me transfer enough force through my torso on two legs, isn’t that also a pretty concerning weak link given that all sports training is about how much of that strength training can transfer to the actual sporting movements– which last time I checked involved transfer through the torso!

Furthermore, I’ve seen evidence that the lower back can be upset by low pistol squats that are done without the use of a box set up, like Mike Boyle uses below.  Read this link for more info.  So don’t be so quick to go for one or the other!


For me there is just something logical about the fact that 160kg on my back will place much higher stress on my ”system” than 80kg ever can.  Yes the total load due to the bilateral deficit may be higher across the single leg exercise, but you are still only lifting 80kg at one time and I think that has to have a lower stimulation on the nervous system per se.  I’d love to see what the brain activity is and hormonal response to markers such as testosterone, for example.  However, developing force per se is only part of the puzzle otherwise we would just all focus on getting our squat, deadlift and bench PBs up.  It’s because we work to enhance ‘sports’ performance that we are having this discussion in the first place.  To quote British Rowing, ‘if it doesn’t make the boat go faster, what’s the point?  So we need to look at force production and it’s transfer to the sports movements.

Well Aren’t Single leg squats more Sport Specific?

This then naturally leads us to the other argument that one of my senior coaches also posed to me last week- saying that he had also moved away from using bilateral exercises as his primary strength exercise- because it’s not sport specific.  Ian Pyper also referred to this in his work with the Brownlee brothers, saying he would tend to move towards step ups for his SL work in more specific phases as it has greater transfer to running action.

I have previously written several articles about sport specificity.  You can find one here as well as some of my best work if I don’t say so myself with this article.  But I go back to a point Marco Cardinal made on his Pacey Performance Podcast about his role being getting them strong for the sport.  It was very clear to him that his role was to:

=> get people stronger in the key movements or activities that were relevant to the sport

=> get them strong enough to SUSTAIN the TRAINING Load

=> get them strong enough so they don’t break down


The way you evidence that someone has got stronger is pretty simple in my book regardless of whether you use SL or DL primary strength exercises.  But to demonstrate how much of that strength can be (directly) transferred to their sporting movement is more tricky.

Alex Natera (who quotes Michael Johnston, Strength Scientist at British Athletics) talks about the bridge between CAPACITY Strength and TECHNICAL Strength.  He calls this COORDINATION Strength.  In his work with sprinters in track & field this coordination strength exercise was known as a ‘link training exercise, such as a Prowler push.

So take a 25kg sled or approximately 33% bodyweight for arguments sake.  This is a link assessment- a loaded skill that is very similar to the sport skill, in this case acceleration during sprinting.  A good way to see if the strength training is transferring is measure the time it takes to push it a fixed distance.  If 1RM is going up in the gym but time on the link assessment is not going down then the strength training hasn’t transferred.

What’s the difference between CAPACITY STRENGTH and TECHNICAL Strength?

Capacity strength would be your traditional DL exercises such as Squats and Deadlifts and Jump squats.  Technical strength would be your SL exercises such as SL Hip thrust, SL Seated calf raise.  So in this way Alex was suggesting that perhaps you start with the ‘less specific’ bilateral exercises and move towards ‘more specific’ unilateral exercises.

Alex says ‘just because you run on one leg doesn’t mean you need to lifts always on one leg! But, in Special Preparatory periods where the track coach is getting nervous about you doing more heavy lifting you can focus on more SL work.  This is because at this time there is a greater volume of high speed running and the coaches don’t want the sprinters to be feeling fatigued.  You can sneak in some high intensity strength loading by using SL work.  To the coach they will see you lifting less weight on the back, but actually the intensity is very high!  Remember that a pistol squat (to quarter squat depth) with 1 x Bodyweight external load (30kg weighted vest and holding two 25kg dumbbells let’s say for a 80kg male) is supposed to equate to 3 x BW on DL Back squat

100% BW pistol = 3 x BW Back squat

I haven’t really looked at this in detail myself.  I need to be convinced of whether we can make comparisons between a quarter depth SL squat and a parallel DL squat but it’s something to think about.


I personally still feel the argument for one or the other is a non starter.  You need both in your programme as they are both movements that I want my athletes to master.  I still feel intuitively that having let’s say 200lb on your back will add more ”system stress” in terms of neural load than doing 115lbs separately on each leg- assuming the body can squat that much!!  Therefore DL squats create higher OVERLOAD and CAPACITY STRENGTH in terms of total load overcome in a single rep.  I also like the fact that the lower back is a force transferer which may or may not be a limiting factor in whether someone can BL squat more.  It means we need to work on strengthening our torso if we want to squat more.  I will talk about some paused deep squats that I heard Greg Nuckols talk about in another post!

I do agree that SL work might make more sense to focus on more in your Specific Preparation phases and I’ll look to incorporate more in those phases- but I’d still keep both in, in all phases.

