Single Leg Exercises: 10 Yoga Poses to Build Balance + Strength

Can single-leg exercises help runners improve strength and balance and boost performance?

After all, running is a single-leg activity.

Running uses two legs, right?

Yes.

However, as we run...

🦶 One of our feet is moving through space...
🦶 While the other foot is planted on the ground. 
🦶 Sometimes both feet are simultaneously in the air...
🦶 While neither one is rooted as one propels and one sets up for its landing.

In this way, running can be described as a single-legged activity, perhaps even as a series of forward-moving jumps.

When we understand running in this light, the importance of strengthening and balancing our:

  • Feet
  • Ankles
  • Legs
  • Hips
  • Core...

Using single-leg exercises in order to translate the gained power and stability to running becomes clear.

Enter yoga + single-leg exercises

Within power, flow and vinyasa yoga classes, and some hatha classes like Bikram and Iyengar, a balancing series is almost always taught partway through class.

This article outlines 10 practical and transferable single-leg yoga poses for runners

When to practice the poses

They can be completed as stand-alone exercises, but they are best practiced after a yoga warm-up and before a cool down.

Warm-ups can include yoga salutations such as these: 

If doing the poses before a run, and you want to skip the sun salutations, try jogging for a few minutes prior to doing the single-leg poses to prime the body. 

If doing the poses after a run, slowly jog around to bring the heart rate down and get the breathing under control, do a few of the above sun salutations, and then start on the balancing poses.

How to practice the poses

  • Option One: Hold each pose for 30 to 60 seconds (five to eight breaths) per side before switching to the other side.
  • Option Two: Hold the poses for one to three breaths on each side and flow to the next pose on the same side, completing all the poses on the same leg before moving to the other leg. This will burn more than switching between legs after each different pose. 
  • Option Three: Hold the first half of the poses for one to five breaths on one side before doing the first half on the second side, then proceed to the second half of the poses all on one side before finishing on the other side. 
  • Option Four: Incorporate your favorite poses from the list below into strength routine. 
  • Option Five: If you are a regular yoga practitioner who gets on the mat every day, weave a variety of these poses into your routine.

Cues for each pose

  • Time yourself by counting breaths (five to eight long, slow deep breaths), inhaling through the nose and out of the nose.
  • Press the big toe into the mat when balancing on one foot, without gripping the toes into the ground. 
  • Spread the toes and soften them - again, no death grip!
  • Hug in the hip of the standing leg so it’s not jutting out to the side.
  • Engage the gluteal muscles of the standing leg.
  • Reach out in opposite directions to aid in balance and traction - for instance, when in Warrior III, reach the crown of the head forward and foot backward.
  • Micro bend the knee of the standing leg and flex the quadriceps muscles so that the knee is not locked or hyperextended.
  • Draw the navel to the spine to avoid flaring the ribs.
  • Look at something that’s not moving to maintain balance. 

1. Warrior III (five versions)

Warrior III, supported (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Warrior III, arms along the sides (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Warrior III with bent knee and palms pressing together in front of heart (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Warrior III, arms reaching forward (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Warrior III, cross diagonal balance (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

Within each version:

  • Lower the torso so that it’s parallel to the ground while lifting the floating leg so it is also parallel to the ground
  • Square the hip of the floating leg to the ground so that the hips are both facing down and even.
  • Supported (photo one) - place the fingertips lightly on the ground underneath the shoulders
  • Arms along the sides (photo two) - reach the arms back along the sides 
  • Bent knee with palms pressing together (photo three) - bend the knee and press palms together in front of the heart
  • Arms reaching forward (photo four) - reach arms forward along the ears while simultaneously reaching back with the foot of the floating leg
  • Cross diagonal balance (photo five) - reach the arm of the floating leg back while reaching the arm of the standing leg forward

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, hips, gluteal muscles and core

2. Half Moon

Half Moon Pose (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • From Warrior III, set the fingertips of the arm on the same side as the standing leg on the mat about 12 inches in front of the foot. 
  • Reach the top arm straight up to the sky.
  • Gaze at the ground to help with balance, to the side or up to the sky (as shown). 

