Don’t Forget the Other with Single Limb Training

So there’s a lot of interest in unilateral training. This might be single-legged or one arm at a time type of exercises.

Why the increased emphasis on this type of programming?

Well part of it has to do with the fact that leaders in our industry have come out with very strong support as to the benefits on unilateral training. I remember a few years ago Loren Chiu discussing the benefits of single leg training on athletic training. This was back when everyone was still going crazy over balance training and Loren was one of the first, that I can recall, that offered an alternate option to training on balance toys.

On the other side of the coin there are people such as Mike Boyle who have written about the ‘death of the back squat’. You have to keep in mind that many of these article titles are written to be attention grabbing and challenge a conventional wisdom. This is not be confused with my soon-to-be-released article on how watching sports on tv over the holidays is an effective strategy to make you a better employee, athlete and person overall.

But back to the unilateral training discussion.

We’ve seen the transition away from good old back squats. And these have been replaced with single leg varieties. Even the traditional barbell bench press is more familiarly seen as some version of a dumbbell lift. For example you will see single arm push ups, alternating or even single arm dumbbell presses.

So that’s great. We’ve made the switch to incorporate more single limb exercises. We’re good to go. Right?

Well, not exactly.

Just because one limb is doing all of the work doesn’t mean the opposite limb gets to take the set off. So with that in mind here are 5 Things to Keep in Mind with Unilateral training.

#1 – Wind up to Unwind

What does a quarterback do with his non-throwing arm before making a pass? Or a discuss thrower before he releases the disc?

They pull the arm away from the opposite limb. This creates separation through the upper body specifically through the thoracic spine. This increased separation between the limbs increases the stretch between them. This stretch allows for tension to develop in the muscles that will ultimately be needed to make the throw.

In training you can think of this when doing a snatch with a kettlebell.

Take a look at image #1 and #8 below. In particular look at the position of the left arm. Instead of letting in hang beside the body it is reaching back as far as possible to create this pre-stretch described above.

#2 – Counter Balance

One of the obvious uses of the free limb with single arm or leg training is to counter balance the motion of the working limb. As load moves in one direction there is a need to balance out this force by applying a force in the opposite direction.

Think of performing a single leg squat from an elevated position. As you bend the knee and hip to lower yourself to the ground there is a requirement to load up the glutes and hamstring to reduce the force of the descent.

While this is a challenging exercise it can be made easier by reaching the arms forward in front of the body. Not only does this help counter balance forces it allows helps lengthen the spine.

#3 – Increased Core Activation

Over the years I’ve heard a similar analogy to describe spinal stabilization. One noted physio said to think of squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Another strength coach said to try to lengthen the spine. Many will talk of proper posture and trying to be as tall as possible.

These are all similar cues to attempt to ellicit the same outcome. Which is spinal stabilization.

As we reach the free limbs as far as possible, for example on a single leg squat, we do a better job of stabilizing the spine. And this allows to be more balanced, handle heavier loads and train more safely.

Reason #4 – More Working Side Activation

Normally when I see someone doing a single leg deadlift there is room for improvement. And it has nothing to do with the working leg. Instead it has to do with the free leg.

They have a relaxed, flexed knee on the non-working side. And while it’s ok to begin the hinge in this way it would be beneficial to extend the knee of the non-working leg before extending the hip to stand up.

Why does this matter?

Well when they extend (or straighten) the knee of the non-working leg it helps them achieve a glute contraction on this side before contracting the glute of the working leg.

#5 – Better CAP

CAP means concurrent activation potentiation which is a fancy way of saying something that induces a higher outcome or result. For example, biting down on a mouth guard helps a powerlifter achieve higher levels of muscular activity and lift bigger weights in competition.

How does this apply to unilateral training?

Well imagine the non-working arm on a one arm push up? Some people will let this arm hang. Others will place it loosely on the hip.

But here’s a trick Dr. Stuart McGill shared with me. Shake someone’s hand and trush and crush it.

Now try again but this time push your heels hard into the floor and try and split the floor. Lift your chest tall and squeeze your hip hard with your free hand. Which effort resulted in the stronger grip? The second one of course.

In the same way on a 1 armed push-up don’t ignore your other limbs. Push your feet into the floor. Straighten your knees and squeeze your quads and glutes. Lastly place your free hand on your hip and squeeze tightly. This contraction through the non-working hand still feeds into the shoulders and chest and allows for a better effort on your lift.


Keep these tips in mind as you incorporate unilateral training into your program. Remember that bilateral lifts are by no means bad things but there are definitely a number of benefits of single limb training that shouldn’t be ignored.


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