A client of mine posed a question to me - what is the one lower body exercise I couldn't live without?
Good question. I snapped off my top one, and numbers two and three, in order. And why. Let's look at them in reverse order:
3. Trap Bar Deadlift
When it comes to building lower-body strength, demonstrating lower-body strength, and building up a full foundation of muscular and neurological adaptations, the trap bar deadlift is hard to beat. It generally puts people in between a straight-bar deadlift posture and a squat posture. It's easy to coach. It forces you to provide your own stability and your own movement. It's easy to bail out on when things are going badly.
And you can really load it up, letting you either build strength or - with enough on the bar - demonstrate the strength you've built up with a heavy single deadlift.
It's not by mistake that my trap bar - one of my best investments - is in the picture that heads up this blog (bottom left corner is the edge of the bar.)
Why is it #3? Unlike the next two, it's a bilateral (two-legged) exercise. If you've got an imbalance, it's going to cement that in. Plus, like all deadlifting, it has the potential to really beat you up badly in terms of soreness, aches, and pains. A good heavy deadlift gives you back a lot, but it also takes a lot out of you. You can use so much of your body's strength and you need to you so much of it that it has a high cost in terms of effort and recovery.
2. Pistol Squats
Also known as single leg squats. No matter how you do these - bodyweight or weighted. To a box or bench or all the way to the floor. Slow descents to the bottom and two-footed rising to standing or single leg both directions. There are many ways to do these.
They're single-legged, which means each leg has to get strong on its own. They're very forgiving when done with a box or bench - can't make it down, you just sit. You can stand back up and start over. They're great for people with any kind of side-to-side discrepancy. Much of this is true for other single-legged exercises, but I find these especially easy to coach and teach. I also find them easy to self-coach; you can feel when they're going well and when they aren't.
Plus, unlike the trap bad deadlift, you can do it anywhere. Grab something heavy or just grab a pole to make it easier, and single-leg squat. It takes no equipment to do bodyweight squats.
Why is it #2? Simple: loading issues. To load up a single-leg squat, you need to hold dumbbells, hold kettlebells, strap on chains, put on a weighted vest, etc. etc. This can get difficult, fast. To squat 160 pounds I've had to carry two 40 pound dumbbells and loop four 20-pound chains around my body like bandoleers. My upper body strained to hold the weights more than my legs strained to squat. I've had clients want to give up on these because they don't feel the leg strain but do feel the upper body strain . . . and even if their legs are improving they can't get past the feeling enough to trust the process.
Compared to #3 or #1, this is a much harder exercise to load up.
1. Sled Dragging
Load up a sled with weight, attach it to your body - hands on straps, a vest with a loading ring, a belt run through strap handles, whatever - and walk. Forwards, backwards, sideways. Shuffle step. Lunge backwards or forwards.
It's a very forgiving exercise. First, it's all concentric exercise - that is, you aren't lowering the weight. More precisely, you aren't having your leg muscles lengthen under a load. You step, drive your hip and knee straight, and then the rep is over for that leg. This minimizes muscle soreness and makes for great recovery exercise, too.
Second, if you stop walking, you stop training. If it's too much weight to move, bailing is so trivial it's not worth calling "bailing." You just stop taking steps.
Loading is easy. You can put 10-14 45-pound plates on most commercial sleds. You can tandem two sleds together if necessary (it won't be). You can put rocks on it, containers of water, or even have neighborhood kids ride on it - okay, that last one isn't recommended. But it's exactly how my own homemade dragging sled in Japan was loaded much of the time - by kids who wanted to ride the sled while I dragged it. You can always put more weight on the sled.
If you don't have enough weight, you can just walk further. You can run instead of walk. You can just do more round trips if your walking space is small. You can always move up from a sled to dragging heavy things, period - a loaded sled on hard-packed snow or grass. Pull a wagon. Pull a car if you're strong enough (and have a friend to steer and brake - critical safety tip!)
It's got a downside - you need space. You need a gym with turf or a parking lot (and some reasonable weather). This is critical - I can sled drag because of where I work, but I couldn't sled drag on the busy streets by my house or in a commercial gym. Still, it's the one exercise I refuse to live without. Every time it comes out of my workouts I regret the lack; every time I put it in and do it consistently I can see and feel the benefits.
Why is it #1? For all of those reasons I mentioned. Easy to load, easy to do, and useful for strength, conditioning, recovery, rehab. If I could only do one lower-body exercise, I'd take a sled and use that for a variety of drags. If I was stuck for space, I'd fall back on #2, and if I needed space and needed to maximize loading, I'd fall back on #3. But given a choice, I'll make choices that give me chances to drag a sled. It's just that good.