I like the way Alex and Mike Boyle view bilateral strength- there is a point beyond which it probably doesn’t serve us to keep getting stronger on two legs in a non sport specific way.  For Mike Boyle I know he talks about being able to squat 50% bodyweight for 10 reps on a Goblet squat.  Then his focus changes to SL work and it seems getting to 50% bodyweight in each hand for 5-6 reps seems like their next goal!!!!!



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RacketEdge Conference 2017

Racketedge Conference 2017

Last weekend I had the privilege to be invited to speak at the inaugural Racketedge conference.

I was really excited as I have been a professional colleague of Howard Green for several years and I was delighted that he has set up a company ‘Racketedge’ partnering with Jonny Fraser- and then setting up this conference.

Tennis is a great sport.  I love working in Tennis and over the years there has been a lack of professional networking opportunities within the Tennis community in the UK.  This conference brought together several practitioners operating in different roles within Tennis- sport science, coaching and fitness.

I will give a brief overview of the presentations:

Chris Bradley–  chartered sport psychologist

Chris used a lot of group work to  get us to think about the importance of ‘’social awareness.’’  As coaches we often get stuck in the sets and reps but taking the time to know your athlete cannot start until you first take the time to know yourself.  It was fun to pair up with people I hadn’t met before and take the time to share things about myself.  It was also fun to think about my strengths and weaknesses and goals I have.

Alex Cockram–  responsible for the physical performance programme at the Tennis Foundation

I have known Alex for many years and he is doing a great job with the Tennis Foundation.  This presentation focused on his work with Wheelchair Tennis athletes.  I took away a lot of points.  He spoke about how he is using a lot of physical preparedness models for able bodied sport and redefining them for wheelchair tennis.  Many of his case studies were with a population of n=1 meaning that nearly every athlete has a unique set of individual needs and you have to develop your own tests to determine what physical preparedness means for that athlete.  His take away point was to always focus on what they can do.


Emma Anderson–  PhD candidate studying player movement in tennis at Sheffield Hallam University

Emma used to work for the LTA for five years so I had met Emma on several occasions before.  Her presentation focused on some of the barriers to utilising sport science in elite sport.  She wanted to determine how widely the coaches in the audience were using it and discussed some of the barriers to using it from her own experience.

Time, Buy In, Lack of knowledge, and Resources available at the organisation were all brought up as barriers.

Howard Green and Jonny Fraser– co owners of ‘Racketedge’

Howard and Jonny presented on their ‘RREADERR’ model which I really liked.  I am familiar with other coaches who have described the Footwork cycle such as Pat Etchberry and David Bailey

What I liked about Howard and Jonny’s take on it was the way they linked the tennis skill with the physical component

Daz Drake– Director of APA and Head of S&C at Gosling and Sutton Tennis Academy

You can get the full flavour of the presentation below which is around 30 minutes but if you just want the footnotes then check out the video series below where I showcase the assessments we use at APA to profile skill, suppleness and speed.  I also go onto to show some of the Basic Method progressions that we use for the four types of Speed that we refer to.  If you search the APA Youtube channel you will be able to find more in depth explanations of the Physical Competency Assessment (PCA) and the Fitness test.

Assessing Skill:


Assessing Suppleness:


Assessing Speed:


Training for Speed:

First step Speed

 Multi-directional Speed

Sport specific Speed


Simon Brundish– owner of StrengthLab Ltd

Simon unfortunately sprained his ankle the day before so wasn’t able to deliver the practical workshop on his ‘Super Heroes’ physical literacy curriculum which he is successfully implementing in a number of organisations.  Instead he went through the concept of the syllabus which links a number of fundamental skills to a Super Hero.

Essentially it is:

  • 120 Exercises across 24 gradually increasing levels
  • 5 ‘Superheroes’ each represent a different movement pattern
  • Built on latest sport science to provide the athletic skills children need
  • Can be used to rapidly plan entire PE lessons, or as an ideal warm-up for games-based activities


Dom King–  Head of S&C Halton Tennis Academy

Dom is a personal friend of mine having taken the role of Head of S&C at Halton Tennis Academy only a few years after I started doing the same role at Gosling.  The inspiration for his practical presentation was his observation that ”Boxing is like Tennis without the net.”  They both utilise a lot of repeated bouts of rotational power.  Dom’s own S&C philosophy has a basis (like mine) on having movement efficiency- and being able to harness the power of the hips was a key component of this practical.  We explored exercises to create more mobility and stability around the hips, as well as some exercises to develop rotational power.


Dave Hembrough– sports science officer for the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science (CSES) at Sheffield Hallam University

I have listened to Dave speak a few times and I really like his delivery style.  He is someone that embodies the art of coaching as well as the science.  He is clearly a very thoughtful and reflective practitioner who has developed enough experience of elite sport over the years to be able to step back and see the bigger picture.

He started by showing us a great video which really made me reflect on what is important in life and how much gratitude I have to do a job I love.

He then spoke about the Hero’s Journey which the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  This is perhaps a metaphor for the experiences we have as coaches.  He asked us to think about how many times we have faced.

