Single Leg Olympic Lifts for Maximizing Athletic Performance
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Olympic lifts are incredible movements for improving athletic performance particularly components dealing with power, speed, explosiveness, and even strength and force production. However, balance and stability, particularly unilateral aspects, are equally important attributes typically not addressed during Olympic lifts. Additionally, aspects of symmetry and motor control when comparing sides of the body (left vs. right) in all biomotor capabilities are critical.
Unfortunately most lifters have one side of the body they tend to favor oftentimes producing and contributing to greater imbalances and deficits in strength, power, mobility, stability, and motor control, ultimately leading to greater risk of injury. These can be further ingrained during traditional bilateral movements including double leg jumps and traditional Olympic lifts.
Performing Olympic lifts from a single leg or unilateral hang position particularly when using a below the knee eccentric isometric RDL helps to resolve many of these issues (learn more about proper single leg hip hinge mechanics here). Here’s one of my NFL combine athletes Ike Onike demonstrating the single leg hang clean.
With that said there are 10 reasons why single leg Olympic lifts are so effective.
1. Allow the athletes to target each hip more intensely and with greater overload than the traditional bilateral versions of Olympic lifts. That’s because the athlete can typically handle 55-65% of the load they could handle on the bilateral counterpart. For instance, in the video above, Ike is using 165 pounds, however, he usually performs bilateral cleans with 275 pounds.
2. Provide more low back friendly variations of Olympic lifts as the total load is considerably less than bilateral versions thereby reducing stress to the spine.
3. Provide more shoulder and wrist friendly options as the catch phase is considerably less demanding due to the relatively lighter loads.
4. Teach athletes to control their power and explosiveness as lack of motor control will cause the athletes to lose their balance.
5. Address and expose asymmetries, mobility, issues, and instability issues. Many athletes will find that they will need to take several steps back and address their foot and ankle stability and motor control before attempting these. However, committing to precise form and execution with the single leg Olympic lifts will also provide a substantial corrective stimulus to their body mechanics.
6. Provide Olympic lifting options that are more transferable to running and sprinting mechanics due to the contralateral leg positions. For instance, in the bottom of the eccentric position, one leg is in hip flexion and one leg is in hip extension. In addition, the hip extension phase requires significant hip and knee drive of the elevated leg as a means of transferring power into the opposite glute.
7. Ingrain proper bar path and teach the lifter to keep the bar close to their body. If the bar moves away from the lifter even slightly and the lifter fails to keep it close to their body, this will cause the lifter to lose balance as they chase the bar.
8. Require the use of eccentric isometrics particularly from a full hang position. Tying to perform single leg hang cleans from below the knee without performing a precisely executed eccentric isometric makes it nearly impossible to lock the movement in without losing balance. As a result the eccentric isometric helps the athletes dial in their mechanics to a greater extent than what they would typically be required to.
9. Eliminate grip failure and the necessity to use the very uncomfortable hook grip as the lighter loads reduce the chance of hand/grip slippage commonly witnessed with heavier Olympic lifts.
10. Create a strong muscle mind connection with the hips as the athlete can feel their glutes getting intensely targeted on each rep - something that rarely occurs during bilateral versions.
Progressing to Snatches
Here’s one of my awesome clients Ben Lai demonstrating single leg hang snatches from a eccentric isometric RDL position.
Before attempting these, I highly recommend you master single leg RDL’s, and traditional snatches first. In fact, the single leg snatch from an eccentric isometric RDL position is one of the most challenging yet effective unilaterally power exercises you’ll ever perform.
If you’re looking for a movement that will both expose and address imbalances, asymmetries, instability, mobility, foot and ankle mechanics, and overall motor control from head to toe, you’ll want to give these a go. I also recommend mastering the single leg hang clean first as catching a barbell overhead from a single leg base is exponentially more challenging than catching it in a clean position. Focus on quality over quantity here and aim for 2-3 precisely executed repetitions per leg on each set.
Performing Olympic lifts from a kickstand position as demonstrated here by one of my NFL athletes DJ Tialavea, represents an excellent compromise between traditional bilateral Olympic lifts and single leg variations.
For many individuals the single leg cleans and snatches are quite difficult to master. Performing them from a kickstand position provides many of the same benefits of single leg cleans and snatches discussed above, however the slightly more stable base allows them to more comfortably explode with their hips and overload the movement. They’re also great for taller athletes with a higher center of mass that are looking to perform single leg explosive movements but need a bit more support to assist with balance.
I’ve typically found that athletes can comfortably handle 65-75% of the load they can handle on their bilateral versions. Even if you’re not looking to regress the single leg Olympic lifts, the kickstand variations are excellent for periodically incorporating into your routine. They’re also great for transferring to the starting position of sprints due to the similar base of support.
When performing kickstand cleans and snatches, focus on placing a majority of the weight onto the hip and heel of the front leg. The back leg is simply acting as a mild support to help stabilize the body but is by no means the dominant leg/hip during these variations. Try performing several sets of 2-4 reps per side during your next lower body day or speed and power routine.
Dumbbell and Kettlebell Variations
Single leg Olympic lifts can also be performed with isolateral or unilateral loading by employing kettlebells and dumbbells. Besides the fact that these are even more difficult than single leg barbell Olympic lifts, they also torch the entire posterior chain as demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch.
Essentially you’re performing an eccentric isometric single leg RDL while performing cleans or snatches with kettlebells or dumbbells all while avoiding the opposite foot touching the floor for support. Similar to the barbell variations, if the weights move too far in front of the lifter or the lifter has a tendency to shift or favor one side of their body, these will be almost impossible to stabilize.
These are also excellent for improving shoulder stability and postural alignment as anything short of textbook spinal mechanics and shoulder positioning will make these almost impossible to stabilize. Whether you’re a figure athlete or bodybuilder looking to crush their glutes and hamstrings or you’re an athlete looking to improve single leg power and stability this is one you may want to try incorporating into your training routine from time to time. Several sets of 2-3 quality reps per leg will suffice for most individuals. On a side note, Leslie rarely struggles on any exercise so if it looks tricky for her you know these are brutal.
Bottoms Up Variations
Single leg Olympic lifts can also be performed using the bottoms-up protocol either with kettlebells or plates. Bottoms-up exercises are some of the most difficult strength training movements there are. Single leg bottoms up movements represent the epitome of full body stability and motor control.
If there's a weak link in any portion of the body from head to toe these will immediately expose it. Once you master single leg bottoms up cleans and snatches you'll most likely have eliminated a majority of dysfunction throughout your body. One exercise that's incredibly challenging even for the most advanced lifters is the single leg bottoms up clean with plates.
The double leg version tends to be a bit too light to truly maximize hip and glute activation. However, single leg variations performed with plates quickly resolves this, as the total weight is loaded to one hip. Furthermore, the plates can swing to the sides of your body without hitting your thigh – something that can't be duplicated with kettlebells. Besides requiring a high degree of balance and motor control, you'll need Jedi-like focus to successfully complete these.
If you’re looking for a training program that teaches you how to implement Olympic lifts and cleans into your routine check out my Complete Templates.