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, hips, gluteal muscles and core

3. Revolved Half Moon

Revolved Half Moon Pose (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • From Half Moon pose, turn the hips square to the ground.
  • Reach the arm on the same side as the floating leg to the ground.
  • Reach the arm of the standing leg up to the sky, creating a twisting action. 
  • Gaze at the ground to help with balance, to the side or up to the top arm.

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, hips, gluteal muscles and core

4. Dancer’s Pose, three versions

Dancer’s Pose, upright variation (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Dancer’s Pose, supported variation (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Dancer’s Pose (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • Pick up one leg and bend it into the body, close enough to hook the big toe.
  • Hook the big toe with the index and middle finger, otherwise known as the peace fingers.
  • Touch the thumb tip to the index finger that’s holding the toe.
  • Straighten the leg as much as it’ll go without the torso folding forward and without the shoulder pulling out of its socket. The knee might be very bent, and that’s OK.
  • Press the big toe into the fingers.
  • Draw the outer hip of the held leg down away from the armpit.
  • Hug the hip of the standing leg into the body so it’s not jutting out to the side.

Benefits:

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, shoulders and core.

5. Standing Hand to Big Toe Pose/ Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

Within each version: 

  • Kick the foot strongly into the hand that’s holding it to create resistance and balance.
  • If version one feels good, begin to lean forward while reaching the arm straight forward until the torso is about parallel to the ground. 
  • If it’s difficult to balance, place the free hand on the ground (photo two).
  • If balance is OK, keep reaching the arm straight forward (version three).

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, quadriceps, hips, shoulders and core.

6. Standing Hand to Big Toe Pose B/ Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • From Standing Hand to Big Toe Pose A, move the lifted leg out to the side.
  • Reach the opposite arm out to the side or hold onto the hip.
  • To come out, bring the leg back to center as in the “A” version.

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, gluteal muscles, shoulders and core.

7. Lifted Leg, two versions

Leg Lifted, no hands and knee bent (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Leg Lifted, no hands and knee straight (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • From Standing Hand to Big Toe Pose A, release the toe.
  • Keep the knee bent (photo one).
  • If it feels OK to straighten the leg, do so (photo two).
  • Keep the leg lifted as high as is comfortable without leaning backward. 
  • Reach the crown of the head high to the sky to avoid leaning back.

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, quadriceps, hips and core.

8. Tree Pose, two versions

Tree Pose, palms pressed together in front of heart (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Tree Pose, arm reaching upward (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • Bend the knee into the chest while balancing on one leg.
  • Hold the ankle.
  • Place the sole of the foot on the inner thigh of the standing leg.
  • Press the feet into the thigh while pressing the thigh into the foot simultaneously to create strength and balance. 
  • Press palms together in front of the heart (photo one).
  • Reach arms straight up to the sky (photo two).

Benefits:

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, adductors, abductors, hips, gluteal muscles and core.

9. Standing Forward Fold Leg Lift, three versions

Standing Forward Fold, leg lift with bent knee (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Standing Forward Fold, leg lift with straight leg (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)
Standing Forward Fold, leg lift with straight leg & holding big toe (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • Fold forward over two straight legs.
  • Lean the weight into one leg.
  • Pick up the opposite leg with a bent knee and lift it straight out to the side, like a clamshell exercise (photo one).
  • If keeping the first version is easy, try straightening the leg out to the side (photo two).
  • For a more advanced version, try hooking the big toe of the lifted foot and lifting the leg straight out to the side (photo three).

Benefits: 

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, adductors, abductors, gluteal muscles, hips and core.

10. Pistol Squat

Pistol Squat (Photo/ Colleen O’Neil)

Instructions

  • Stand on one leg
  • Begin to bend the knee and lower the hips slowly toward the ground while kicking the floating leg straight out in front.
  • Keep the heel of the standing leg planted firmly. 
  • Lower as far as you can go without compromising the knee. 
  • If it feels good, lower until the butt almost reaches the ground.
  • Press back up.
  • Repeat, lowering and pressing back up, as many times as you’d like.
  • If a pistol squat puts too much strain on the knee, try a single-leg squat

Benefits:

  • Strengthens the feet, ankles, lower leg, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, hips, shoulders and core.

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

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