Do you train on one leg? Or with one arm? If so, keep doing so. If not, here are a number of reasons to incorporate single limb, or unilateral training into your program.
Top 10 Benefits of Unilateral Training
#1 – Safety
First and foremost a program must be safe for it to be considered effective. If the risks outweigh the rewards for any exercise chop it from your program and look for another alternative.
So why are unilateral lifts considered safer? Well it comes down to the fact that you are using less load. Instead of squatting with 315 lbs on your back for example you might do 225 lbs on one leg. As well, when you consider that many single limb exercises involve DBs, Kbs, cable or something other than a barbell there is less risk of getting trapped under a bar and pinning yourself. This is not to say that unilateral training can’t be done with a barbell but it is rare. And in the rare instance you do use a barbell to do a unilateral lift you have the free limb there to spot yourself if needed.
#2 – Increased intensity
When you work with one limb at a time you can handle greater loads and increase the intensity of your training. To see this for yourself test what load you press dumbbells for 5 reps. Maybe you could do 100 lbs for 5 reps. Now rest a few minutes and try again. Only this time press with one arm. You will find you can reach 5 reps no problem and possibly bang out a few more and hit 7 or 8.
So what happened? Did you magically become stronger after your first set? No, not really. Instead when all of your focus and attention was able to be directed to one arm instead of two you were able to focus all of your attention on that one limb and push more weight. This single limb strength advantage is sometimes referred to as the bilateral deficit and explains why you can single leg squat 225 lbs as your max but only hit 365 lbs on two legs.
#3 – Enhanced core development
One of the biggest benefits of unilateral training is the extra core activation that comes from using only one limb. For many lifters activating their core is something they do consciously at the end of their workouts and involves some type of trunk flexion which activates the superficial core musculature. There isn’t a whole of benefit of this type of training to sports performance or injury prevention.
Instead imagine if your unilateral lifts provided as much, if not more, core development, as they did to strengthening the targeted muscles. Most people can appreciate this when they go from doing a barbell bench press to a single arm arm press. To make the effect even greater trying sliding sideways so only one hip is on the bench and the other is off and unsupported. As you lower the dumbbell towards the body you will find the rotational muscles of the core kick on to prevent you from flipping off the bench.
#4 – Increased frontal plane development
Most gyms workouts target the sagittal plane and ignore the frontal plane. Once in a while you may see a lateral lunge done to warm up or some lateral raises on shoulder day but other than that there isn’t a whole lot going on in the frontal plane. Unilateral training changes that.
Imagine going from a traditional deadlift on two legs to one performed on a single leg. All of a sudden the muscles on the sides of the legs and glutes need to step up their game and provide more stability to the movement or we see compensation in the form of collapsing knees and side bending trunks.
#5 – More sports specific
I’m not a big fan of exercises termed ‘sports-specific’. If we want the most specific training for our sport than we train for the sport. If we don’t move well than we should do movement training and eliminate our weaklinks. The rest of the time is focussed on nutrition, rest and recovery. So adding extra cute ‘sports-specific’ exercises may simply create repetitive strain, lead to over-training and potential injury.
So in this case what I am referring to is that unilateral training is performed with one limb at a time, just as sports are. We run, kick, throw and jump with one limb at a time so there are benefits to incorporating some single limb training to the mix as well to help develop these abilities. Additionally with single limb training we can off-set the load and push or pull un-evenly on one side of the body. Think of the previous example of pressing one dumbbell at a time and how this relates to a collision sport such as football where most contact is with an opponent that is moving and resisting.
And when it relates to performance it appears unilateral training gets the job done. Well known Boston strength coach Mike Boyle is famous for the rear foot elevated split squat and has all but completely eliminated two footed back squats from his programs. He contends that sprint times and jump performance have improved during this programming change.
Stay tuned for Part II and benefits 6-10.