The Single Leg Extension Pilates Exercise–A Crucial Diagnostic Tool

single leg extensionSingle Leg Extension is a good exercise, but it’s an even better diagnostic tool. I use this when clients come to me with pain and dysfunction in their posterior. It can be really challenging to know exactly what muscles are and are not working correctly, but this exercise helps clarify.

There are several key factors that I look for when observing this exercise.

  1. When the leg lifts does it stay straight? If it doesn’t, the hamstrings are working and the glute is probably asleep. In this exercise, we are trying to work mostly with the gluteus maximus.
  2. When the leg lifts, does the opposite side drop? If it does, there are two things that could be happening:  the abs may have stopped supporting and the hamstrings may have taken over.
  3. How do I know if the hamstrings have taken over the exercise? This is tricky. The hamstrings and the gluteus maximus are both hip extensors. This means they both work to bring your leg behind you. Based on my observations, I think that the hamstrings take over when the leg is lifted too high and when the glute is not working correctly.
  4. If my glute isn’t working correctly, how do I get it to work? To encourage the glute to fire, sometimes I will poke it with my finger before asking the body to work. I know the sage advice to poke your butt cheek with your finger before lifting your leg doesn’t sound very helpful, but trust me. It works.
  5. Are the shoulders down and away from the ears? For some people, when their bodies are put under stress, their shoulders get tight and slide up toward their ears. If I can see the shoulders tense up, I know that things are not working the way they should in this exercise. This is not tricky or stressful unless you have something dysfunctional going on with your posterior chain. Then, it’s a real challenge.

So, keep all of these questions in mind as you try your Single Leg Extensions. By paying attention to what your body wants to naturally do, you can frequently find corrections for the issues that are causing pain or discomfort.

Single Leg Extension

  1. Begin on your stomach with your fingers stacked on top of each other. This allows enough space for your collarbones to be broad and your shoulders to be away from your ears.
  2. Make sure your legs are inner hip width apart and parallel. Your heels should be in line with your SITs bones, and you should be able to feel your kneecaps lightly touch the mat.
  3. Take a moment to lengthen through your spine and feel the front of your pubis on the mat. You don’t want to have the pubis grinding into the mat, but you don’t want it hovering either.
  4. We will use Pilates breathing.
  5. Remember, this is a glute exercise! Your knee should not bend.
  6. Inhale, lengthen the spine, and draw your low abdomen up to your spine to help stabilize your low back. You will hold this form throughout all repetitions.
  7. Exhale and lift your right leg straight off the mat by engaging your glutes. When you do this, you’ll feel your right hip rotate and the top, front edge of your hip will press more into the mat. Remember to keep your knee straight the whole time. You should not feel your left side sink or push into the mat. Also, you want to make sure that you don’t feel any work  (or pain) in your low back. If you have either of those feelings, you have most likely quit supporting with your abs and are lifting your leg too high.
  8. Inhale to lengthen the leg and lower.
  9. Exhale and lift the left leg.
  10. Do 5-10 sets.

Single Leg Extension with Lateral Rotation

If you’d like, you can also perform Single Leg Extensions with your legs laterally rotated. This means that your kneecaps will face the side. The benefit of doing this version is that you get to work some slightly different muscles, including lateral rotators like the piriformis. Most people don’t need this work, so I normally just work in parallel.

Single Leg Extension Video

Here is a video for visual learners.

I like to do Heel Squeezes right before this exercise so that my glutes are more likely to work correctly. What exercises do you do to wake up your glutes? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.