Why Fighters Should Exercise on One-leg

In the last article I posted a video showing a progressive series of unilateral (single limb) leg exercises, and this week I’ll explain why they feature in my Thai boxer’s strength and conditioning programmes.

Because We’re Thai Boxers

Thai boxers operate on one leg or in staggered stances, placing an unequal load on the legs. In this respect the specific training demand for fighters is entirely different to Power-lifting and Olympic lifting athletes – who compete almost entirely bilaterally on both legs (the split-jerk being an exception). Although bilateral leg exercises do have a place in my programmes, unilateral exercises also feature highly because of the higher degree of specificity for fighters.

Because Strong on 2-legs ≠ Strong on 1-leg

I’ve seen many fighters that can squat for reps with a bar loaded with plates equivalent to their bodyweight, yet can’t perform a single pistol squat. Obviously this isn’t because they lack sufficient strength in knee and hip extension movements – they’re already capable of lifting the equivalent load of their entire bodyweight on one leg. The problem is lack of strength in the muscles stabilising the body (the pelvis and core in particular), their structure collapses before they can apply all that awesome strength – they’re shooting a cannon stood on sand! Being strong on two legs but pathetic on one leg is a recipe for disaster for a fighter.

Because the Body is Supposed to Use Diagonal Patterns

Just watch anyone running and notice the opposition of arm and leg. Observe the throwing back of the arm during a round kick. Athletic movement consistently uses diagonal patterning of the musculature, the serape effect. This relates very strongly with single leg training.

Because the Back is the Weakest Link

Bilateral deadlifts and squats are programmed because they develop (hip dominant and knee dominant) lower body strength. But, if you watch carefully you’ll notice that a failed rep is caused by collapse of the spine – these exercise maximally load the back before the legs give up. Conversely, when you load the legs unilaterally the legs give up before your back – your legs get maximum stimulus without overloading your back. This is not only safer for your back, but we get better training effect in our intended target movement, and that’s a win-win in my book.

Because Research Shows a Bilateral Deficit

Once stabilising musculature is sufficiently strong, research has found that it’s possible to lift more than half of your maximum bilateral lift on just one leg. I’ve yet to prove this one myself but I’ve seen athletes do this (and gasped)! So there’s plenty of scope to progress.

That summarises why I include unilateral leg exercises in Muay Thai strength and conditioning programmes, but remember as always that progression is key (check out the video if you’d like to see my unilateral knee-dominant exercise progressions). Don’t be tempted to jump phases, you may have the fundamental lower limb strength but you’ll lack controlled stability – build it patiently. Single leg exercise aren’t just a party trick, they’re of significant athletic benefit to a Thai boxer. Have fun getting your 1-legged freak on.


  1. News | Super Fight Series June 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    […] Link: Why Fighters Should Exercise on One-leg | Heatrick Strength & Conditioning for MuayThai Don Heatrick posted a link to SUPER FIGHT SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP's wall: WHY should Thai boxers exercise on one-leg? […]

  2. Colin June 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Great read. Would be useful to have an insight to how often this form of training and all things s & c get encorporated around say a day job and 3/4 muay thai sessions theough the week (rest days and all) ;-)

    • DonHeatrick June 29, 2013 at 8:47 pm - Reply

      Thanks Colin.
      Programming training is a rather involved process, but I’ll put together some general guidelines to help out. ;)

  3. Colin July 1, 2013 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    thanks buddy, its interesting to see how often someone may train and exactly what they do when…like you say, an involved process.

    back on to this article – I have a point you may wish to consider or address: –

    “a muay thai fighter’s most used muscle group is the calf muscle and so training methods should incorporate this far more so than that of squats and the like which heavily isolate the quads/though area…which is used very little in muay thai as most of the sport does not require someone to explode in such a way from such a starting position.”

    Its something that to me makes a lot of sense I must admit. I’d be keen to hear what you think of this argument or anything similar if your looking for an idea for a new article ;-)

    • DonHeatrick July 1, 2013 at 11:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your input Colin :)

      Calves certainly are crucial to Muay Thai performance and I have a rather specific approach to addressing this… another article for the list ;)


  4. […] work to stimulate muscle growth (hypertrophy). I chose a unilateral lift to simultaneously develop 1-legged stabilisation, a much needed physical ability for […]

  5. […] the given number of reps. Being a unilateral exercise, the single leg suspension squat also builds stability on one leg, a must for Thai boxers, and is another progression toward full pistol […]

  6. […] If you're interested to learn more about why I think single leg exercises are crucial for Muay Thai fighters, have a look at my post Why Fighters Should Exercise on One Leg. […]

  7. […]  Although outpointed in the round, Kabulov appeared very stable and balanced throughout. He wasn’t being hurt or phased by anything Singdam was hitting him with. Kabulov just […]

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