The main reason one leg hurts more than the other after squats is due to a muscle imbalance. This may involve your hip shifting to one side, which is often caused by weak or tight hip flexors. You may also be pushing harder off one leg due to some form of weakness. It could also be that you’re not performing enough unilateral leg exercises, which can lead to one leg becoming stronger than the other.
Is Your Hip Shifting to the Side During Squats?
The most common reason that one leg hurts more than the other after squats is simply because one leg is stronger than the other.
This can actually cause a number of issues whenever you squat.
However, something that tends to happen much more frequently than anything else is that one of your hips will shift out to the side.
The easiest way to check your form is to either squat in front of a mirror.
Alternatively, you could have someone stand in front of you while you squat and check your form.
Your hips should always remain directly in-between your knees as you lower yourself and then push back up from the squat.
There should be an almost perfect symmetry with the body, in relation to the hips falling inside the knees, when you squat.
If you find that your hips shift to one specific side this will typically put more pressure on the leg on that side.
And the outcome will of course be that you’ll “feel” the squat far more in that leg.
Even though the squat is leg exercise, i.e. a knee-bend exercise, the hips also have a major role to play.
More often than not, either tight or weak hip flexors may cause you to shift your hips to one side whenever you squat.
The Hip Flexors Are Extremely Important
The hip flexors may be a tiny group of muscles, but they can hold you back in a huge number of exercises and everyday functions.
So, if you spot one of your hips shifting to the side it’s probably time to work on your hip flexors some more.
In effect, you will lose that “perfect” body symmetry between the hips and knees, and it will appear as though you’re leaning to one side.
If this is down to tightness in the muscles then a few hip flexor stretches and some light foam rolling prior to squatting may suffice.
However, if you have a specific weakness in this area you’ll need to concentrate on various hip flexor strengthening exercises.
Four Drills to Strengthen Hip Flexors
Are You Pushing Harder on One Side?
This is much the same as your hip shifting to the side.
If you find that you generally seem to push harder on one side when you squat, this points to either tightness or weakness.
Once again, the first place to look would be your hip flexors.
If you have tight or weak hip flexors, let’s say on your left side, then you’ll typically be leaning over slightly and pushing harder on your right side.
This will be obvious by taking the “mirror test” again.
With that being said, if you are pushing more with your stronger side this will be less noticeable.
We all tend to have a stronger side.
In fact, whenever we walk, sit down, stand up, or do anything else that involves the legs, the dominant side often takes over.
And as I say, this will usually happen without us even noticing.
I know it sounds strange to say, but even when we walk we have a leading leg.
One leg that does more of the work than the other.
The same can be said whenever you sit down and stand back up again.
You probably won’t even realise that you’re doing it, but you’ll also lead with one leg, the same leg, the more dominant leg, each and every time.
Okay, this may not seem like much, but it does have a cumulative effect.
If you’ve always walked, sat, and stood up in the same way, you will usually always lead with the same leg while doing these activities.
So, decades and decades of always leading with the same leg will create a dominant side and a weak side.
Do You Perform Unilateral Leg Exercises?
Another way to look at a possible muscle imbalance is that one side of your body is coordinated and intelligent, whereas the other side is stupid and clumsy.
Okay, a slight exaggeration, but hopefully you get my meaning.
Basically, whenever you squat, the coordinated and intelligent leg performs the movement with grace and perfect form.
However, the stupid and clumsy side uses brute force and pure strength in order to lift the weight.
Once again, this is hardly even perceivable, but it is most probably happening.
Look, this isn’t something to be ashamed of or overly worry about.
It is highly unlikely that any person is perfectly symmetrical when it comes to muscular strength and balance.
Even the most “symmetrical” looking physique is likely to have some type of muscle imbalance.
However, the best way to improve and potentially overcome this is with unilateral training.
I know from a personal point of view that I am guilty of not always doing this.
In fact, many of my workouts over the years have centered around the “Big 5 Lifts”.
And the vast majority of my training will involve using a barbell.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll mix things up and perform variations of each exercise.
However, more often than not, when it comes to squats I’ll still use a bar and squat both legs at the same time.
With that being said, due to my own issues and injury history I certainly do much more unilateral training nowadays.
In fact, I would say that I’ve used the Bulgarian split squat far more often than the traditional barbell back squat over the last 2-3 years.
I have a few “go-to” unilateral leg exercises that I like to perform more than any others.
Now I’m not saying that you’ll suddenly miraculously fix any muscle imbalances by doing unilateral leg training.
However, it will definitely be better for you than sticking strictly to barbell squatting the same way all the time.
My favourite unilateral leg exercises include:
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Reverse Lunges
- Walking Lunges
- Step Ups
- Single-Leg Hip Thrusts
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
For me, these provide all-round training for the lower body.
I have even dumped traditional squats and deadlifts for months at a time to solely concentrate on these exercises.
And I haven’t lost any strength or muscular definition by doing so.
I will also say that my conditioning levels typically go through the roof when I concentrate on training one leg at a time.
Top 5 Unilateral Leg Exercises
If you find that one leg hurts more than the other after squats, this is typically due to a weakness or muscle imbalance. Weak hip flexors will often cause your hip to shift to the dominant side during squats. This will lead you to push more with that side of your body as you come up from the squat. The same issues can occur if one leg is stronger than the other. You can fix these concerns with unilateral leg training and hip flexor strengthening exercises.
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Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.