Bilateral strength exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses, rows) should form the majority of your training because this is where you will get most of your strength gains.
However, unilateral training often gets neglected in the quest to get stronger and more proficient at your particular sport because it’s not as sexy as a big squat, deadlift, or blowing by your opponent on the basketball court.
But unilateral training helps strengthen imbalances, reduce your injury risk, and improve your overall sporting prowess. Here is how.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
3 Benefits Of Unilateral Lifting For Sports Performance
There’s no shortage of reasons to do more unilateral work, but here are a few you should remember:
- Reduce muscle imbalances: Due to activities of daily living and bilateral lifting, almost everybody has a dominant and non-dominant side. (For example, most people will only kick a ball with one leg and never realize their preference.) Strength imbalances can lead to injuries.
- Improves core stability: While lifting unilaterally, you automatically throw your body off-balance, forcing your core muscles to engage to keep yourself stable. Stability, and the ability to generate force from the core, is hugely important for sports.
- Sports are played on one leg: Most sports involve running, and this requires a lot of single leg action. Whether it is sprinting, throwing, or jumping, it is rare for both feet to be on the ground at the same time during these movements. If you’re strong and stable on one leg, you’ll be more effective and get fewer injuries.
If you are in the market to improve your performance then one or more of these exercises needs to make an appearance in your program pronto.
1. Suitcase Carries
Carries will strengthen your grip imbalances between hands which can be a limiting factor when pulling heavy from the floor or pulling your opponent to the ground when they have a full head of steam.
And all variations of carries will improve your overall conditioning without running. Which is a great thing if you don’t like running.
Form Considerations And Programming Suggestion
Cues “shoulders down and back” or “chest up” work well here. Checking your form in a mirror will help tell if you’re overcompensating to one side.
When performing carries, superset them with a movement that doesn’t demand a ton of grip strength. For example:
1A. Goblet squat/press variation: 8 – 10 reps
1B. Suitcase carry: (10 to 30% of your bodyweight) 40 yards one hand then 40 yards on the other.
Suitcase carries will always be a lot lighter than farmer’s carries with two hands because of how taxing it is on your obliques: if you are leaning over to one side, the weight is too heavy.
[Related: 7 Carry Variations You Should Know About]
2. Elevated Split Squat
You need single leg exercises because walking, running, or cutting to change direction and all involve some sort of single leg balance and strength. So it makes sense to train this ability.
Form Considerations And Programming Suggestion
Perform a bodyweight elevated split squat, notice where your big toe is, then place a weight plate in front of it. This will give you a reference point and shorten your set up time between legs and sets. (It doesn’t have to be a weight plate, it can be pretty much anything.)
Having your foot flat on the bench reduces your stability demands. If you want to challenge your stability, then do this on your toes.
Super setting this movement with any upper body exercise will enhance your conditioning because the heart has to work harder to push the blood from your lower body back up into the upper body. For example,
1A. Elevated split squat: 8-12 reps each side
1B. Elevated plyo push-up: 6-12 reps
3. Single Arm Landmine Press
This press is a mix between a vertical and horizontal movement which makes this great for people who lack the shoulder mobility for overhead pressing and for strengthening pressing imbalances from a standing position.
How often do you find yourself lying down on the ground and pressing up on the sporting field? (Unless you’re getting up after being knocked down.)
The extra core work does not go astray either, and this exercise can be performed from a variety of body positions, like half and tall kneeling, to further enhance your balance and core stability.
Form Consideration And Programming Suggestions
Place the end of the barbell a few inches from front of your shoulder and actively squeeze it. This provides muscle irradiation, helping you to produce more force and lift more weight.
Remember to reach the end of the movement to enhance and strengthen the shoulder through a larger range of motion.
Super setting with any landmine exercise works well but pairing this with a rollout gives your anterior core all it can handle. For example,
1A. Single arm landmine press: 8-12 reps on both sides
1B. Single arm landmine rollout: 6 reps on both sides
4. Single Leg Hip Extension Hamstring Curl
This exercise trains and strengthens the hamstrings both has hip extensors and knee flexors. And because this is performed on an unstable surface, your stabilization demands increase too, making your muscles work harder without weight.
Lack of eccentric hamstring strength coupled with poor hamstring to quadricep strength is one of the causes of hamstring strains and tears. When you emphasize the eccentric in this exercise, you will go a long way to bulletproofing your hamstrings.(1)
Form Tips And Programming Suggestion
Engage your glutes and make sure your body is in a straight line from hips to shoulders when performing this. Slowly straightening the leg (eccentric) helps you get the best out of this exercise.
Pairing this with a stability ball exercise that works the anterior core while resting your hamstrings gives you a potent anterior/posterior core combo. For example,
1A. Stability ball hip extensions hamstring curl: 6 reps on each side
1B. Stability ball stir the pot: 8 circles in each direction
[Related: 2 simple tests to see if your hamstrings are weak]
Do not forget about unilateral training when it comes to getting bigger, stronger, and preventing injuries. Including these exercises in your routine will improve your lifting numbers, sporting performance and help keep you off the DL.
- Lee JWY, et al. Eccentric hamstring strength deficit and poor hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio are risk factors for hamstring strain injury in football: A prospective study of 146 professional players. J Sci Med Sport. 2018 Aug;21(8):789-793.