Over the years I have always approached strength development by phasing down a day’s training by beginning with the most demanding movements first…and then moving on to smaller accessory work. The idea here is to build absolute strength right out of the gate…and then move on to optimally developing movement and symmetry next. Single limb training is one great way to build that symmetry and movement.
A bilateral movement involves sharing the load or resistance between two limbs. A few examples of this would be the barbell back squat, the barbell bench press, etc. In these examples you have to move the weight of the bar using both limbs.
In the opening paragraph I talked about designing my strength program by phasing down from the most demanding movements first and then moving on to more accessory work. It’s in the bigger more demanding movements where I generally implement a bilateral movement such as a barbell bench press, barbell back squat, or barbell deadlift first.
Unilateral Movement/Single Limb
Where bilateral exercise involves sharing the load between two limbs in contrast unilateral exercise places the stress solely on one limb. Unilateral movements (single limb movements) are also great for building symmetry by allowing the limb being used to solely handle the load being lifted.
This allows for greater control of that limb and the idea is that any deficiency in strength in that limb will be elevated to match the other limb for greater bilateral performance. This is something that I’ve personally been a firm believer in for years, particularly because I’ve experienced great imbalances due to having experienced traumatic knee injuries with both knees at separate times in my life.
Granted there are studies that show that the impact on sprint performance and agility are pretty much equal in terms of results with the implementation of both unilateral movements and bilateral movements. Click here for that. (Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players; Speirs, Derrick E.; Bennett, Mark A.; Finn, Charlotte V.; Turner, Anthony P.)
However I do believe having both is a good idea. Just having one without the other is like having cereal without milk, or peanut butter without the jelly. It just makes sense to incorporate both into your strength and conditioning program.
I believe that single limb training is great because it also promotes greater stability from the challenge of holding the body/resistance during the movement. One great movement for the upper body that I am a big fan of is the single arm dumbbell bench press.
For an upper body unilateral movement I’m a huge fan of this drill and it’ll also give you a set of shoulders and triceps the size of Texas. I know what you can see in the video is me holding the dumbbell in one arm and pressing it, but what you can’t see is the diagonal line of tension that I feel from my upper right shoulder that runs all the way down to my left foot.
This diagonal line of tension is what creates such tremendous core stability in order to pull off the movement. Not only is this great for building solid core strength, but the movement also trains you to handle a load in a much more graceful and respectable manner.
In addition to having a unilateral Go-To for the upper body I also have a unilateral Go-To for the lower body as well. For the lower body I like to focus on ankle, knee, and hip stability so I’ll hammer out some single arm single leg deadlift on my key leg days.
What you can see here in this video is that I’m loading the arm opposite of the grounded leg in order to perform this movement. What you’re not seeing is that as I do lower myself towards the ground by flexing (bending) the hip and knee of the grounded leg I’m simultaneously extending the opposite leg back to point behind me while contracting that glute muscle.
By contracting the glute muscle of the lifted leg you’ll discover a cool little secret. It seems counterintuitive to do this for balance, but as you do it you’ll actually find out that it will help to more easily keep your hips square while reinforcing your ability to maintain stability during the movement.
Unilateral movements are great for helping you to enhance overall total strength because of the influence of more quality symmetry in terms of your strength gains. Even though studies have shown equal results on sprint and agility performance with the implementation of bilateral and unilateral movements respectively the implementation of single limb training still enables us to move with greater control and overall grace.
The fluidity of movement is just more present as I’ve had years to experiment with this element both personally and with having trained hundreds of athletes.
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and if so then don’t be shy about posting up in the comments section below. Stay strong, train smart, and don’t adopt a victim mindset!
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