Why you might use high reps for single leg exercises

The way my programming usually is is that I have ‘Leg Days’ and on these days I tend to start with heavy low rep squats and then after that I do some sort of single-leg exercise, such as lunges or Bulgarian Split Squats. So my Leg Day programme may look like this:

  • First exercise: Front Squats 5×5
  • Second exercise: Lunges 3×10

For the single-leg exercises I normally do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. I do this despite knowing that 1-5 reps are better for building strength. Here are some of the reasons why you might also use high reps for single leg exercises:

I feel tired from doing the heavy squats first and need to use lighter weights

It would be difficult for me to carry out another heavy leg exercise after going all out on my squats. As an Olympic lifter, front squats are my priority. I love to squat and I put my all into my squats, so whatever comes after is very much an assistance exercise.

If I did a lower rep single leg exercise, I may prefer to put it before squats or to do it on a separate day (if there are 2 Leg Days per week for example, a heavy single leg exercise could come first on one of the days, squats first on the other day).

I like to get an aerobic benefit from my lifting so sometimes I want to use other exercises for higher reps

Olympic weightlifters are not known for their aerobic abilities! The Olympic lifts and their variations are usually best executed for 1-3 reps to ensure high quality, consistent repetitions. The best way to build strength is to use 1-5 reps, hence why the big lifts such as squats and deadlifts are often carried out in this manner. The cardiovascular system is not worked as much when reps are low, however.

Since I personally aim for a balanced approach to fitness (aerobic plus strength), I do try to fit in some higher rep exercises where it would make sense to. Leg training tends to be far more aerobically taxing than upper body training, so to me it seems to make sense to do some high rep single leg exercises occasionally for that cardiovascular burn.

Training one leg at a time can be tedious and tends to take longer, so doing less sets at a higher weight than more sets at a lower weight is mentally less tough

Single leg exercises may take more time than bilateral exercises. When I do them, I do right leg for X reps, short break, and then left leg for X reps and that is set 1. So to me it sort of feels like when I do 3 sets in total (as in, when I’m doing a 3×8-12 programme), I have actually done 6. Hence if I was doing 5 sets (as in, when I’m doing a 5×5 programme), it would feel more like I was doing 10. Add to this the fact that the lower the rep range, the more rest time may be required between sets, the overall length of the exercise increases. This can be mentally very tough.

I like to work on balance and stability

With high rep single leg exercises, balance and stability are often the limiting factors, whereas they are not as limiting with lower reps once you’re proficient. Following on from the point above, I want my body to be ‘fit’ in lots of ways – not just strength-wise – so having good balance and good stability is important to me too.

I sometimes feel like my back needs a break

This is a general reason why people might like to do higher rep training. [Back] squatting – in any rep range – puts stress on the back. One nice thing about the single leg training is that if you use dumbbells, they don’t really have to load the back at all.

Higher reps means lighter weight. But even if you do go low rep and heavy with the single leg exercises, the weight you can use is much less than for any bilateral squat exercise, so the back is far less stressed.

Holding a weight for a long time builds grip strength and endurance

My grip gets intensely challenged when I hold dumbbells for high rep single leg exercises, even more so than when I hold heavier dumbbells for lower reps. A good grip has massive carryover to all other exercises, but in particular the deadlift.

I like to get a very targeted muscle burn

Higher rep training gives me far more of a feeling of “the muscle burning” than lower rep training. I particularly love the feeling of the glutes burning, so single leg exercises such as lunges and Bulgarian Split Squats are perfect for this!

Conclusion

I hope you found it interesting to read some of the reasons as to why I personally tend to do higher reps for single leg exercises. The reasons still look ‘wishy-washy’ to me and just highlights that lifting is very much about how things feel rather than how they actually or scientifically are.

My conclusion is that I often do things because I like them (and I think most of the time this is a good thing – as exercise has to be something one truly, genuinely enjoys, otherwise it’s not going to be maintainable).

Notice I said at the start that I “usually” follow this sequence, i.e. first heavy low rep squats and then higher rep single leg exercises. I think it’s important to come out of your comfort zone and change your routine sometimes as well. So, this is just an idea and something to think about. Of course, you – and I – could completely change things and do heavy low rep single leg exercises, followed by high rep squats… or we could choose not to squat at all for a couple of weeks and focus entirely on single leg exercises. I wonder what the outcome of that would be?

There is no one right way to train but tricking the body by changing things now and then is supposed to be helpful. You could try doing high reps for your single leg exercises, or you could do low ones!

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