Top 6 Unilateral Quad Exercises For Sturdy Legs

Whether you want to build size, strength or fix muscle imbalance in your lower body muscles, especially in your quadriceps, you can do unilateral exercises. The unilateral quad exercises are the best ways to work more on your fragile legs and correct muscle imbalance.

A study has shown that single-legged exercises have a positive impact on lower body muscles and help improve strength and power in the quadriceps.1Effect of one-legged exercise on the strength, power and endurance of the contralateral leg. A randomized, controlled study using isometric and concentric isokinetic training – The European Journal of Applied Physiology

Anatomy and Functions of Quadriceps

Quad muscle anatomy

The quadriceps muscle is a large and powerful thigh muscle that extends from the pelvis to the knee. They’re also known as the quads.

They are responsible for extending and straightening your legs as well as providing stability to your entire body so you can walk, run, sprint, jump, and squat efficiently.

The quads are made of four muscles: vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris, and vastus intermedius.

  1. Vastus lateralis: It lies on the outside of your thigh and is often called the lateral quadriceps. It’s one of two muscles in your quads that help extend your knees.
  2. Vastus medialis: It is the inner muscle of your quads that provides stability to your hips and knees during lower body exercises.
  3. Rectus femoris: It is located on the front of your thigh. It is attached to your hip bone and runs down your thigh, and is responsible for straightening and bending the knees.
  4. Vastus intermedius: It is the inner muscle of your thigh which plays an important role along with others in functioning your legs properly.

Related Exercises: 7 Best Dumbbell Quad Exercises For Muscle Growth

Who Can Do Single Leg Quad Exercises?

The single leg quadriceps exercises are great for those who want to improve strength, sculpt legs, and fix muscle imbalance.

For example, they are helpful for athletes who want to boost their athletic performance because studies show that unilateral exercises increase not only strength but also develop balance, muscle coordination, and flexibility.

The single leg quad exercises are also suitable for bodybuilders who want to enhance their strength and improve the definition of their thighs.

Top 6 Unilateral Quad Exercises To Build Sturdy Legs

Here is a summary of six unilateral exercises that can help bolster the quadriceps muscles and develop solid legs.

1. Dumbbell Step-up

Dumbbell step-up is a great exercise for building strength and power in the lower body. It works your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

It involves lifting one leg at a time while keeping the other foot on the ground.

The step-up exercise also helps shed decent calories and develop cardiovascular fitness.

How to do it:

  1. Holding one dumbbell in each hand, stand in front of a bench or box with your feet together.
  2. Step up your right foot on the box, and pressing through its heel, bring your left foot too until your legs are straight on the box.
  3. Return your left foot to the floor and bring it again onto the box.
  4. Repeat for the desired times and focus more on your less strong leg.

2. Lateral Step up

The lateral step-up is another great way to bolster and tone your lower body strength, including the quadriceps. It also helps improve balance and coordination and improve your aerobic fitness.

The lateral step-up is one of the exercises that highly activate two of the largest quad muscles: vastus lateralis and vastus medialis – shown in an EMG analysis published in the PMC Journals.2Electromyographic activity during the Monopodal Squat, Forward Lunge, and Lateral Step-Up exercises – PLOS ONE So, if you want to work on your quads individually, this exercise can be an excellent option.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand on the right side of the bench with your feet together and your torso pointing forward.
  2. Step your left foot on the bench and push through its heel to bring your right one as well, so they are together on the bench.
  3. Keeping your left foot on the bench, step down your right foot and bring it again.
  4. Do it for the suggested reps and switch to the opposite side.

Recommended reps and sets: 8-10 x 3 on each side

3. Single-Leg Leg Extension

The leg extension is a simple and effective isolation exercise that helps build up your quads and improve the definition of your thigh.3 The EMG activity of the quadriceps muscles during leg extension – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

It is performed on the leg extension machine, which allows you to use one leg at a time so you can focus on your legs individually and work more on your weaker side.

However, studies suggest that people with vulnerable knees should avoid this movement because it keeps them under constant tension.4ACL Strain and Tensile Forces for Weight-Bearing and Non–Weight-Bearing Exercises – Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy

How to:

  • Sit on the machine and hook the top of your right foot under a movable lever.
  • Lean backward, so your torso rests on the back pad of the machine.
  • Extend your knee against the resistance leg until you feel the contraction in your quad.
  • Pause for a moment and return to the start. That’s one rep.

Recommended reps and sets: 8-10 x 3 on each side

4. Pistol Squat

single leg quad exercises
Single leg quad exercises

The pistol squat is an advanced variation of squat that helps you strengthen your quads, hams, and glutes while improving your balance, flexibility, and body awareness. It also activates core muscles, improves hip mobility, and levels up your fitness.

The pistol squat is also known as a one-leg squat which requires you to lower into a squat on one leg while taking the other leg out in front of you.

You can do it with and without weights, depending on your fitness level.

Here are the steps to do it:

  1. Stand upright with your feet together and back straight.
  2. Brace your core, lift your right foot off the floor, and slowly lower into a squat while taking your right leg out in front of you until it is parallel to the floor.
  3. Pushing through your left foot, return to the standing position until your knees are extended.
  4. Perform each rep in a slow and controlled manner.
  5. Repeat for the desired times and focus more on your less strong leg.

5. Front Lunge

unilateral exercises for quads

Lunges are a great way to work your legs and glutes. They build up strength, endurance, balance, and muscle mass in the lower body and help maximize your performance.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and take a big step forward with one leg.
  2. Bend both knees at the same time until your rear knee touches the ground or comes up just short of touching it.
  3. Pushing your front foot into the ground, extend your knees and return back to the standing position. That’s one rep for one side.

Recommended reps and sets: 8-10 x 3 on each side

6. One-leg Leg Press

The leg press machine is another excellent piece of equipment that helps you train your quads unilaterally. It involves pushing the weight up through your legs.

The leg press exercise bolsters the quadriceps and helps build sturdy legs without putting much stress on the lower back.

Usually, the leg press is performed using both legs simultaneously, but you can also do it with one leg at a time to work more on your weak leg.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the machine with your back and head resting comfortably against the padded support. 
  2. Place your right foot on the footplate while ensuring your heel is flat and in the middle of it.
  3. Brace your core and bend your knee at about 90-degree.
  4. Press the footplate until you feel the contraction in your quad but do not lock out your knee at the top.
  5. Slowly bend your knee and lower the footplate in the starting position, and repeat.
  6. Perform each rep in a controlled fashion. Perform more reps on your weak leg.

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re a bodybuilder or an athlete, you can incorporate single leg quad exercises into your workout routine to improve your lower body strength.

The unilateral exercises are the best options to work more on your delicate quad and help you correct your strength and muscle imbalance.

Strong quads provide stability to your trunk, help you improve your powerlifting, and enhance your athletic performance.

Check out more exercises:

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Murshid Akram
I'm a certified personal trainer, fitness blogger, and nature lover. I always learn more about exercise science and human anatomy so that I can provide the best information possible. I share science-based, practical, and logical information that can help you achieve your desired fitness goal.