How Men Over 40 Can Build Unilateral Leg Strength Without Losing Balance

Author, fitness model, and trainer Kirk Charles, NASM-CPT CES, knows that as you get older, life can get more complicated. But that shouldn’t prevent you from being on top of your game. He’ll help to answer the tough training questions that come with age so you too can be Fit Beyond 40.

Years ago, I took on a stair climbing race with a 55-year-old client in a tall office building in New York. He was a little leery about the event because he had issues with his left knee. Squats never presented a problem for him—but since you climb stairs one leg at a time, I felt we needed focus on a few unilateral lower body exercises to help prep him for the event. The split squat was the key move in this training, since it helps to build strength while laying a solid foundation for more advanced unilateral exercises like lunges and Bulgarian split squats.

The split squat is particularly useful for older men, as you can use the movement build and maintain glute, quad, and hamstring strength. One of the beauties of the move for the aging population is that it is done with both feet on the floor. You don’t have to be concerned about balancing on one leg, which can be tougher as the years pile up. Consequently, the entire weight load is never on one leg either, so you can build up strength more safely before progressing to single leg exercises.

To get started, finding the right stride length for the split squat is essential for proper form. The simplest way to find it is to start from the ‘down’ position by going into a half-kneeling stance. The knees of your lead and back legs should be at 90-degree angles. Keep your spine neutral, with no rounding of the back. Your feet should be staggered as if they’re on parallel train tracks—you don’t want a straight line from your front foot to your back foot, which may cause balancing issues. Your front foot should be flat on the floor, while you’re on the toes of your back foot. This puts you in the perfect down position.

From there, initiate the exercise by pushing off the back leg, while squeezing your glutes, quads and hamstrings as tightly as possible. As you ascend, keep the knee of your lead leg directly above your foot. That keeps most of the load on the lead leg, which is what you want. As you’re pushing up to the top of the split squat, your lead knee will remain bent. It will go from the 90-degree angle at the bottom to approximately 45-degrees at the top, while your back knee will go from 90 degrees to nearly full extension. Lastly, your front foot will remain flat on the floor while you will still be on the toes of your back foot. As you go up and down while doing your reps, bring your back knee as close to the floor as possible, without slamming it down on the ground. Then fire back up to the starting position. Keep your head up straight and look forward throughout the movement. Looking downward may cause you to lean forward, rounding the back.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen with older men doing the split squat letting their hips slide backward as they rise up. That pulls the front knee backward and allows the spine to tilt forward. If you find your hips sliding backward, don’t go down as deep into the split squat. It’s critical to find a depth at which you can keep the knee of the lead leg above the foot.

You may progress with the split squat by holding dumbbells or racking kettlebells in one or both hands. When adding weight, it’s critical to keep your core braced to manage the load properly. I would recommend starting without weights first to find the proper form and balance. After warming up with bilateral squats, I like to do three or four sets of 10 reps on leg days, twice a week at most.

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