Doing unilateral exercises is a great way to bolster hamstring muscles and minimize the risk of injuries. The hamstring is one of the muscles that are highly prone to injuries. Muscle imbalance and poor flexibility are two of many reasons that cause hamstring injury. You can strengthen your hams and prevent injuries with the help of unilateral hamstring Exercises.
Unilateral exercises help even out muscle and strength imbalance, increase hamstring flexibility, and improve lower body fitness.
A study has shown that single-legged exercises positively impact lower body muscles and help improve strength and endurance in your legs, including hamstrings.1Kannus, P et al. “Effect of one-legged exercise on the strength, power, and endurance of the contralateral leg.” European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology vol. 64,2 (1992): 117-26. doi:10.1007/BF00717948
I’ve shared some of the best single leg hamstring exercises in this article that you can integrate into your workout regime to work on your posterior thigh individually and efficiently.
6 Best Single Leg Hamstring Exercises For Strength and Mobility
There are six unilateral exercises you can do to work on your hamstring individually. Those exercises are single-leg RDL, swiss ball leg curl, machine leg curl, sliding leg curl, lunges, and pistol squat.
Let’s find out more about each exercise, such as its benefits, step-by-step instructions, and how to incorporate them into your workout routine.
1. One-leg Romanian Deadlift
The single-leg RDL is an excellent exercise for building up strength, mobility, and muscle. It works on hamstrings and glutes and helps build sturdy legs.2Comparison of EMG Activity between Single-Leg Deadlift and Conventional Bilateral Deadlift in Trained Amateur Athletes – An Empirical Analysis -International Journal of Exercise Science
The One-leg Romanian Deadlift uses more muscles than other types of dumbbell deadlifts because it requires more balance and coordination to keep yourself stable while lifting the weight off the floor.
You can do it with any equipment you like, such as dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells.
How to do a single-leg RDL with dumbbells:
- Holding a pair of dumbbells, stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and arms straight in front of your thighs, palms facing in.
- Bending at your hips, lower your torso toward the floor and lift your right leg off the back until they are parallel to the floor.
- Pause for a couple of seconds, and then pressing through your left foot, return to the standing position.
Suggested reps and sets: 6 x 3 on each side
2. Single Leg Swiss Ball Leg Curl
The swiss ball leg curl is a simple and effective exercise for strengthening the hamstrings muscle. The glute and core also work and provide stability throughout the movement. Moreover, it also enhances your mobility because it is done in an unstable position.
The swiss ball leg curl is one of the four exercises that activate the hamstring muscle, as shown in a study published by the SAGE.3Muscle Activation Differences During Eccentric Hamstring Exercises – SAGE Sports Health
How to do it:
- Place a ball on the floor and lie against it with your face up.
- Keep your arms straight out to your sides and half your right lower leg on the ball.
- Keeping your core tight, raise your hips off of the ground and flex the knee, pulling the ball as close to you as you can. Make sure to contract your hamstring while curling your leg.
- Pause for a moment and extend your knee to return to the start.
3. unilateral hamstring curl (Leg Curl)
|Leg Curl Machine
The leg curl is an isolation exercise that helps prop the hamstring muscles. However, you need to be in the gym to perform this exercise because it requires a leg curl machine.
You can do unilateral leg curls both in the seated and lying position, depending on which machine your gym has. Both are effective and help you work on each leg individually.
Let’s see how to do a lying leg curl:
- Lie prone on the machine with your face down.
- Adjust your right foot under the roller pad. The pad will be around your ankle. You can also grasp the support handle with your hands.
- Now, curling your leg, bring your heel as close to your buttock as possible.
- Pause for a moment and extend your knee in a controlled fashion until you return to the start. That’s one rep.
- Perform the suggested repetitions and switch the side.
Suggested reps and sets: 12 x 3 on each side.
Related: Dumbbell Leg Curl
4. Single-Leg Sliding Leg Curl
The sliding leg curl is an incredible exercise to improve the strength and conditioning of the hamstring muscles. The movement is performed by sliding your legs back and forth on the floor using a slider disc.
