Most exercise programs worth their weight always encompass the big lifts. Everyone will squat, hinge, press and pull. There’s a reason exercise professionals incorporate some variation of these movements and it’s simple to understand why. You get the most bang for the buck in terms of gains. Whether you are an athlete training for sport or the average citizen looking to shed a few pounds, the big lifts never really leave your routine.
That being said, there’s more to designing a balanced workout program. To really take your training (and results) to the next level, we need to dissect HOW you move within those essential patterns. We need to look at how we function on one side (unilateral). Everything from how we walk, run, crawl, throw, hit, hop and jump involve loads shifting from one side of our bodies to the other. It’s important that we consider how we train these unique planes of movement in order to maximize our fitness potential.
What Is Unilateral Training?
Unilateral training involves working a single limb of the body. For example, squatting on one leg or performing a push up with one arm. Some exercises will involve a combination of bilateral (both limbs) and unilateral work. Bear crawls and weighted carries are both hybrid type examples.
Training one-sided doesn’t mean training complex. It can be as simple as manipulating common exercises you’re already familiar with. Try a bench press with only one dumbbell or an RDL with a staggered stance instead of a square one. Any manipulation that shifts training emphasis from a bilateral position to one side can help make massive physical improvements. Below are our top three reasons why YOU need to be training only one limb.
Many of you know I’m not a huge fan of the term “functional” due to it’s misuse in the fitness field but this is the exception. Unilateral training is as functional as it gets. As humans, we rarely do anything involving both limbs at the same time. If you don’t believe me, just look at the list above. We walk, run, crawl, throw and hit using one limb or at least emphasize one limb in the execution. Sure, we improve strength and size performing bilateral exercise, but the pattern itself lacks specificity in terms of transfer to daily activities. Training each limb separately will help improve functionality as it applies to your everyday life, athletic or general.
2) Enhanced Core Activation
Training a single side of the body requires greater balance and stability in order to perform the exercise to it’s fullest potential. This means a greater activation of the trunk musculature. Essentially, you are trying not to fall over, a pretty crucial concept when moving through your daily activities.
Strength symmetries between your left and right side exist and are typically not as balanced as we would like (hence why we have a more dominant side). By focusing our efforts on unilateral work, we allow the muscles of our “bad” side to really take the reins. This not only enhances it’s ability to stabilize itself but also improve motor unit recruitment. You gotta isolate to harmonize. It’s almost poetic.
3) Injury Prevention
Injury prevention is one of the key functions of strength and conditioning, especially for our athletes here at headquarters. Single limb training helps build musculature you normally wouldn’t work when performing the same exercise with both limbs. By isolating one side, you not only work the primary movement of the muscle but also it’s ability to stabilize. A greater emphasis gets placed on the posterior chain, shoulder girdle and ankle joint when training isolated limbs in order to maintain a balanced position. Even without any external load, you still improve your resiliency to injury (less weight, more results. Crazy right?).
A big part of healthy movement ensures you focus on a greater range of motion. Isolate one limb and I’ll bet you’ll notice limitations when comparing one side to the next. Not to fear though, flexibility and asymmetries will both improve if you give your limbs some individual attention.
Training a single limb has demonstrated great transfer in terms of functionality, injury prevention and mobility BUT unilateral training isn’t the end all be all. I’m a huge fan of incorporating single limb exercises in training programs to build the main bilateral patterns, no questioning that. However, we still need to do the big lifts using both limbs. Why? To exert maximal force. Although unilateral training challenges your ability to stabilize the trunk and musculature of the limb, it’s impractical to load these exercises heavy.
You can’t fight the science. You need to lift heavy loads in order to improve strength AND you need to lift heavier loads faster in order to improve power. To maximize this potential, you’ll need both limbs. Plus, individuals who are strong/powerful on two limbs are typically able to transfer SOME potential to one limb. For instance, if someone trains a two leg squat and lifts 600 pounds, he’s probably able to do 200 pounds minimum on one leg, even if he/she has never done it before. Unfortunately, the transfer in reverse is not as drastic. If someone strictly trains one limb at a time, they typically will struggle to maximize potential on two limbs if unfamiliar with how to do so.
Unilateral training should be a staple in your strength and conditioning routine to supplement your main bilateral work, NOT replace it (except in the case of injury). Single limb training is phenomenal for improving rotational torque, stability and asymmetries of the body. Unilateral training can help pack on more mass (time under tension) and jack up the heart rate beyond belief.
I recommend sprinkling it in throughout your program cycle to supplement your big bilateral lifts. At the end of the day, you can’t replace getting strong but you can certainly add to your muscle’s ability to stabilize itself when doing so.
Take a chance and split your stance.
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Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.