Why you should do single-leg exercises (and do them barefoot)

You may think it’s safer to always work out standing on both your legs while also wearing sturdy shoes. Not so fast. There are several benefits to doing one-legged exercises, and especially while barefoot (or in socks like me in the video below). Single-leg-exercises are those that are done in a split stance or standing on just one leg. The latter is often the progression of a split stance exercise (such as the split squat I’m doing in the video). Let’s start with why you should include (unilateral) single-leg exercises first:

  1. IT MINIMIZES MUSCLE IMBALANCES IN YOUR BODY. You do not want to have one leg (arm, glute, hip whatever) that’s stronger than the other. Being asymmetrical is a recipe for disaster and especially bad for older adults, who won’t compensate as well as younger. Lunging, single-leg steps ups, and one-legged deadlifts/squats all increase proprioception as these exercises mimic our natural gait–how we walk–and other athletic movements. In other words, such exercises are safer for our hips and lower back.
  2. IT IMPROVES OUR BALANCE. If you always do bilateral–two-legged–exercises, you will slowly but surely lose your balance. Doing single-leg exercises triggers stabilizing muscles to activate around your joints, including your glutes and core. Stabilizing muscle fire only when your center of gravity is shifting and you’re falling (almost), which it doesn’t do if both your feet are always on the ground at the same time. Working out standing on one leg is the essence of functional training. Do more single-leg exercises than bilateral ones.
  3. IT KEEPS YOUR BODY FUNCTIONING OPTIMALLY. If you have one muscle/side of your body that’s stronger than the other, there’s a high chance you’ll develop pain and alignment issues because your body is constantly compensating for the weakness. Plus, because your pelvis locks when you do bilateral exercises, you put extra pressure on your lower back muscles and vertebras, increasing stiffness in that area. By doing unilateral movements, you’ll easily discover whether one side/leg is weaker than the other. If one side is stronger, add sets/reps to the weaker side/leg until they’re even in strength and mobility.


Once I’m very good at doing these split squats, I will do them without the support I have for the toes on my back foot. In other words, it will be in the air and I’ll be standing on one leg only.
  1. Working out barefoot will improve not only your foot strength but also your ankles because each body part becomes lazy. If you don’t have adequate foot and ankle strength, your balance will suffer. Strive to always do your single-leg exercises barefoot for optimal safety (meaning you’ll be able to control the exercise better, preventing you from collapsing or tripping). While doing the exercise, try spreading your toes to grip the floor. Try doing exercises on a mat so that it’s easier to grip the surface with your toes.
  2. Your proprioception is enhanced whenever your feet are in close contact with the floor or ground. (Obviously if the ground is uneven and full of sharp objects, walking around barefoot is a bad idea.) According to WebMD, “Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s present in every muscle movement you have.” The better your proprioception, the better you’ll be able to emphasize certain muscles you want to train. Your technique when lifting weight will improve if your feet are directly connected to the ground.
  3. Like when you focus on doing primarily single-leg exercises, working out barefoot will help you stay injury and pain free because it’ll be much easier for you to activate the correct muscles. For example, many of my clients have sensitive knees–I do too–and by pushing through–emphasizing–your heels in a–say, side lunge–most likely your knees won’t hurt during the exercise. It’s harder to push through your heel in a thickly padded shoe. Generally speaking, pushing through your heels will make you shift your hips backward, putting less pressure on your knees. Try pushing through the entire foot, not just the heel, though, to see what feels better for your particular ingle-body and joints.
  4. Because your big toe promotes proper forward propulsion, it’s especially important for people who engage in running/weight lifting and any sport in which sudden sprints and twists are required to work out barefoot. It’s very hard to properly push off through your big toe with a big bulky shoe covering your foot. If you’re uncomfortable going barefoot at the gym, consider minimalist shoes or, at the very least, wear shoes with a thinner sole.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s