A meta-analysis suggested that sliding leg curl is one of the exercises that highly activate hamstring muscles without using machines and weights.4 Muscle and intensity based hamstring exercise classification in elite female track and field athletes: implications for exercise selection during rehabilitation – Journal of Sports Medicine
You can do sliding leg curl using a slider disc or a rug which can easily slide over the floor, depending on what is accessible.
How to do a slide leg curl:
- Lie on the floor with your face up and your knees bent.
- Keep your arms at your sides and place a sliding disc or a towel under your right heel. Make sure your toe is off the floor.
- Lift your hips and left foot off the floor and keep your core tight. That’s the start.
- Slide your leg back and forth on the floor for the desired times.
- Once you have performed the desired reps, switch the leg and repeat the same.
|Beginner to Intermediate
|Dumbbell/Barbell/KB for Resistance
Lunges is an incredible exercise for developing legs, including the hamstring.
Various research recommends performing lunges to hit the hamstring, quads, and glute efficiently.
As a unilateral movement, it allows you to work more on your weak leg and improve asymmetries in strength.
You can perform lunges with and without weight, depending on your fitness level. However, performing weighted lunges can help you better improve strength and muscle mass and maximize your performance where lower body muscle requires, such as in running, high jumping, and squatting.
How to perform a traditional static lunge:
- Holding one dumbbell in each hand, stand in the split stance with your feet 10-12 inches apart.
- Bend your knees to lower into a lunge position until your rear knee touches the ground or comes up just short of touching it.
- Pressing through your leading foot, extend your knees and return back to the standing position. That’s one rep for one side.
- Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps on each side.
6. Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is one of the advanced variations of squats that help improve lower body strength, mobility, flexibility, and cooperation.
It requires you to lower into a squat on one leg while taking the other leg out in front of you. A study has shown that single-leg squats with a foot forward result in significantly greater activation of the semitendinosus (one of the hamstring muscles).5 Comparison of bilateral and unilateral squat exercises on barbell kinematics and muscle activation – International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy
Unilateral squats achieve a similar muscle activity in the hamstring, calf, hip, and abdominal muscles compared to bilateral squats without putting much stress on the lower back, the study further suggested.
So, pistol squats can be a great option to include in your unilateral hamstring exercises for maximizing legs strength.
How to do it:
- Stand straight with your feet together and back straight.
- Keep your core tight and lift your right foot off the floor.
- Slowly lower into a squat while taking your right leg out in front of you until it is parallel to the floor.
- Pushing through your left foot, return to the standing position. That’s one rep.
- Perform each rep in a slow and controlled manner.
Note: You can also use dumbbells or kettlebells to make this movement more challenging.
Suggested reps and sets: 6 x 3 on each side.
The Bottom Line
From building strength and mass to improving balance and flexibility, unilateral exercises are excellent for achieving better lower body fitness. You can do unilateral exercise for every muscle group, including hamstrings.
The hamstring muscle is a group of three muscles that are located at the back of the thigh. They are responsible for flexing and extending the knee joint as well as stabilizing the hips.
They are crucial lower body muscles but are also likely to get injured because of poor flexibility and muscle imbalance.
But you can do unilateral exercises to even out muscle imbalance, increase hamstring flexibility, and prevent injuries.
They can easily integrate into any workout program. You can do them once or twice a week to build up prop and tone the back of your thigh.
- 1Kannus, P et al. “Effect of one-legged exercise on the strength, power, and endurance of the contralateral leg.” European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology vol. 64,2 (1992): 117-26. doi:10.1007/BF00717948
- 2Comparison of EMG Activity between Single-Leg Deadlift and Conventional Bilateral Deadlift in Trained Amateur Athletes – An Empirical Analysis -International Journal of Exercise Science
- 3Muscle Activation Differences During Eccentric Hamstring Exercises – SAGE Sports Health
- 4Muscle and intensity based hamstring exercise classification in elite female track and field athletes: implications for exercise selection during rehabilitation – Journal of Sports Medicine
- 5Comparison of bilateral and unilateral squat exercises on barbell kinematics and muscle activation – International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy