Tired of deadlifting? For many trainees, loading their bodies with heavy barbells every week isn’t feasible for many reasons. Not only can these movements take their toll in terms of their recovery demands, but the spinal loading can often cause issues, especially if it’s done consistently without respite.
Let’s be honest; sometimes, loading and unloading the bars can take longer than the actual lifts. So, if you are tight on time or dealing with any form of a back issue, this often leaves the typical barbell squat and deadlifts variations a poor option.
Enter single-leg training and the skater squat…
The Benefit of Single-Leg Training
By now, most of us are very aware of the benefits of single-leg training, even if we still choose to avoid it! The current body of research certainly illustrates that single-leg training can be a powerful tool for strength, hypertrophy, and sports performance.
In a recent study, researchers challenged the assumption that the load taken on by the working leg during single-leg squats is half that of bilateral squats. To do so, they used a model based on segmental weight distributions (load acting above or rotating about the hip joint) with force data to determine how much true load the legs take on in both movements.
They discovered two things: 1) the combined BW that acts above the hips during unilateral movements is 16% greater than during bilateral movements (84% vs. 68%), and 2) unilateral movements equate to 1.62x the intensity (per leg) of bilateral movements (in sum). (1)
Furthermore, it has been found that unilateral work leads to better improvements in agility (the ability to change direction quickly) than bilateral exercises (2). This is because these exercises better mimic an athlete’s running and sprinting form, which can lead to greater improvements in sprint and jump performance (3).
Remember, unilateral training elicits significant metabolic stress because the muscles of the lower body are being asked to produce ATP at a much more significant rate. The accumulation of metabolites such as lactate, hydrogen ions, inorganic phosphates, and creatine promotes gains in muscle size by stimulating the release of various growth factors.
In addition to metabolic stress, unilateral work causes a high degree of muscular tension and causes significant muscular damage—often greater than that seen in bilateral leg training. Studies have also shown that unilateral work could recruit more fast-twitch fibers than bilateral work (3), which has clear implications for those involved in power or speed-dependent sports.
The purpose of this article is to introduce you to what I believe is one of the best single-leg exercises a lifter can add to their arsenal: the Skater Squat.
Mastering the Skater Squat
Like many single-leg exercises, Skater Squats are often avoided for one plain and simple reason, they are humbling. Admittedly, there is a reasonable learning curve with this exercise due to the degree of mobility and balance required to perform them.
However, what you get in return for traversing this learning curve is a lower body exercise that trains both knee and hip extension very well without loading the spine significantly. Then there’s the benefit of increased balance and motor control, which will reduce your risk of injury and positively affect sports performance.
Watch the videos below and take note of the similarity in joint angles in the bottom positions of the different movements compared to the Trap Bar Deadlift.
This is why the Skater Squat can be such a great alternative. The joint angles and range of motion closely mimic heavier deadlift variations such as the Trap Bar Deadlift. But it doesn’t carry anywhere near the amount of spinal loading and shear stress.
Most individuals must use a counterbalance to aid them when performing skater squats. This is perfectly fine as it is an important step to learning the correct movement pattern and easing the body into the mobility and stability requirements of the exercise.
To do this, simply hold 2.5-pound weight plates or light dumbbells out in front of you. Next, reach forward with your hands in line with the knee/foot of the working leg as you squat down without letting your back foot touch the ground. Then, drive your hands down as you push through your front foot to return to the starting position.
Stack a few Airex pads (or similar) behind you to aim for with your back knee. Then as you get stronger, you can increase the range of motion by lowering the pads.
Another useful trick here can be to squeeze a tennis ball between your hamstring and calf on the non-working leg. This will help keep the back leg in a better, tighter position and keep you from turning it into a reverse lunge.
Skater Squat Variations
Once you master the basic Skater Squat, there is a wide selection of variations you can use to not only increase the intensity but help bias the exercise towards different outcomes.
So, I want to use this section to teach you some of my favorite Skater Squat variations so you can see why I often use these movements as alternatives to traditional deadlift movements.
Landmine Skater Squat
Hold the end of a barbell anchored in a Core Blaster or landmine. Hold the bar in the hand that's opposite to the leg you're working with the barbell positioned a few inches in front of your torso.
By using contra-lateral loading we are increasing glute medius recruitment and further challenging hip and core stability. These are tough, though, so be conservative with the weight. I suggest starting with the empty bar as you adjust to the offset loading.
