Benefits of Unilateral Training

Unilateral training (single limb training) has been a powerful tool to help improve athletic performance and fitness. But does unilateral training provide benefit for the non-athlete? Absolutely. Here are some terrific benefits to single limb training and how it can benefit anyone.

Promotes Stabilization and balance

The idea of balancing on one leg seems, for many young people, a simple physical ability but as we get older and farther away from the sports and physical activities of our youth this becomes an issue. Furthermore, after the age of sixty, a simple trip and fall that, for a younger person would just be comical and embarrassing, could lead to serious injury. Single limb training forces you to activate smaller muscles for stabilization and increases proprioception.

You move through life one leg at a time

Most all movement is initiated unilaterally or one leg at a time, especially in running and walking. Someday just take notice how often you are driving off one leg like climbing stairs or getting in a vehicle or eccentrically stabilizing like stepping down off a bus or going down steps. A study done by the NSCA comparing both unilateral and bilateral exercises in basketball players showed “endurance capacity improvements appear to be type specific (e.g. unilateral training is required for unilateral endurance.” Additionally, since the majority of movement is single leg specific, it is beneficial to include unilateral training with all your clients.

Builds your core

A study that appeared in The Journal Of Strength And Conditioning concluded that that unilateral training resulted in more muscle activation around the core and trunk area. Exercises like a single arm dumbbell bench press, one arm shoulder press, or lunges activate core activity tremendously and without having to put a maximal load on your back (e.g. Bilateral Squats)

It helps deal with muscle imbalances

I see this a lot in my assessments. A client leaning and favoring one leg during a squat or one arm higher than the other during a bench press. Bilateral exercises tend to hide these issues and often make them worse. Single limb training allows you to reduce the volume on one side while the other catches up.

De loads the spine

Sometimes doing week after week of heavy, bilateral exercises can take its toll on your client’s back. Taking a few weeks to focus on single leg exercises will allow the spine to decompress while still keeping the legs strong. I have found this an excellent thing to do for my athletes as they move into pre- season training, but have also found it helpful for my every day folks as well.

Off season
High volume squats
Barbell bench
Barbell Rows/ weighted pull -up

Pre- season Split lunges Unilateral Romanian dead-lift Single arm dumbbell chest press Single arm cable pull down vertical/horizontal

Try this for your clients. It’s similar to prescribing a de-load without having to actually do a de-load. The immense physical and neural stress that bilateral dead lifts and squats and bench press illicit are one of the reasons for their incredible effectiveness. But, every so often, getting the heavy bar off their back and out of their hands will go a long way in keeping them strong and fresh.

References: Power training: Robert dos Remedos, MA, CSCS Behm, D.G., Leonard, A.M., Young, W.B., Bonsey, C., Mackinnon, S.N. and Andrew, W. (2005) Trunk Muscle Electromyographic Activity with Unstable and Unilateral Exercises. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Vol. 19, No. 1: 1

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