I’ve had a lot of questions regarding how best to introduce single leg exercises into strength training sessions, so I thought I’d share with you an overview of my approach to incorporating single leg training for athletes in my Muay Thai strength programmes.
Muay Thai Specificity
In later, more Muay Thai specific training blocks, I use single leg exercises as my main lower body lifts, rather than in addition to the standard bilateral (two-legged) lifts such as squats and deadlifts. In this way, the focus shifts to unilateral (single-leg) exercise as the fight approaches, but that’s not the first time my fighters experience single leg training.
Although I plan the bulk of the single leg exercises toward the end of the training phase (closer to a main fight) due to the increased Muay Thai specificity, I also include unilateral movements all the way through the programme – even in the initial Preparation Block training! More about the Prep Block coming very soon.
Progressive Not Aggressive
I also include single leg exercises in warm up sequences, plyometric routines and metabolic finishers, so the fighter is always accustomed to stabilising single leg lifting patterns. Then when these lifts become the focus of the training load, the fighter can coordinate, balance and productively build strength in these movements. If you’re not used to them and suddenly chuck them into your programme, they aren’t unlikely to be very productive, and you’re likely to make the fighter very sore (DOMs), and even injure them.
My preferred single leg exercise progression is:
Rear Foot Elevated (Bulgarian) Split Squat
Box Single Leg (Pistol) Squat
Single Leg (Pistol) Squat
I’ve gone into more detail and given a video in my post Single Leg Exercise Progressions.
Prioritise Quality Movement
It’s important not to load single leg exercises too heavily until you’ve first built a good level of bilateral strength using the standard two-legged lifts. Also, sensible use of single leg warm ups, metabolic finishers and movement drills build the prerequisite core stability (mainly maintaining pelvis alignment while standing on one leg), and then focused single leg emphasis appropriate.
Pay particular attention to avoid inward valgus collapse of the knee when using single leg exercises. This reinforces weak, bad habits and will lead to injury. I’ve written a post for Muay Thai Scholar that discusses this a little further – How Does Your Body Fail? – Strength and Conditioning for Muay Thai.
Just Reminding You Why
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.
My approach to programming single leg training is the same as my general approach to Muay Thai periodisation, that of the conjugate model – where all qualities are trained in each block, but the volume/intensity emphasis shifts depending on the particular block in the training phase.
My video post regarding my choice of periodisation model for Muay Thai programming is a useful adjunct at this point if you’d like to delve a little deeper.
Keep It Real
One of the keys to effective strength and conditioning programmes is progression, and single leg training is no exception. Don’t suddenly chuck single leg training into your programme – at best you’ll be too sore to train Muay Thai skills properly, and at worst you’ll become injured. Nurture this athletic quality, build it and you’ll reduce your likelihood of injury and certainly see and feel the difference in the ring – where it counts!
Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning
Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), a Muay Thai coach, podcast host, and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.
Don helps ambitious fighters and coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.
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Curious on what your thoughts are your favorite single leg exercise other than pistol squats/or something to pair with pistol squats? I am thinking some sort of lunge, maybe side or rear?
Also thoughts on increasing difficulty of the pistol squat? I can fairly comfortably do 3X10 using body weight and am debating holding some light DBs.
Nice job getting 3 sets of 10 pistol squats! :)
Other than pistol squats, I like skater squats (foot held in hand behind you, quad stretch style), single-leg deadlifts and hip bridges etc.
But externally loaded unilateral exercise is also a progression I use. Holding dumbbells or kettlebells goblet style, or at the sides of the body or curled up onto shoulders depending on your preference. Weighted vests and chains also work well as a ‘hands free. option.
I generally don’t pair unilateral exercises with anything else, I go for it as a main exercise, loaded appropriately. As I said in the post:
“I use single leg exercises as my main lower body lifts, rather than in addition to the standard bilateral (two-legged) lifts such as squats and deadlifts. In this way, the focus shifts to unilateral (single-leg) exercise as the fight approaches…”
I do like pairing unilateral lifts with others if I’m going for some muscle mass though: https://heatrick.com/2013/01/14/building-functional-muscle-for-muay-thai/
Hope that helps mate…