He finished with a poem known as the ”Desiderata Poem” 


Jonny Marray– former top 20 doubles player, GB Davis Cup player and 2012 Wimbledon Doubles Champion

It was great to have a Q&A with Jonny.  He has recently retired from Professional Tennis and shared how he got into tennis, some of his experiences on the Tour- what he felt his strengths were and some of his thoughts on the future of the game.

One of the things he said to me was that ”why wouldn’t you want to maximise your athletic potential?”, when I asked him what he thought about the belief that you don’t need to be that fit to play doubles.”  Yes the problem is that there are several unfit world class professional doubles players that don’t help your case- you could argue.  If they can get to the top and appear to be out of shape perhap you don’t need to train so hard on your fitness.  But you can also see the opposite, and particularly in other sports.  Look at Christian Ronaldo- would you say he has chosen to ease off because he is already a world class performer.  No, he goes to the gym and works to make his athleticism even better.  Better never stops!!!


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Heart Rate Monitoring for Tennis

Last Thursday I had the privilege of presenting to a group of Master Performance Coach (MPC) candidates at the Lawn Tennis Association National Tennis Centre.  This is a Level 5 Tennis coach qualification and represents the highest level you can get in Tennis coaching.

I’ve previously wrote about Heart rate Monitoring which you can read HERE and HERE so this blog specifically goes through the presentation I gave and I also thought it would be helpful to give some advice on what type of heart rate monitor to buy!

You can hear the presentation I gave below:

On the day we went through a RAMP warm-up, to consolidate their learning having previously been taken through this on their last module.  Then we got stuck into the main topic of ‘Energy Systems Training for Tennis’ and the use of Heart rate monitors.

Warm-up template PDF


Drills you can do to ensure you get the Heart Rate into the Very Hard Zone

I don’t specifically mention this in the presentation as the coaches did this in the practical but here is a protocol that can be used to hit the Anaerobic Glycolytic energy system that will take account for individual response.

I am aware Benedikt Linder uses Heart rate training zones for some of the on court conditioning with the Swiss Tennis Federation. In this blog I talk about spending at least 15% of the squad in a heart rate training zone of greater than 80% Maximum Heart Rate.  When training the Anaerobic Glycolytic energy system you want to work them hard, then let them recover a little bit but not enough so they fully recover.  How do you know when to start and stop the drill, especially when you have different levels of ability and fitness?

From what I remember a specific routine that Benedikt Linder uses to ensure this is a routine of work until they get to about 95% MHR- which might take around 20-30sec followed by rest until it drops to 80% MHR- which might take 30-40-sec. Do this 6-8 times per set, 3-min rest between sets and do 2-3 sets.  Usually it will take around 10-15 balls fed side to side to get the heart rate into this high zone.  As soon as it does you can let them rest.

When I was chatting to National Coach Nick Weal we agree that you want them to still be able to split in the middle of the court and use cross-over steps, and be able to get behind the ball.  You don’t just want them running side to side in straight lines and reaching for the ball with a lunge and a slice!!


Take Home Messages

=> Heart rate is a good way to monitor intensity levels of Tennis sessions

=> Plan your week to include specific sessions which can be used to improve endurance on the court where athletes spend more than 15% of 2-hour squad in a Very Hard Training Zone (>80% Maximum Heart Rate)

=> Minimum stimulus load vs. maximum destructive dose.  Two to three sessions per week are more than adequate to increase the conditioning levels of your players.  More does not necessarily equal better.


Want a Recommendation for a Heart Rate monitor?

Check out this LINK where you can find out about some research on fitness trackers

Fitness trackers have become ever more popular, helping people better monitor their health and activity levels – but with all the options out there, it’s easy to get lost in the hype. That’s why the research team (Reviews.com) evaluated 87 models on the market, considering factors such as sensor accuracy, battery life, and app integration. After personally testing their finalists, they came up with three top picks: best for endurance training, best with a GPS, and budget-friendly best.

Team Training

Check out FirstBeat

I’ve used FirstBeat monitor with teams and I like the Training Effect and EPOC values it provides which give you a bit more information into aerobic stress than just heart rate alone.  This is particular useful in intermittent sports like Tennis where a lot of the aerobic load comes from the recovery period.

On a budget?

Check out Polar H7 Blue tooth

I’ve used this a lot with my individual athletes.  You can pick up the belt and unit for around £40.  You can download the app ‘Polar Beat’ and it gives you pretty decent feedback straight to your smart phone.

Where I am next presenting?

Tennis Fitness, Sport Science and Coaching Conference

Dates: 9th December 2017  09:00AM-12:00PM Location: Sheffield Hallam University Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield , S102BP

Book your ticket HERE


Hope you have found this article useful.  Remember,

  • If you’re not subscribed yet, click here to get free email updates, so we can stay in touch.
  • Share this post using the buttons on the top and bottom of the post. As one of this blog’s first readers, I’m not just hoping you’ll tell your friends about it. I’m counting on it.
  • Leave a comment, telling me where you’re struggling and how I can help