Can’t Squat or Deadlift? 4 Alternative Leg Strengthening Training Tips

Feb 15, 2019

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Heavy squats and deadlifts are key movement patterns and have been proven strength and mass builders for as long as humans have lifted heavy things. And, if you’re a power lifter, they’re fundamental to your sport.

A novice lifter receiving only the advice to learn great squat and deadlift technique and then get progressively stronger could do far worse.

But what happens when you can’t squat or deadlift heavy?

What if you’ve suffered a back injury or have flexion-based low back pain, making these movements problematic under load?

How about if you have been diagnosed with femoral acetabulum impingement (FAI) meaning deep hip flexion, such as that involved in squatting below parallel, is now contraindicated?

What if serious hip and/or knee pain prevents deep hip flexion, deep knee flexion or heavy loading through either?

And what if your mobility through the ankles or the hips just sucks and renders these two movement patterns ineffective and unsafe with any significant weight lifted?

Single leg training not only makes a very practical work-around for these situations, but can be incredibly effective not just as a last resort, but as a priority in building strength and size too.

Not sure how to switch over to more single leg work? I’ve got you covered…

1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

Also commonly called “Bulgarian split squats”, the combination of single leg stability and extended ROM make the RFESS – when performed correctly and loaded adequately – a brutal and highly effective lower body exercise selection.

How to use it:

First, ensure you have the requisite mobility to get into bottom position. If not, then go work on that.


(per week)
Loading Position/Type Sets Reps
(per side)


3 Bodyweight only 3 15-25


2 Goblet, heavy dumbbell 3-4


5-8 2 Double suitcase, heavy kettlebells or dumbbells 3-4


9-12 2 Barbell on back, heavy 5



Commit to seeing through this 12 week mini-program for the RFESS and really challenging yourself, and you’ll likely be rewarded with strength gains that you can objectively assess, muscle gain that you can see, and a newfound appreciation for true single leg training.

2. Heavy Low Step Ups

Step up variations are another under-appreciated exercise, perhaps due to their typical association with general fitness circuits and aerobics style classes. They’re not the step ups I’m talking about here.

While the high step up was reportedly a favourite for Bulgarian and Soviet weightlifters as a supplement to, or even sometimes substitute for back squats as it the mimicked hip flexion angles of the squat, I’m going to focus on the low step variation.

The beauty of the low step up is that it is suitable for many who currently have the aforementioned limitations, such as mobility or injury considerations. Plus, being a smaller range of motion means that you can load it up very heavy, something often neglected with step ups.

How to use it:

Set yourself up in a rack with a box or step no higher than the bottom of your knee.

Use a straight barbell, a safety squat bar or a cambered bar and don’t be afraid to load it up heavy.

Focus on achieving a full hip lockout on the standing side, and not generating momentum from the non-working leg.

Use as a secondary lower body exercise within a given training session (perhaps after the RFESS).

Go for 2 to 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps each side.

3. Reverse Lunge to Single Leg RDL Combination

When it comes to training efficiency, intelligent combination exercises are tough to beat.

A smooth transition, similar loading capacity, and work for the entire lower body musculature are features that make this particular combo one of my favourites.

How to use it:

Load with either a single or a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells. Different loading methods offer differing stability challenges.

– Completing a reverse lunge and a single leg RDL equals one rep. Perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps per side, as a secondary or later exercise in your lower body training.

4. Quad Burnout Techniques

While the leg extension machine can be great for a final blast to the quads to achieve some extra metabolic stress, there are plenty of options that yield similar results while adding a host of other benefits, such as glute and hamstring involvement, a balance and stability challenge, and a generally more athletic movement.

Dead Stop Split Squats

1.5 Rep Split Squats

Pendulum Step Ups with Dynamic Iso (No Lockout)

How to use them:

Pick one of these exercises to perform at the end of your lower body work, work at getting stronger at it, then change it up every three weeks.

Use higher reps: 8-15 per side for the dead stop split squats or 1.5 rep split squats, and anywhere from 20-50 per side for the pendulum step up.

Wrapping Up

I’m a big believer that despite injuries or other limitations, there’s always something you can do to achieve a good training effect. I’m also a big believer in movement variability, maintaining general athleticism, and not skipping leg day. Try out some or all of these single leg training tips and strength and muscle growth might not be the only thing you gain.

will levyWill Levy

Will is a personal trainer from Melbourne, Australia, with a penchant for helping both young athletes improve performance, and post-rehab clients get back to a healthy, happy and active lifestyle.

Will has delivered over 20,000 personal training sessions and spent several years managing a team of trainers, presenting workshops for other fitness and health professionals, and even managing to get his mug on a television series.

Will provides plenty of training content and can be contacted at

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