Whether you enjoy powerlifting, crossfit, olympic lifting, or just some good weight on your back, there’s a possibility you’re squatting with one leg shorter than the other. This is called leg length discrepancy (LLD), and anywhere from 40-70% of the population has some amount of varying leg lengths.
So, how do you squat with uneven legs? To squat with uneven legs you can stand on a small weight plate with the shorter leg, wear insoles in your shoes (if the discrepancy is above 5-10mm), and squat with a slightly staggered stance. You should also add several single-leg exercises to increase strength on both legs independently.
Squatting with uneven legs can cause muscular imbalances, pain, injury, and can inhibit squat progress if not addressed. In this article, I’ll be giving you step-by-step instructions on how to tell if you have uneven legs, and how you can adjust your technique to keep yourself out of injury, and squats on the menu.
Do You Have Uneven Legs (How To Tell)
We need to determine if you actually have one leg shorter than the other, and if so, by how much. You will need a partner to determine, and may eventually want to get imaging done by a specialist to confirm the amount.
For an initial assessment, follow the below steps:
- Lie flat on your back on a table, or on the floor. Roll from side to side with your knees tucked into your chest to release the tension in your lower back and hips.
- Have your partner give a gentle tug on each of your legs to fully straighten and relax them.
- Find your ASIS (this is the prominent point on the front of your hip bone, after finding your iliac crest) and ensure these points are even with each other.
- Have your partner examine if your knees are at the same position, then if your ankles are at the same position. If either set is not in line, you may have a discrepancy!
- Use a tape measure to go from your ASIS, to your medial malleolus to confirm.
- You will need imaging to determine if the discrepancy is functional or structural.
If you discover you do have uneven legs, the question remains if it’s structural or functional.
Structural vs Functional Leg Discrepancy
A structural leg length discrepancy is due to a birth abnormality, a fracture, or the result of joint replacement surgery.
A functional leg length discrepancy is due to misalignment, short or tight muscles, and other soft tissue problems.
Structural will require some sort of insole or lift as it’s outside of your control, but a functional discrepancy can be discussed with a practitioner to look at remedying the affected tissues and joints.
Consequences of Squatting with Uneven Legs
So you’ve determined you have uneven legs – will you ever hit a squat PR again?
Squatting with uneven legs forces you to squat with uneven hips, which can lead uneven or abnormal loading of the hip and knee joints. Even just walking with uneven legs could lead to a number of issues down the line:
- Pelvic floor dysfunction
- Osteoarthritis of the knee and hip joint
- Degenerative disc disease
- Back pain
- Muscle spasms
Therefore, it would be prudent for you as someone who wants to get a stronger squat to focus on correcting this issue before it gets worse. Here are some tips you can implement.
Squatting with Uneven Legs: 4 Tips
My 4 tips for squatting with uneven legs are:
1. Stand on a weight plate to level your pelvis before squatting
If the issue with your squatting is unequal tibia length, sliding a shim or a plate under the affected foot levels out your knees and your pelvis, bringing you back into a balanced starting point.
While it may feel weird initially, give it a few workouts to decide how it feels.
The height of the plate will depend on how big the difference is and may take some experimentation.
Start off with a 2.5 lb plate (or smaller, depending on what your gym has), and increase size to a 5 lb or 10 lbs if needed.
You’ll know you hit the right height if your hips and pelvis look level from behind (take a video, or have a partner stand behind you) and you have more equal muscle activation in the working muscles (glutes, quads, hamstrings).
2. Consider an insole for the shorter leg if the discrepancy is above 5-10 mm
If you decide the shims help things to feel more balanced and remove any pain or discomfort you may have been experiencing, consider getting an insole/heel lift for your shoe, or have shims permanently put into the sole of your shoe. Having shims permanently installed should be done by a professional at a specialty shoe shop.
When looking for an insole for uneven legs, you may want to consider the following:
- Compression Set of Material
When you’re squatting, you’re looking for a large transfer of force, so a highly compressible material as a heel/full shoe lift will absorb some of the force you’re trying to transfer to the bar. If you can get an insole without too much cushion that would be ideal.
If you already have heel pain, a heel lift may make this pain worse and may be more unstable than a full-shoe lift. However, a heel lift may provide more ankle dorsiflexion that may be lacking on the shorter leg, due to the smaller amount of ankle mobility that has been required by the shorter-leg-ankle in the past.
- Amount of Heel/Shoe Lift
Look for a product option that has multiple sizes of heel lift available such as the Adjustable Orthopedic Heel Lift (click for today’s price on Amazon) to give you the best chance to find a good fit that provides the amount of lift you require.
Purchasing one heel lift comes with two ⅛ inch thick layers. I would get one of these for the leg that is shorter, and try squatting with it for a few weeks. If you still think it’s too short, you can always buy another and stack it in the same shoe.
3. Squat with a slightly staggered stance
If you determine that you have a femur length imbalance, it may be worth staggering the stance of your squat. Dmitry Klokov is a former world champion Olympic weightlifter who also squats with a staggered stance due to one leg being longer than the other.
By experimenting with a staggered stance, you may be able to level out the position of your knees in the squat, as you would be placing one of your legs in a diagonal position, therefore reducing its effective length.
Place the longer leg slightly forward to the point that your knees appear to be level from the front (use a video or partner to confirm). When you discover this distance, mark the floor or your shoes to ensure this stance can be repeated set after set.
4. Add plenty of single-leg accessory exercises to your routine for balance in strength and size
While a concern with uneven leg lengths is muscular imbalances, research shows that most athletes will shift loading to a stronger side when squatting weight close to their max.
Unilateral exercises can help us with balance, lessen our compensation with heavier loads in bilateral exercises, and help to avoid future injuries.
My top 3 single-leg exercises are:
The Cossack Squat
This is a single leg variation that requires a high degree of coordination and balance. The movement has a lifter stepping to the side, while keeping the opposing leg straight as they descend into a squat. To learn more about the cossack squat, see our complete guide.
The Pistol Squat
A pistol squat is a one-legged squat that requires both strength and coordination. While it is an exercise with a high level of difficulty, it can be regressed or progressed for both an advanced and beginner lifter. To learn more about the pistol squat, see our article on pistol squat progressions.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a single leg movement with one leg forward, and the other behind you on an elevated object. It places a high demand on your leg muscles while allowing you to achieve good depth and challenge control and balance.
Squatting Technique to Follow Regardless If You Have Uneven Legs
Uneven legs or not, there are pieces of a squat that are universal to all leg lengths, such as:
- Ensure you’re breathing deep into your stomach and expanding your torso in 360-degrees to create intra-abdominal pressure
- Ensure your upper back is tight when you unrack the bar, always be pulling the bar down over your shoulders
- Practice accelerating out of the bottom position
- Cue your hips ‘up and through’ as you stand up
What To Do If You Still Have Issues Squatting With Uneven Legs
Okay, so let’s say you’ve done all of this work, and you find you’re still having pain or discomfort. What do you do now?
Find yourself a good physiotherapist or chiropractor, and discuss with them what kind of soft tissue complications may be making your squat journey difficult.
Start looking into getting some medical imaging done to get an accurate picture of your leg length discrepancy.
Finding out you have uneven leg lengths is not a sign to sell your squat shoes and commit to the upper-body-only lifestyle. While the reasons for uneven legs can be based on physical abnormalities or problematic soft tissue, there are short term solutions to ensure this doesn’t keep you out of the squat rack, and long term solutions to remind you your squat days are far from over.