Unusual unilateral leg exercise
by Ben Bruno T-Nation
The entire premise for this article is a bit screwy because the whole thing is about an exercise that I really like, but don't even really know what to call or how to classify.
Just so we're clear right up front, this is the exercise I'm talking about.
What's In a Name?
I don't see many people do this exercise in the first place, but almost everyone that does it seems to call it something different – the skater squat, King deadlift, single leg deadlift, single leg squat, knee-tap squat, airborne lunge, the list goes on.
Hell, I've even seen it called a shrimp squat. Don't ask me why.
With the exception of shrimp squat, I think you can make a good case for any of the aforementioned names, but I personally call it a skater squat just because a) that's how I originally learned it back when I started doing them and I've just stuck with it, b) it vaguely resembles the skating motion, and c) I work with a lot of hockey players so it makes them feel that they're doing something "sport-specific."
To me though, the name isn't important at all and it's a great exercise no matter what you want to call it.
A Hidden Gem
If skater squats are such a great exercise, then why aren't more people doing them?
For some, it may just be that they've never been exposed to this exercise, while for others it's more so that they struggle with them and would rather take the easy way out and avoid them rather than take the time and energy to get better at them.
Some lifters (particularly strong squatters) may scoff at them and see them as ineffectual or even wussy, but in my experience, these people usually can't do them very well, if at all.
That's not meant to be a slight, by the way. If you suck at them, then you probably aren't going to get much out of them, and in turn you won't like them too much. That's totally understandable.
I've never met someone that's good at them though who doesn't like them.
With that in mind, the goal of this article is to help you get better at them and show you how to implement them into your program so you too can reap the benefits.
First Things First, Take a Step Back (Literally)
The first step towards mastering skater squats doesn't actually involve doing skater squats.
Huh? Let me explain.
Skater squats are a fairly advanced exercise on the single-leg training continuum. They aren't quite as difficult as the single leg "pistol" type squat, but they're far tougher than supported variations like split squats, Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and any other single leg exercise where the non-working leg can still assist with balance.
As such, take some time with the easier variations first to help strengthen the hip stabilizers and start to get comfortable on one leg. At the very least, I recommend proficiency with Bulgarian split squats and reverse lunges.
Once you're all set there, keep reading.
Get Your (Counter) Balance
The hardest part about skater squats at first is undoubtedly the balancing aspect. If it were a strength issue, anyone who could squat with more than his or her bodyweight on the bar would theoretically be able to crank them out with ease from the get-go. But as you know if you've tried them, that's hardly ever the case.
Do yourself a favor and hold a couple light dumbbells in your hands to serve as counterbalance. I know it's counterintuitive to add weight to make it easier, but just trust me on this one. It makes a huge difference and will dramatically expedite the learning curve.
The weights needn't (and shouldn't) be too heavy. If you bench press less than 200 pounds, five pound dumbbells should suffice. If you can do more than 200 pounds, 10-12 pound dumbbells should be good, 15 tops.
Start with the weights at your sides and raise them up to shoulder height as you squat down, just like you're doing front raises. It's important that you raise them up all the way each time because the higher you raise your arms, the easier it is to keep good posture and stay upright. If you get lazy and don't raise them up all the way, it'll cause you to lean too far forward, round your back, and lose your balance.
Similarly, keeping the arms straight will help significantly with balance, which is why you want to keep the dumbbells on the light side so shoulder fatigue doesn't become an issue. Remember you have to do both legs, so that's a lot of front raises.
Even with the counterbalance, skater squats still obviously require a ton of balance, so I don't feel it's cheating in any way or you're losing out on any of the benefits of the exercise. If you choose to go without the counterbalance, that's certainly your prerogative and I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with that, I just think you're making things needlessly hard(er) on yourself.
Working Up to the Full Monty
Even holding dumbbells, most people probably won't be able to jump in and do full unassisted skater squats right off the bat without working up to it. If you can, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
If not, here are some good teaching progressions that can help you get there quickly.
Sliding Skater Squats
This is just a skater squat with the rear non-working leg on a slippery surface such as Valslides or a slideboard.
It's actually virtually the same as a sliding reverse lunge, only with a bit more forward lean of the torso.
The key here is to put as little weight as possible on the rear leg and instead focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the working leg. At first you may need to rely on the rear leg quite a bit for balance, but the goal is obviously to get to a place where you can do the exercise unassisted so you don't want to overdo it.
With the eccentric version you're just lowering down on one leg and standing back up on two. Easier said than done though, I realize.
The big thing here is to control the eccentric and not just free fall to the floor. I highly recommend putting a pad behind you in case you do fall a little too fast, but imagine you're squatting down onto a hard surface so you'll be more inclined to slow it down. Shoot for 3-5 seconds on the lowering phase of each rep and do 3-5 reps per set.
This is just the opposite of the previous exercise. Stand up on one leg and lower down on two.
You want to make sure you aren't pushing with the foot of the working leg, so pick it up off the floor before standing up. If you have to give yourself a little push at first that's completely fine, but don't progress beyond this step until you can do it without pushing off.
I personally find these harder than the eccentric-only version, but I've had some people that find them easier so I'd try both and see what you like better.
When you can comfortably do full sets with either this version or the eccentric-only version, you should be all set to do unassisted skater squats.
Movin' On Up (Again, Literally)
Once you can knock out a couple sets of 6-8 full, unassisted reps, it's time to progress.
The most obvious form of progression is to add load via weighted vests, chains, or whatever else you have at your disposal.
But before adding load, I actually prefer to increase the range of motion slightlyÑprovided of course that it doesn't cause pain. When you do a regular skater squat standing on the floor, the femur usually ends up being a few inches short of parallel at the bottom, especially if you put a pad underneath the rear leg (which you definitely should).
Standing on a four-inch aerobic step will allow most people to get down to parallel or even slightly below, depending on your anthropometry.
If going that deep causes knee and/or hip pain or you don't have the mobility to do so with good technique, then by all means nix the step and do them standing on the floor, or you may even want to reduce the range of motion slightly by using several pads behind you. First and foremost, you want to work within a pain-free range of motion.
Assuming you're healthy though, I'd prefer you increase the range of motion to at least parallel before adding load.
More Advanced Progressions
Unless you have a slew of weighted vests at your gym, you may reach a point where you'll need to find other ways to progress the exercise beyond just adding weight.
Pausing each rep at the bottom makes it harder by killing the stretch reflex, and it also forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid free-falling down to the floor.
Speaking of a controlled eccentric, this one takes that idea to the extreme with deliberately slow eccentrics. Three to five seconds on the lowering phase is a good goal to shoot for. The slower you go, the harder it is, especially from a balance and stability standpoint.
I went a little slower in the video below just to hammer home the idea, but you don't have to go this slowly.
Squat all the way down, come halfway back up, squat all the way down again, and come all the way up. That's one rep. Now do that 5-8 times. That's one set.
If you're looking to fry your quads, look no further. Beware, though, these burn. Baaad.
Alternative Loading Methods
If you don't have a weighted vest, I highly suggest you get one. They can be pricey, but I think it's a worthwhile investment that you'll be able to use to enhance a whole bunch of different exercises.
If that's not possible though, no biggie. Here are a few other ways you can load the exercise:
Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in the goblet hold. If you need more weight, you can hold two kettlebells in the racked position or hold two dumbbells on your shoulders.
Hold a barbell in the hand that's opposite to the leg you're working with the barbell positioned a few inches in front of your torso.
Introducing contralateral loading increases glute recruitment and challenges hip and core stability. These are really tough though, so be conservative on the weight. You may actually want to start with the empty bar as you adjust to the offset loading.
Hold a heavy dumbbell in one hand and a light dumbbell in the other. Hold the heavy dumbbell by your side in the suitcase position and raise the light dumbbell up as you squat down to help with balance just like you do with a regular skater squat. This allows you to get heavier loading while still helping you with balance.
Experiment with the heavy dumbbell on both sides to see which way feels better to you. I personally like the heavy dumbbell on the same side as the working leg (ipsilateral), but you may find otherwise. Both ways are fine.
So once you can do skater squats, how do you actually fit them into your programs?
Like most things in strength and conditioning, that really depends. While that's the truth, I realize that isn't very helpful, so let me expound.
For programming purposes, a lot of people like to classify compound lower body exercises into one of two categories – knee-dominant, or quad exercises (think squats and lunges), and hip-dominant, or glute and hamstring exercises (think deadlifts).
Trouble is, skater squats don't really fit into either category easily. They're more hip dominant than a traditional squat or single leg "pistol" type squat and more knee dominant than a traditional deadlift or single leg Romanian deadlift.
While that may be seen as a negative in the sense that it doesn't allow for a straightforward programming solution, I see it as a positive because it gives you a lot of freedom from a programming standpoint to cater it directly to your needs.
For example, you could plug them in as a knee-friendly alternative to single leg "pistol" squats, or you could use them as a lower-back friendly alternative to bilateral squats and deadlifts if you don't tolerate heavy loading as well, or if you want to give your lower back a rest during a deloading period after several weeks of heavy bilateral work.
They can also be used in conjunction with squats and deadlifts to help strengthen the hip stabilizers and even out imbalances between legs without taxing the body as much. For example, if squatting and deadlifting in the same workout beats the hell out of you, you could squat or deadlift and follow it up with some skater squats. Or I also like to start with skater squats and finish with a bilateral exercise. Your choice.
They're very joint-friendly in general, and as such I've found they can be trained with a relatively higher frequency. Since they hit the quads, glutes, and hamstrings in a balanced fashion, they work great as a standalone lower body exercise on days where you want to work your legs a little bit without taxing the spine as much.
As far as reps go, it will vary slightly based on your goals, but I typically don't go lower than five reps and rarely go higher than 12.
Take some time to play around with them and I think you'll like what you get.