The Most Simple Exercise Everyone Sucks At: Single Leg Stands
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
So you think the single leg stand is an easy exercise right? Not so fast. In fact even for many high level athletes this can be quite challenging provided it’s performed with correct technique. In fact, when properly performed the single leg stand is one of the most simple yet effective drills you can perform as it reinforces proper alignment, activation, and stabilization throughout the entire kinetic chain not to mention the all-important foot and ankle mechanics. Unfortunately almost everyone sucks at it including high level athletes and expert coaches.
Case in point, here I have USC Trojans running back Ronald Jones (@Rojo) performing single leg stands on a balance pad during his first week training with me. This is something I have literally every one of my athletes practice starting from our first week of training and it’s something they continue to work on and master as we progress. However, it’s not simply a matter of having them stand on one leg and hold that position for a given amount of time. Like all exercises, the key to this simple yet deceptively challenging drill is performing it correctly with proper alignment.
In fact, most individuals can perform single leg stands with very little effort when they’re allowed to rely on the various compensation patterns they’ve developed. However, when instructed and cued to perform the drill correctly without any compensation patterns, misalignment, or dysfunctional positions, most athletes struggle to hold this position even for 30 seconds. In other words the beauty of this drill lies in the small details. With that said, few coaches and trainers are teaching proper alignment for single leg exercises including the single leg stand. So here are my top 9 cues that will not only make the single leg stand more effective but I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll feel exponentially greater activation and recruitment throughout your entire lower body when performed in this fashion.
1. Make sure both feet are completely straight particularly the support/working leg. Even the slightest degree of angled positioning or external rotation of the foot can minimize the effectiveness of this drill and reinforce dysfunctional lower body mechanics. In fact, for most folks proper foot positioning will feel almost pigeon-toed at first. The reason for this is that proper foot and ankle alignment involves having the ankle and heel bones (not the forefoot) in line with the hip and knee.
Because the ankle and heel bones (talus, calcaneus, and tarsus) represent a narrower portion of the foot than the forefoot and phalanges, this means that a properly aligned straight-foot position will appear as though the forefoot is more medial than the posterior region. In other words it will appear slightly pigeon toed even though it is not. Simply put, proper foot alignment should be determined from the posterior region of the foot and ankle not the front region/phalanges of the foot.
2. Keep both feet semi-inline or in a semi-overlapping stride position. This means that the back and front foot should either intersect each other (when looking at the person from the front) or both feet should line up right next to each other with no space between them. Most individuals stand with a large gap between both legs which not only minimizes the effectiveness of this drill but also reinforces dysfunctional mechanics.
3. Raise the elevated leg straight out approximately 1-2 feet in front of the support leg while keeping the ankle and foot of that elevated leg semi-dorsiflexed (i.e. don’t allow the foot to plantarflex). This seems like a relatively unimportant cue but it’s not. Dorsiflexing the elevated leg lengthens the glutes and hamstrings of that leg which helps contract the hip flexor and quad. As a result this produces greater glute and hamstring activation of the support leg due to the reciprocal activation pattern of having one leg elevated and one leg planted (i.e. contralateral cross crawl effect).
4. Maintain proper body alignment. Don’t allow your shoulders, hips, or head to turn but keep every segment of your body in perfectly straight alignment.
5. Keep proper posture. Don’t slouch or allow your head and shoulders to round forward.
6. Stay as tight as you possibly can. This eliminates energy leaks and helps to engage the core.
7. Start by performing these on a hard surface with your eyes open. Once you master this, progress to softer surfaces and eyes closed variations.
8. Use these same cues and pointers for all single leg drills including single leg swaps and other key lower body stabilization exercises.
9. Perform at least one set of 30-45 seconds every day for the rest of your life. This is a daily habit that every human being would benefit greatly from as a proper single leg stand provides a number of therapeutic physiological effects.
For more information about training your feet and ankles for optimal athletic performance and fitness check out my Ultimate Foot and Ankle Manual.