Single leg training can be one of the most important components to strengthening and aligning your hip, knee, and ankle. This exercise is one I do each day I train my lower body, as well as days off. It may look like a ‘cool down’ exercise, but it is in-fact a warmup for anything I’m doing involving my legs. This could be running, swimming, lunging, functional training, literally anything I’m doing on my two feet.
The reason I love it is because of its’ simplicity and overall effectiveness. It strengthens muscles that are weak, corrects imbalances in the lower body (which will then assist in correcting imbalances in the upper body), and also helps you to create the length of muscle fibers in certain muscle groups and space around specific joints. So technically- when doing the movement correctly, you’ll take stress of your joints, allowing muscles to lengthen (creating flexibility in the joint-muscle relationship) and also become stronger in your hip, knee, and ankle relationship. Who doesn’t want that?
As bipeds I think it is crucial to have correct alignment of our hips, knees, and ankles, unfortunately when doing all of our single leg work standing up, gravity acts on us in a way that calls on a lot of our body’s stabilizer muscles to engage. Basically, when standing, you have lots of extra groups of muscles and joints doing work to just keep you upright. These networks of fascial contiuums don’t get to relax, let go, or even take a break. So you’re always working extra when standing, and not letting the smaller, often neglected parts of your body to develop and grow. Whereas when you lay on the ground, with legs up, about 70% of the muscles that keep you standing upright will shut off and relax. This will let your smaller, deeper, and internal muscles step up to bat and become a part of the show (in this case, single leg development).
To do this all I want you to do lay with legs up the wall, and first evaluate your wrists and elbows, can they rest on the floor? Figure out a way to make this happen (although do take note that if your wrists and elbows don’t touch the ground we have another functional issue to address at a separate time). Let your pelvis, sacrum, and spine completely lay flat, you should feel at ease on the floor. When you’re ready, drag your feet down a third of the way until they’re flat. Press into your feet and let the knees drag your hips up until the shins are parallel to the ground. Now push into the wall, you’ll have about a 90-degree flex behind your knees. Continue to press your knee into your ankle, and breathe. When it’s been about a minute, peel one foot up towards the ceiling and notice what happens to your pelvis and planted leg. Do you swivel over to one side? Does your knee begin to cave in? This is where your opportunity to reformat your holding pattern comes into play. If you’ve got weak legs, weak glutes, a core that doesn’t act as a synergist correctly, and a compensatory pattern of any sort you’re going to struggle here. Basically when you lift one leg up if you cannot maintain squared hips with an aligned knee and ankle, your fixed in place leg is sending a message to your brain saying, “save me,” and your adrenal starts to turn on, and you go into panic mode.
First- you want your knee of the leg at 90-degrees on the wall to stay in a straight line relative to your 2nd toe. Second thing, if you are stabilizing yourself by squeezing your sphincter, you gotta try to let your tail-bone go. People will tend to posteriorly tilt and grip their anus muscles to save themselves from swaying or torquing in the pelvic cavity, but all that does is inhibit their ability to create intra-abdominal pressure (navel retraction) in the core and control their pelvic positioning in space. A tightly held butt here is only going to further lock in your holding pattern when faced with instability. A goal should be to keep pelvic floor relaxed (sphincter), and figure out how to send messages from your brain to your quads, hamstrings, and glute muscles. This will result is a dramatically more effective way to build the muscles of the lumbopelvic region.
Okay- now that the information is here for you, go try it! Forget cooling down with legs up wall, this is warming up for single-leg training and strengthening! Great for anybody trying to realign their hips, knees, and ankles, and also useful for prehab / rehab purposes. Once you figure out the static hold for 3-5 minutes you can start to play around with adding repetitions of it to your warmup, but for now lets focus on creating a “straight” line from hip to ankle. No matter your athletic sport or training purpose, everybody can benefit from this exercise. Do it for 30 days, heck do it forever, and notice how much better you become. Whether you define ‘better’ as building strength, muscle balance, ability to perform, stability, pain relief- whatever it is, you will only improve from doing this.
Build yourself based on your alignment and where your body needs the most attention. Listen to your body and learn how to do what it struggles to do.