Loading heavy bars every week isn’t feasible for many athletes, given their limited time constraints or available equipment. And don’t forget about the increase in spinal loading that some just can’t tolerate.
Also, let’s be honest—sometimes, loading and unloading the bars can take more time than the actual lifts. If you are tight on time or nursing a cranky back, this can be a setup for disaster.
By now, we all recognize the benefits of single-leg work—a 2015 study, “Load Comparison Ratio in Single and Double Leg Movements” (Graham-Smith, 2015), made a compelling case that one-leg squats can be a powerful strength and muscle builder as well.
So, welcome to the skater squat as a time-saving alternative.If there are any flaws in technique—whether it’s valgus, lumbar flexion, core weakness, or passive foot mechanics—skater squats will expose them. Click To Tweet
People usually don’t do skater squats simply because they are humbling and hard to do! If there are any flaws in technique—whether it’s valgus, lumbar flexion, core weakness, or passive foot mechanics—skater squats will expose them. They also require a bit of mobility and technique, which adds to the normal hardgainer’s NO GO list. Skater squats give high levels of intramuscular activation with each rep, which means they can recruit many motor units needed for stability and strength. They are also naturally joint- and low-back-friendly, which every strength coach should have highlighted for their programs.
An injured athlete is a recipe for disaster, and skater squats will always be a viable option to add cross-symmetry stability. Athletes in contact sports especially need this when on the field of play.
Here are ways to master this deadlift variation for comparable strength gains without the added low back stress.
Use a Counterbalance
Use tiny 2-pound weights or dumbbells in your hands as a counterbalance, or 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 prevent you from turning it into a reverse lunge.
Next, reach with your hands through an invisible line coming out of the middle toe of your working leg and toward the wall in front of you 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.
Start by stacking a few Airex pads for your back knee and lower them as you get stronger to increase the range of motion.
Studies on Single-Leg Work
In a recent study, researchers challenged the assumption that the load taken on by the working leg during one-leg squats is half that of bilateral squats (Speirs, 2016). 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:
- The combined body weight that acts above the hips during unilateral movements is 16% greater than during bilateral movements (84% vs. 68%).
- Unilateral movements equate to 1.62x the intensity (per leg) of bilateral movements (in sum).
What is really forgotten is how single-leg work can have a direct carryover to an athlete’s sport. When you think about it, we’re not often on two legs when running, sprinting, shuffling, or jumping. Unilateral lifting can promote corresponding gains in acceleration and strength when replicated well in the weight room.
Another point to mention is how metabolically demanding single-leg work can be. Since we are asking to provoke hypertrophic gains in two limbs, the duration of the work sets last longer, which requires more ATP and creatine to promote more strength. Because of this, single-leg training can have a heavier load of fatigue compared to bilateral training, and some research has even suggested that single-leg training can have higher levels of power and bar speed when trained appropriately (Eliassen, 2018).
So now let’s talk about a few variations of my favorite skater squat and WHY we love it for a deadlift alternative.
Just have a look at this side-by-side video…
Video 1. Skater squat comparison.
Look familiar?Try out these skater squat variations for some serious single-leg strength, and you can watch your deadlift get stronger without actually deadlifting. Click To Tweet
Additionally, try out these variations for some serious single-leg strength, and you can watch your deadlift get stronger without actually deadlifting.
1. Landmine Skater Squat
Video 2. Hold a barbell in the hand opposite to the leg you’re working, positioned a few inches in front of your torso. Introducing contralateral loading increases glute recruitment and challenges hip and core stability. These are really tough, though, so be conservative on the weight. You may actually want to start with the empty bar as you adjust to the offset loading.
2. Sandbag Skater Squat
Video 3. This variation challenges you a bit more with an increase in intra-abdominal pressure, making it harder to brace and stay upright.
3. 1.5 Rep
Video 4. Squat all the way down, come halfway back up, squat all the way down again, and come all the way up. That’s one rep. Now do that 5–8 times. That’s one set. These are a quick way to get a lot of serious leg burn and improve motor control, with the nervous system being challenged quite a bit by having to retrain the brain on what the full rep entails.
