the joy of strength training


October 16th, 2008 at 11:09 pm

Improve weaknesses with unilateral exercises

Unilateral exercises are, quite simply, exercises done on one side only, such as single leg squats or one arm dumbbell presses. Most exercises that you do in the gym have a single-side option.

Why do unilateral exercises?

Many of the best functional strength and conditioning coaches advocate unilateral work:

“Most athletes and people in general need to focus more on unilateral (single leg) lower body work than bilateral (both legs) lower body work. For non-powerlifters, most of life occurs on one leg.”
– Alwyn Cosgrove, 10 Things I’ve Learned

“Whether or not you wish to use barbells, I still advocate unilateral training. There are clear benefits (ex. coordination, stabilization requirements, the ability to target specific imbalances, etc.). A complete strength plan should include a unilateral element.”
– Ross Enamait on his forum

There are many good reasons to incorporate unilateral exercises in your training programme:

  • To improve strength imbalances in the body
  • Help to prevent injury due to undiagnosed weaknesses
  • Safer, as they involve less weight and decreased load on the back
  • Functional – lots of things in sports and in life occur on one leg or arm!
  • Easy to do at home with limited equipment
  • Train oft-neglected aspects of fitness, such as balance

It’s not necessary to do unilateral exercises all the time (although you can if you want) but it is worth incorporating them into a training cycle every so often.

Injury prevention

If you have ever tried to bench press with two dumbbells at the same time, you may have noticed that one dumbbell goes up easier than the other. Most people have strength imbalances in the body due to the fact that we favour one side or another for functional movements but often the first time people find out about it is when they get injured.

“If you are in the strength and conditioning game long enough you are going to encounter structural and muscular imbalances along the way. These imbalances and weakness occur naturally and by way of accident or injury. Rarely if ever will these situations correct themselves.”
–    Michael Rutherford, Dumbbell Unilateral Training Alternatives, Performance Menu

Sometimes an injury in one part of the body can be traced back to a weakness in another part of the body. These can be difficult to diagnose, especially if you coach yourself. So one option is to train in a preventative manner and try to cover all bases from the beginning!

How to perform unilateral exercises

Watch my video demonstration of the key unilateral exercises and read on below.

Almost any lift that you do with two hands or two legs can also be done with one hand or one leg. You may have to change the equipment, such as using a dumbbell instead of a barbell.  Some of the most effective exercises are:

  • Single leg squat (pistol)
  • Single leg stiff legged deadlift
  • One arm dumbbell swing
  • One arm dumbbell snatch
  • One arm dumbbell press (either bench or overhead)
  • One arm clean and press/jerk

Single leg squat aka pistol

Single leg squats can be done on the floor or on a raised platform. The floor version requires more flexibility but is harder to add weight to. Hold your arms out for balance and squat down as far as you can go.  If you want to add more weight to the move, hold a dumbell in one or both hands, or wear a weighted vest.

pistols on floor   pistols on bench

Single leg stiff-legged deadlift

single leg RDLThis is a great move as it puts more strain on the hamstring and less on the back than a conventional stiff-legged deadlift.

Hold a dumbell in each hand and slowly push the hips back, lowering your arms towards the floor. Keep the back flat.

As in the pistol, maintaining your balance is tricky, so take it carefully. Make sure that you keep a slight bend in the working knee, but not too much so the hamstring is worked.

When doing one leg exercises, I recommend you wear flat trainers rather than trainers with a lot of air as they tend to wobble!

Exercise guide to the One arm dumbbell snatch

Exercise guide to the One arm dumbell swing

Magic 50 workout

A classic strength and conditioning workout from Ross Enamait, who is a fan of unilateral exercises. This lung-buster incorporates both the dumbbell snatch and swing to provide a great full body workout.

5 rounds as fast as possible of:

5 x dumbell snatch each arm
5 x dumbell swing each arm
10 push-up burpees

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  • 1

    A very important topic which is fully covered in this article! The videos are also great!

    After discovering the unilateral movements I wondered why aren’t they more widely promoted. Eventually, and after some experience with them I think that these movements are more humbling, and more challenging…They do not allow one to lift a really heavy weight, and they do not promote the myopic one muscle isolation work.

    Beyond the benefits which are anlysed in the article, for my understanding the one leg lifts are more effective. The balance requirements are huge…I am not refering only to the ability you need to stand on one leg which developes the ankle knee hip musculator like nothting else, but also the effort required for the lifting of the other unsupported part of the body, which supercharges all your core muscles.

    One leg squat is not “1/2 squat”. It is a totally different, better(my view) exercise. The way that it loads the ankle, the knee, and especially the hip has NO relationship to what the normal squat does. All the glutei muscles and the all important rotators come into play big way.
    On the other hand the bipodal squat overworks the back extensors, hence the usal problems of most heavy squaters with their lower back.

    If you watch Gubernatrix or Ross Enamait performing the one leg squat, you may think it is easy! Doing it on a bench increases the instability. Keeping a dumbell with the other hand makes the lift even more unbalanced (which is good if done both sides!).

    Be strong, be healthy!

    Demetre on October 18th, 2008
  • 2

    What’s the limiting factor in performing a one-legged squat? I can’t get any sort of reasonable depth on these. Is tight hamstrings the problem?

    lelak on October 21st, 2008
  • 3

    @ lelak: I’m not sure whether tight hamstrings are the problem. Obviously the hamstrings extend in this movement, but I think it might be more complicated than that. I don’t have particularly good flexibility but I’ve always been able to do one-legged squats. Similarly, I know a few people who get sufficient depth at two-legged squats but have problems with the one-legged variety.

    My opinion is that technique has a lot to do with it. There’s a really noticeable transfer from quad power to hamstring/glute/stabiliser power as you descend which I think is tricky. So perhaps it is not that the hamstrings are tight but that they are not getting ‘cued’ properly?

    I suspect that ankle flexion also comes into play and people with tight ankles might have problems.

    The above is speculation though, I don’t know for sure.

    gubernatrix on October 21st, 2008
  • 4

    The lady in that video was killing those pistols. Very impressive.

    Single leg work definitely has a ton of benefits – Just like Cosgrove says – most of life occurs on one leg.

    Doug Groce on October 22nd, 2008
  • 5

    […] Unilateral exercises […]

  • 6

    Damn fine pistols Gube!!!

    Boris on October 23rd, 2008
  • 7

    Thanks Boris and Doug. I was surprised at how hard the bench ones are!

    gubernatrix on October 24th, 2008
  • 8

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