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Unilateral Training

Should You be Doing it?

Unilateral training is, as the name suggests, training one side of the body at a time. Bilateral training is what most people are used to. This involves standard movements that involve a symmetrical movement using both sides of the body at one time. For instance, a barbell squat or standard bench press is considered a bilateral movement. A unilateral movement involves the use of only one side of the body, such as a single leg squat, a single leg deadlift, single arm push-ups etc.

Is unilateral training useful? Or is it another fad from the whole “functional fitness” movement? Lets look at this from a strength and performance point of view. Here we will delve into unilateral training and its applications.

Pros and Cons of Unilateral Training vs. Bilateral Training

Bilateral training allows the use of a greater percentage of the body’s overall musculature. This is superior to unilateral training due to the greater hormonal response. More muscle activation equals a greater release of testosterone and human growth hormone. To overcome this limitation the athlete can perform large, compound bilateral movements early in the workout to stimulate hormone production and finish the workout with unilateral exercises.

Unilateral training creates a stabilisation effect, where the body is forced to stabilise other parts of the body in order to cope with the lack of balance and symmetry. This is applicable to functional movement needed for sports and other physical activities. This is not to be confused with training on an unstable surface. Many new age trainers and coaches utilise training on an unstable surface such as a bosu or a Swiss ball. Research has shown that this sort of training for strength is inferior to larger compound movements trained with a greater load as opposed to instability at lighter weights. Why is unilateral training superior for training balance and proprioception in conjunction with strength? Unilateral movements allow for the working side of the body to handle a greater amount of weight than with a bilateral movement in relative terms. Take a split squat for example. A single leg performing a split squat, once skill is established, is able to lift more than half the weight lifted in a bilateral barbell squat. This is because greater neuromuscular resources can be dedicated to that one leg as opposed to distributing energy and focus to both sides.

Unilateral training is a way to expose imbalances and weaknesses. Using pistol squats as an example, you may perform lets say five reps on the right leg while holding a 16kg kettlebell in the goblet position, however only manage three reps on the left leg. This is an obvious weakness and favouring of the right leg, which is detrimental to performance, function and chance of injury. This is a weakness that would otherwise go unnoticed if unilateral training were not used. Unilateral movements will expose such weaknesses, however they will also aid in correction.

Slugging away week after week, month after month with the standard array of strength movements leads to diminishing returns. The basic compound movements should indeed form the basis for any strength programme, however eventually the body ceases to adapt and results begin to stall. After a period of 12-16 weeks of heavy strength training using bilateral movements an athlete needs anywhere from 4-8 weeks to consolidate gains and “unlearn” the lifts in order to come back fresh and begin making gains again as if the athlete were brand new to strength training. Unilateral exercises are the perfect way to do this. After a 16 week cycle of strength training the athlete will switch to exercises that focus on unilateral movement, which is vastly different in terms of neuromuscular activation. Initially the athlete will make strength gains that a comparable to someone new to strength training. After 4-8 weeks of unilateral training gains begin to slow and the athlete can recalibrate and then reintroduce a bilateral strength training programme. Again, upon commencement of the new programme the athlete will make incredible initial gains, which will take them beyond they left off at the end of the previous 16 week cycle.

How to Incorporate Unilateral Training for Maximum Effect

Most sports and activities are not symmetrical, meaning that rarely is an activity as controlled and balanced as a standard barbell movement like a squat. These large compound movements serve the purpose of providing the athlete with horse power, the basic foundational strength needed in order to effectively maximise more complex training related specifically to the task at hand. However it is only part of the picture. Most sports are done one leg or one arm at a time. Take sprinting as an example. Sprinting is required in a vast percentage of sports. Sprinting is a single leg activity, meaning that where strength and power is required, it involves only one leg producing force at a time in an alternating fashion between both legs. We are not kangaroos, we don’t travel by using a series of double leg bounds. Therefore it makes sense that some of the horse power that has been developed is transferred into functional, usable patterns of movement. This is where unilateral movements serve their purpose.

Here we will look at three different uses for unilateral movements.

1. Pure Strength Athlete - Powerlifter, strongman, Olympic lifter.

This has already largely been covered in pros and cons. To summarise, or elaborate, whichever, strength training happens in a saw tooth pattern. Progressive overload only works to a certain degree, it cannot work indefinitely. Think of it this way; if we could keep doing barbell squats, bench press etc and indefinitely add 2.5kg to each lift every single workout forever how strong do you think someone would be after 15 years of training? They would likely be able to lift a truck overhead and throw it over the moon. There is a law of diminishing returns, and it’s related to several factors, being hormonal, genetic (as in coded into DNA), neurological and physiological. The human body can only adapt to something in a linear upward progression for a limited time. Over time following the same pattern will lead to slower and slower gains in strength until those gains either stop or eventually begin reversing.