4. Zercher (Front-Loaded) Skater Squat
Video 5. The Zercher skater squat is tough for anyone wanting to work on symmetry and balance. The loading distribution makes them quite challenging.
5. Deficit Skater Squat
Video 6. Before adding load, I actually prefer to increase the range of motion slightly (provided, of course, that it doesn’t cause pain). When you do a regular skater squat standing on the floor, the femur usually ends up being a few inches short of parallel at the bottom, especially if you put a pad underneath the rear leg (which you definitely should do).
Standing on a 4-inch aerobic step 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 floor and build there, or even work on smaller ranges. Never force square pegs into round holes!
6. Pause Skater Squat
Video 7. Pausing each rep at the bottom makes it harder by killing the stretch reflex, and it also forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid free-falling down to the floor.
I love these also for an increase in mind-muscle connection. For athletes, the benefit of unilateral lifts can be for the simple reason of load and volume. Athletes, during the season especially, need to be careful about volume and load/intensity. Skater squats can be a perfect exercise to fill the gaps to provide an awesome training stimulus that can very easily mimic the sport of that individual. More often than not, athletes are on one leg while running, sprinting, and fighting for positions.
Here are a few regressions you can use to get better at doing the standard versions. It’s a good idea to start small and slowly improve on working your way up to unassisted variations once you can get these down.
7. Slider Skater Squat
Video 8. 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.
8. Eccentric ONLY
Video 9. With the eccentric version, you’re just lowering down on one leg and standing back up on two. It takes a bit of practice to think about, but the eccentric focus can give you a better trade-off than the real thing.
The big thing here is to control the eccentric and not just freefall to the floor.
Since the skater is a “hybrid” exercise that really is both knee -and hip-dominant, you can program them effectively in many ways. You can even get a little creative and make a claim to help your mobility by adding a variation like this to improve hip external rotation and stability.
Skater Mobility Drill
Video 10. They’re more hip-dominant than a traditional squat or single-leg “pistol” type squat and more knee-dominant than a traditional deadlift or single-leg Romanian deadlift.
The skaters are a super joint-friendly option, so I truly find them great to program more frequently. 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. Either way, they are a back-friendly choice that can improve your lifts in more ways than one.The skaters are a super joint-friendly option, so I truly find them great to program more frequently. Click To Tweet
When it comes to rep ranges, stick to 5–12 reps—that seems to be the sweet spot. Anything more and you risk form and a mental dislike that might have you never want to do them again.
So when you hit the gym this week, don’t forget that you can get effective results from using the skater. In addition to boosting your deadlift, you can improve hip strength, stability, and power!
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Eliassen W, Saeterbakken AH, and van den Tillaar R. “Comparison of Bilateral and Unilateral Squat Exercises on Barbell Kinematics and Muscle Activation.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2018 Aug;13(5):871–881.
Graham-Smith P, Natera A, and Jarvis M. “Load Comparison Ratio in Single and Double Leg Movements.” English Institute of Sport, UK (2015).
Isik O and Doğan l. “Effects of bilateral or unilateral lower-body resistance exercises on markers of skeletal muscle damage.” Biomedical Journal. 2018 Dec;41(6):364–368.
Moran J, Ramirez-Campillo R, Liew B, et al. “Effects of Bilateral and Unilateral Resistance Training on Horizontally Orientated Movement Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Sports Medicine. 2021 Feb;51(2):225–242.
NSCA, TR Baechle and RW Earle, eds. Essentials of strength training and conditioning 3rd ed. 2008; Human Kinetics.
Rhea MR, Kenn JG, Peterson MD, et al. “Joint-Angle Specific Strength Adaptations Influence Improvements in Power in Highly Trained Athletes. Human Movement. 2016;17(1).
Speirs DE, Bennett MA, Finn CV, and Turner AP. “Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016 Feb;30(2):386–392.