Unilateral training, or essentially training on one leg at a time, is a great way to complement the bilateral (two legged) training you already do. It offers an array of benefits across the spectrum of health to performance. Regardless of whether your goals are general health, sports performance, or competitive strength training, just about everyone can benefit from including some unilateral work into their training plan.
If you are unfamiliar with the terms, “bilateral” refers to exercises where both legs are being used and are both performing the same task. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, front squats and two-handed kettlebell swings are examples of bilateral movements. When we use the term “unilateral” it refers to exercises where one leg is doing all of (or the majority of) the work, or that the legs are doing different tasks within the drill. Some examples of unilateral exercises would be lunges, step ups, rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS for short), single leg deadlifts (SLDL) and pistol squats. Every now and then you hear these terms used for upper body exercises as well, but without a qualifier it is pretty safe to assume they are referring to lower body.
Bilateral exercises, when used wisely, are great for building muscle and developing strength and power. At Industrial Strength we include them in almost all of our training programs in one fashion or another. However, we also see the value in training unilaterally, and using those drills to fill the gaps left by their two-legged counterparts. Here are a few reasons why we like unilateral training:
Whether you are training for general health or sports performance, balance is an important consideration. This could range from minimizing the risk of an injury due to a slip-and-fall, all the way to having the balance to counter an opponent’s throw in a grappling match and reversing it with a throw of your own.
- Alignment and stability
Unilateral training is more “self limiting” than bilateral due to the balance and stability demands. For example, a common problem in a squat is to have the knees collapse inwards (aka “valgus collapse”). When this happens, the lifter can usually still finish the lift, just with less than optimal technique that may take its toll on the knees. If you tried to do most unilateral exercises (such as a lunge) with that same valgus collapse, you probably couldn’t complete the rep and might even fall over. So, in order to actually perform a unilateral exercise, your joint alignment and stability needs to be reasonably good. If you develop this well enough, it will likely carry over into better positioning in your bilateral lifts too.
- Back sparing
Your lower back can only take so much volume of squats and deadlifts before it starts to get irritated. How much it can take depends on the individual based on training experience, strength levels, functional mobility, exercise technique, core stability and some other things. One way to keep training the hips and legs without asking too much from the lower back is with unilateral training. In exercises like RFESS, lunges and step ups the legs can be trained hard while keeping the back more upright compared to deadlifts or bilateral squats. Additionally, you can use ample weight to challenge your legs, but it will be only a fraction of what your back can tolerate. If you normally squat 200×5, you could work up to single leg squatting 100×5, which would effectively be about the same weight on your leg, but now your back is only supporting half the load. If you have a touchy lower back but still want to strength train, this benefit is something that should not be overlooked.
- Functional strength and power
Most athletic movements are performed off one leg at a time – sprinting, cutting, many types of jumps and bounds – they are all performed from a unilateral stance. By including some unilateral strength & power training in your program, you can help to bridge the gap between the bilateral strength built with squats and deadlifts with the specific movements of your sport or activity.
- Increased range of motion
Many people are not mobile enough to squat below parallel with good technique (parallel meaning the crease of the hip is lower than the top of the knee). However, many of these people can achieve parallel depth or even lower in exercises like step ups, lunges and RFESS. When trained on a regular basis, this should result in improved mobility, strength and joint function at new-found ranges of motion.
- Reducing asymmetries
This one may sound obvious, but most people are more proficient moving on their dominant leg than their non-dominant one. By including unilateral training, it can help reduce the gap between the two legs, thus offering more balanced movement. This is also crucial if you’ve ever experienced a notable injury on one side, since that will often impact movement even after it is healed. Training each leg individually will help get things straightened out and get you moving in a good direction.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where I will share a few of my favorite unilateral exercises and explain where to start with them.
And as always, thanks for your time!
-Tony Gracia, Head Coach