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See, most strength-and-hypertrophy-minded folks hold unilateral exercises in low esteem. Trust me, I get it. I'd never replace deadlifts, cleans or presses with their unilateral counterparts; but that's not to say that unilateral training isn't a great complement to heavy barbell work.
Incorporating unilateral exercises by means of assistance training can take your size and strength to the next level. Here's the why and how.
Lifters spend years learning the art of creating tension. Barbell in hand, and on shoulders, rep after rep is focused on "getting tight" in the right places--often times to no avail. It's frustrating because optimal tension promotes optimal neurological output, which in turn equals optimal strength.
As ominous as they are to some, barbell exercises are sometimes not threatening enough to train lifters to create tension. When the body perceives threat, it creates more tension. In the exercise realm, there aren't many things more threatening than tipping over from an asymmetrical load. The single arm bench press is a great example. If the core isn't tight and the feet aren't pressed firmly into the ground, you're going to fall off of the bench.
While barbell movements make us strong, they also hide our inadequacies. Joints that lack stability are masked by compensation--another joint, or group of joints, picks up for those in lack.
Training with a single limb, especially in the case of pressing movements, allows for the muscle group being trained to independently stabilize. Of course, this isn't a completely enthralling concept, certainly not at the forefront of most lifters' brains, but stability is a predecessor to strength.
Stable joints and body segments receive more juice from the central nervous system. More juice equals more strength. Stability doesn't sound so bland now, does it?
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Muscular imbalances and stability are immediate family members. As it goes with most sibling rivalries, muscular imbalances perpetuate stability problems and instability leads to muscular imbalances. It is indeed a vicious cycle.
Dominant to non-dominant strength discrepancies are common. However, balancing strength from right to left strongly accentuates gains made with bilateral training.
Twice the Volume
Growth takes volume—double the time under tension by training limbs individually and you increase the physiological load.
Take the four sets of six you had planned for your incline bench press and apply that to each arm. Now you have forty-eight reps rather than twenty-four. The loading isn't as intense, but greater work volumes promote increases in work capacity. Increase general work capacity and you'll be able to better handle increases in high-intensity workloads.
Want a long, storied training career? Most of us do, but that requires maintaining a healthy, structurally sound body.
We're often so focused on creating tension and locking the spine in place during barbell movements that we forget that the spine is supposed to move. Not in the instance of a heavy lift, of course, but outside of a heavy lift situation, the spine should have mobility.
Unilateral exercises (especially upper-body ones) create spinal movement while building strength. This is important for counteracting all the lock-in-place tension created during squatting, deadlifting and benching efforts.
Our core musculature needs to effectively resist rotation forces imposed upon it. Whether we're aware of it or not, these forces are acting on us all the time, even during bilateral strength movements. Reinforcing the body's rotary stability by training unilaterally boosts performance in big lifts and in all aspects of life.
Unilateral Power: Sprinting
There's no exercise on the planet greater for unilateral power than sprinting. It's what we were born to do.
If you haven't sprinted in a while keep the distance around twenty yards and make sure it's uphill. This limits the need for deceleration and will help prevent pulling a hammy! Also, be sure to regulate intensity. Don't tear off like mad man if you haven't sprinted since the '90s. Keep the intensity at or below eighty percent for a few weeks.
Keep in mind that consistent sprinting is also great for fat loss.
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Most would guess that I'd include Bulgarian split squats here, but they aren't a true unilateral exercise. The rear leg is working, too. Step-ups, however, are truly unilateral provided that you're not cheating with your off leg.
Load these up in the six to eight rep range. You can use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, it's inconsequential. Step up on to a surface that requires your femur to be parallel, or slightly below, to the ground. Just make sure you stay tall during the lift and drive through the middle of your foot of the working leg.
Unilateral Strength (Upper Body): One Arm Bench Press/One Arm Row
These two upper-body bad boys not only build pushing and pulling strength, but they have a serious core strengthening effect.
Load these with sets of five to eight. Keep your core tight and squeeze your lats like crazy on the one arm bench press; also be sure to press both feet firmly into the floor to avoid hip rotation. Make sure to squeeze the weight up during the one arm rows. Don't jerk it up.
Unilateral training isn't as appealing as loading 500 pounds on a barbell and ripping it from the earth, but it has its place in our training programs. Now you have the reasoning and the means to implement a few, solid unilateral exercises, put them to good use.
Todd mentions some of his favorite unilateral exercises. What's your favorite? Let us know in the comments field below.