Sandbag Skater Squat
The use of anterior loading and an unstable object here increases the requirement for intra-abdominal pressure to maintain your alignment. Brace hard and stay upright!
1.5 Rep Skater Squat
Squat down, come halfway back up, squat down again, and then come up. That's one rep. Now do that 5-8 times. That's one set.
These will quickly build up some serious lactate in your legs due to the increased time under tension. Not only that, but you will get improved motor control and stability by making you reverse direction more frequently and spending more time in the bottom part of the range of motion.
Zercher Skater Squat
Once again, the anterior loading here will increase the requirement for intra-abdominal pressure and force you to stay more upright. This can be done loaded with dumbbells or a barbell. Although it generally works best with a fat bar because it spreads the load over the elbows more.
Deficit Skater Squat
I prefer to increase the range of motion with Skater Squats initially rather than adding load. Provided, of course, that it doesn't cause pain or cause the lifter to adopt poor alignment. When you do a regular Skater Squat standing on the floor, the femur usually ends up being a few inches above parallel in the bottom position, especially if you put a pad underneath the rear leg (which you definitely should).
Standing on an aerobic step or a couple of deadlift mats will allow most people to get down to parallel or even slightly below, depending on your body’s mobility allowance.
If doing this causes pain or is too challenging, stick to the regular version for now and build up the deficit slowly.
Paused Skater Squat
Pausing each rep at the bottom will make it more difficult by eliminating the stretch reflex as well as forcing you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid free-falling down to the floor. I love these for helping to increase mind-muscle connection.
Skater Squat Regressions
Not everyone will be capable of doing Skater Squats straight away. After all, they are a demanding exercise, even without additional load. In this scenario, we need to regress the movement until we build up the required strength and motor control to do the full movement.
Here are a few regressions you can use to get yourself there:
Slider Skater Squat
I love this one as it is very close to the reverse lunge but with a slightly different torso angle.
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.
Eccentric ONLY Skater Squat
With the eccentric-only version, you will lower yourself down on one leg but then stand back up on two. Being able to control the eccentric is often the main thing stopping people from performing the full-range movement, which is why this can be such a useful regression.
Programming the Skater Squat
Since the Skater Squat is a “hybrid” exercise that loads both the knee and hip joint effectively, there are many options for programming them.
They're more hip dominant than a traditional Squat or Single-leg/Pistol Squat but also more knee dominant than a traditional Deadlift or Single-leg Romanian deadlift. Skater Squats are joint-friendly and can be programmed with higher frequency than traditional deadlift or squat movements. You can use them as primers for heavier squat or deadlift days, or you can use them as a stand-alone exercise and work on loading.
However you choose to use them, they are a back-friendly option that can improve your lifts in more ways than one.
Regarding rep ranges, five to 12 reps seem to be the sweet spot. Going higher than this in terms of reps usually just leads to a breakdown in movement quality.
So, when you hit the gym this week, don’t forget that you can get a very beneficial and taxing lower body workout without the heavy loading by utilizing the Skater Squat.
Not only could it lead to an improved deadlift but also better hip strength, stability, and power!
- Natera, Alex et al. "Load Comparison Ratio in Single and Double Leg Movements." English Institute of Sport, UK (2015).
- Núñez, F.J., Santalla, A., Carrasquila, Asian, J.A., Reina, J.I. and Suarez-Arrones, L.J. (2018). The effects of unilateral and bilateral eccentric overload training on hypertrophy, muscle power and COD performance, and its determinants, in team sport players. Plos One.
- Rhea, M. R. (2016). Joint-Angle Specific Strength Adaptations Influence Improvements in Power in Highly Trained Athletes. Human Movement.
- T. J. Koh, M. D. Grabiner, and C. A. Clough (1993). Bilateral deficit is larger for step than for ramp isometric contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology 1993 74:3, 1200-1205
- Derrick E Speirs, M. A. (2016). Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. Journal of strength and conditioning research.
- ISIKİ, O., & Doğan, l. (2018). Effects of bilateral or unilateral lower-body resistance exercises on markers of skeletal muscle damage. Biomedical Journal.
- Jason Moran, R. R.-C.-H. (2021). Effects of Bilateral and Unilateral Resistance Training on Horizontally Orientated Movement Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.)
- NSCA, Thomas, & R. Baechle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning 3rd ed. Human Kinetics.
Mike Over is a NASM master trainer and owner of Over-Achieve Fitness in Pennsylvania. He works with hundreds of everyday gym-goers and athletes of all levels.