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Unilateral Training for Greater Strength Gains and Athletic Performance

Any sport that requires us to propel ourselves requires single limb power, so why donít we train that way?


Most athletes and exercise enthusiasts focus too much on the larger more impressive lifts such as the barbell squat, deadlift and bench press. Many of us hit plateaus with how much we can lift with these bilateral (two limb) lifts. Most of our sports and activities require us to be on one leg at some time and we need to be able to produce strength and power in that single limb position. Any sport that requires us to propel ourselves requires single limb power, so why donít we train that way?


When training one limb at a time you engage and strengthen the smaller, stabilizing muscles that activate neuro-reflexively and you contract harder when controlling the limb which becomes the main focus of the movement. This in turn will lead to a better overall stability and the ability to load the musculoskeletal system more when doing bilateral lifts.


We are naturally dominant with one side of our body and tend to use and develop that side more frequently, thus creating an imbalance in strength and ROM (Range of Motion). When this occurs and we attempt a lift using both limbs, at the same time, to lift the same weight, now there can be unwanted forces and movement that can occur at the joints and in the body when we do this. These energy leaks can create havoc on joint surfaces and create microtruama that can eventually end up as an injury and taking the individual out of their training and their sport. Loading the body and limbs on one side at a time can keep balance in the body with regards to strength and stability issues from one side to the other. The body has to work extremely hard to stabilize the body with doing a single leg deadlift, squat or push/pull movement. Controlling unwanted movement in other parts of the body to perform the lift the body and mind learn how to create stability, tension in the core and stabilizing muscles, thus reducing the risk of injury.


We can use significantly less weight to produce strength gains and is less taxing on the neuromuscular system and tissues, which in turn leads to less recovery and more frequent training sessions.


Unilateral training is an excellent way to test for strength imbalances between the right and left side of the body. Performing a single leg squat or push up can display mobility issues at the hip and ankle or stability issues at the knee and trunk. If you canít perform the same number of repetitions with the same amount of weight on both sides of the body then you know you have some work to do on the weaker side to clean up the imbalance.


Some key aspects to focus on when performing unilateral/ single limb exercises is good posture, joint alignment and performing the movement in a controlled manner. As efficiency enhances, you can increase the speed of the movement for power development.


If you have difficulty with certain exercises due to mobility or weakness in certain ranges of the movement you can still train in partial range, use less weight or body weight assisted equipment such as bands or suspension systems until the mobility/stability dysfunctions are corrected.


An excellent reference for single limb training and full body tension training is ďThe Naked WarriorĒ by Pavel Tsatsouline. He talks about how to create full body tension and how to perfectly execute the single leg pistol squat and the one arm push up. He explains principles and techniques on how to develop strength and takes you through several progressions in order to get to the end goal safely and effectively.


Tom Swales

PT, ATC, FCAMPT, CSCS, CAFCI, RKC, MCT

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