So how do we stop this? The sports science geniuses that have come before me have researched and devised many methods to overcome this. This is called periodisation and can be applied in countless ways. In this example we are using a change in movement patterns, as opposed to a change in intensity or an unload phase. Ideally there is an unload phase in every programme, meaning that athlete will dial back the intensity, go through the motions but not challenge the muscular system or nervous system in any way, so as to allow recalibration, recovery and a restarting of gains. However unloading has its limits, as effective as it is. Every time you go through a training cycle and then perform a period of unloading you come back to training with a slightly reduced capacity to make gains on the same lifts. Eventually you reach your upper potential of strength and gains become almost impossible to notice.

The solution is to go through unlearning phases. This is where you literally train the nervous system to forget the patterns of movement you are ultimately trying to enhance. This is achieved through completely changing the exercises you are doing. The goal is to continue to gain strength, but to train the nervous system to not remember the patterns they have been training for the past 12-16 week cycle. You will replace many of the movements with unilateral training, such as split squats in place of back squats, single arm push-ups (weighted and unweighted) in place of bench press, single arm military press in place of the barbell version etc. The patterns of movement train the exact same muscles but in a completely different firing pattern. This gives the nervous system something new to learn, something new to adapt to. After six weeks of this you can reintroduce heavy bilateral training with the movements you want to improve for competition and begin relearning them, hence making speedy initial gains and far surpassing what you were able to lift at the end of the previous cycle.

2. Other Athletes - Team sports (rugby, ice hockey, American football etc), sprinters, javelin throwers, gymnasts etc.

These are athletes that use strength training as a means to an end, the end not being to lift heavy barbells. In order to sprint effectively it requires a combination of solid foundations built from strength and transferred into power as well aspects of skill and technique. Strength is a part of the equation, but it is not the only thing needed. If it were then power lifters would make the best sprinters. The same principle applies to other components needed in sports such as agility, jumping power, ability to absorb impact etc. All areas of sports are enhanced and aided by increased strength. The issue though is that strength training for athletes is often a misunderstood art and science.

An athlete needs horse power, any athlete. This is first developed through heavy strength training using barbells and standard compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, military press and then onto more complex speed lifts such as cleans, snatches etc. It is said that strength training for athletes is a non-specific activity and only serves as a platform or foundation for other skills. This is true, however it can get a lot more specific than it is for many athletes. The answer, of course, is unilateral training. There are two common themes in sports; the first being that nothing happens in slow motion. Hence strength always needs to be converted to velocity. Secondly, sports are not balanced and movements are unpredictable for the most part. Sprinters cannot predict how every stride will go. A football player cannot predict the angle of impact for every tackle. For this reason athletes need to be strong and stable at the same time. Most sports require the use of one limb at a time. Sprinting is performed by landing on one foot and then the other, never both at the same time. For this reason single leg training is a logical strength choice for an athlete that needs to run at high speed. As an example, I used single leg deadlifts as a triple jumper and was able to add over half a metre to my jump within four weeks of doing this unilateral exercise.

3. Health, General Fitness, Rehab etc.

The general population that trains for the purpose of health and general fitness is not concerned with performance. They are not concerned with every tiny improvement in sprint times or deadlift weight. They are concerned with losing fat, gaining muscle, being healthy, not getting injured, repairing old injuries, repairing new injuries etc.

Unilateral training can be effectively used in a rehab situation or to prevent the need for rehab in the first place. During a bilateral movement there is no way to notice subtle imbalances between the left and right side. As a result the imbalance becomes worse over time. If this goes uncorrected it is almost certain to result in injury or long term pain and discomfort. I will give you an example; I have had an imbalance for years in the pectoralis major. My left has always been larger than my right, however this difference in size has gotten significantly greater as the years of strength training go on. In conjunction with that, my right anterior deltoid has developed far beyond the left in order to compensate for a weak pec major. This was noticed in appearance, but the true discovery was when I began practicing upper body unilateral exercises. The imbalance was ever so much more noticed while lifting in this way. As a result I was able to pinpoint and correct the issue with unilateral training.

The average person has adapted to the easy modern lifestyle. This involves sitting in a chair, lack of walking etc. We have become lazy. As a result, people have a very poor sense of balance and strength. Unilateral training can be effectively used to correct this.

Conclusion

Unilateral training is not something that should replace bilateral training. Heavy compound lifts involving barbells are the cornerstone of any strength programme. However unilateral exercises can be incorporated into a fitness programme to effectively correct imbalances, install a sense of balance into the nervous system, train the body for the unique demands of sport and can serve to balance out a strength programme in order to prevent a plateau. Don’t use it as a replacement, use it as a tool. Unleashed Training is about smart and effective training.

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