Knee Friendly Single Leg Training

It’s no secret that single leg work is second to none when it comes to training athletes, gym enthusiasts, and anyone who walks one leg at a time.  While your traditional walking lunges, and split squat variations (static, bulgarian, etc) do suffice to supplement the need for single leg training, what about those individuals who are limited by pain in the knees.  I can’t give you an exact percentage but I would not be lying if I said I believed at least 75% of the population of lifters have had some sort of knee pain at least once while exercising.  Now I’m not referring to chronic knee pain from an injury or something of that sort.

I have never had a major knee injury (knock on wood) and I have recently had some anterior knee pain during my squats and single leg exercises.  I have figured out the solution to my problem though and am back to a (mostly) pain free range of motion (still correcting the issue).  Now for the average everyday gym enthusiast who cant really afford to spend a few sessions with me and see what the real issues are, but would still like to do single leg work….This is For You!

When I write my programming for my clients I tend to lean more towards applying single leg work right from the get go.  Humans were naturally designed to be on one leg when performing actions and athletic sport is a good show of this.  There are only 2 instances that I can think of in sport when an athlete is performing the same action on both legs at the same time:  Rowing, and a jump shot in basketball (or a jump to block a shot in basketball/volleyball).  If anyone can think of any other please let me know!

So according to this shouldn’t we essentially train exclusively on one leg?

The answer is maybe, renowned Strength Coach Mike Boyle is slowly leaning toward this idea more and more every day, and it is an interesting concept.  

I’m not sure how I would feel about that.  I am a huge advocate of bilateral work as I promote Squatting and Deadlifting.  That doesn’t mean that I only do Bilateral work.  I am a huge believer in Single Leg work, the research speaks for itself, I just don’t think I would ever completely eliminate Bilateral work from my programming.

So back to knee friendly single leg training.  The lunge/split squat can put a lot of stress on the knees for a number of reasons, the main one being doing the movement improperly (which I see pretty much every day of my life).  Another example I see often is individuals using too much weight for the exercise (which then leads to them breaking form and doing the exercise improperly).  For these reasons I tend to stay away from most of the lunge variations when I write programs for my clients.  It’s easier that way and I don’t have to worry about potential injuries.  

If I had to choose one single leg exercise that can trump the rest as far as simplicity, complexity, being able to progress and regress the exercise with little to no effort, be extremely knee friendly, and make it one of the most difficult exercises you will ever accomplish, I would simply choose The Step Up.

Ah yes the Step Up, an exercise simply put of finding an object taller than the surface you are standing on, and step up onto it.  If only it were that simple, I wouldn’t have a job.  Yes that is the jist of what the exercise is, there are many different components to the exercise that can increase the difficulty, and at the exact same time be extremely safe on the knees.

Every single one of my clients has done step ups at one point or another during our training sessions.  I believe it to be one of the best single leg variations that you can do.


There are a few simple and easy tips to make it a knee friendly exercise.  First lets talk about the set up.

The thing you are going to step up on (usually a box or a bench) should have an approximate equal height to your tibial tuberosity (the bump just below your knee cap).  This ensures that your beginning position for your forward leg is at about a 90 degree bend.  The next step is to make sure that during the movement your forward knee does not bend inward (a thing we call valgus collapse) take a quick look here for what I am talking about: (mind you this is a little exaggerated but the point is still the same)


As you can see the knee is collapsing inward during the movement, this puts a metric shit ton* of stress on the knee and can really cause bad things to happen to you.  So it’s extremely important to put a little bit of extra weight on the outside of your foot during the movement.  

The Next step in the Step Up (pun intended) is the driving force that gets you from the floor to the top of the box/bench/friends back that you are stepping on.  This force should come from the heel of the driving leg.  Driving from your heel allows you to engage the posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes etc) which makes it easier to get up, plus it works more muscle which will get you better results.  

The last concept that I want you to think about during the movement is your core.  During the movement you want to prevent as much “momentum” as you can as the momentum you can gain during the start of the movement will make the exercise easier for you, but not in a good way.  

Here is what I am talking about:


As you can see my body is nice and loosey goosey when I step up so I am making the exercise easy, but again not what we are looking for.

A great way to help with this is to squeeze your core as tight as you can.  Think about how you would brace as if someone was about to punch you right in the stomach.

Give it a try right now.  Brace your stomach as tight as you can and get ready to take a punch from Rocky (The real Rocky, not the lame broadway version).  Got it?  Good, now go apply it to your step up.

How did that work for you?  If it was a little difficult to maintain control, great you’re on the right track.  If it was easy, even better add some weight and get it done!

For those individuals who struggled a little to maintain stability and rigidity during the movement I have one additional step for you to help out.  

To get some additional core stability lets focus on your bodys center of gravity.  If we offset your center of gravity ever so slightly it will automatically turn on your core muscles to help keep your body rigid.  So to accomplish this you simply grab a 5 pound dumbell and hold it at shoulder height straight in front of you while performing the step up.  Thats it, that little change in your center of gravity will not only turn the core on but because the weight is in front of you it will automatically shift your weight back into your heels slightly, making it easier for you to step up.

Take a look here and then give it a try:


So what is all of this for?  To activate the core better and take pressure off of the knees.  I believe that with these progressions you can accomplish just that and have the best knee friendly training ever!

Now that you have that down lets add some difficulty to it:

Yeah you can take the simple route and just hold a pair of dumbells and make it harder that way, but wheres the fun in that (assuming you already have the strength to do this well).

One of my newest favorite progressions is to use the Vipr (basically a large PVC shaped rubber tube).  Start with the viper straight out in front of you (similar to the dumbell used in the early progression).  Then as you step up onto the box keep your arms straight and get the Vipr sraight overhead.  This will really challenge your core and your shoulder.  The only thing to consider here is that you have adequate shoulder mobility before you perform the exercise.

Definitely give it a try if you have access to the vipr and let me know how much you Love/Hate it.


If you have any questions about single leg training please dont hesitate to ask, and stay tuned for the New Coming SOON!