Unilateral Strength Training

Experts' Roundtable

No, I’m not talking about hopping up and down on a BOSU ball while trying to rub your belly and tap your nose and recite the alphabet backward (I may have done this). I’m talking real high tension strength builders here, Jack.

If you want to get strong as hell, you’d better not overlook unilateral (single limb) strength training. This is a subject that has been all the rage as of late but for good reason. These exercises offer the perfect complement to your bilateral (double leg/arm) movements to help keep your strength gains plentiful.

Single limb strength movements tend to require more stability and can activate the deep core muscles to help keep your body stable and balanced. You will use stabilization muscles that are not usually targeted and can remain dormant when training bilateral movements. Unilateral strength exercises can help to build an all around stronger, more stable, and faster body.

For those who think single limb training is just body weight stuff that can’t get you strong, give me a break. You can load nearly enough any unilateral strength exercise with added resistance and produce significant strength and hypertrophy gains.

Often in sports and athletic events, we perform movements that require us to produce power when standing on one foot, but many athletes don’t utilize unilateral strength training, which is almost like leaving potential strength and power untapped. You run on one leg, you kick on one leg, you throw a javelin or a football with one arm, and you punch or kick using one limb.

At first, stability can be a major issue when training one limb at a time, especially when it comes to leg exercises that you may find it difficult to use much added weight at all. In most cases, however (in my experience with my own training), it gets easier very quickly.

Barbell exercises such as squats and deadlifts can be troublesome for many athletes who suffer from back problems. In such situations, continuing to use these lifts can often worsen the condition and put more unwanted stress on the spine. Unilateral strength training offers a back friendly way to strengthen the legs with resistance without loading the spine and aggravating any back issues one might have.

Another benefit that I've also noticed by adding weighted single leg movements while reducing my barbell squat and deadlift volume slightly is that my legs recover much quicker from session to session, allowing me to train legs three times per week and still make good, steady progress.

Unilateral movements can also help to even out strength imbalances. If one limb is stronger than the other, training them independently of one another can quickly help bring the lagging limb up to speed, which in the long run may even help prevent an injury. All the above benefits aside, including unilateral exercises into your training can get you strong as hell and improve your core strength as well as your joint stability significantly. Now who the hell doesn’t want that?

For this article, I decided to collaborate with some of the top trainers in the fitness industry, people who I have the utmost respect for and who know a great deal about this topic. I reached out to this roundtable of strength coaches and asked them which unilateral strength exercise they've had the most success with in training both themselves and their athletes and what results it has garnered. Naturally, trying to pick just one choice was difficult for each of them, but their answers were very interesting.

Dan John

Like most coaches, I use a variety of one limb movements and tend to throw them all out. Then I bring them back in...and throw them out. Really, I only use two now—the Turkish get-up and the one-arm press. Of course, tomorrow I'll add to the list.

For me—and perhaps this is just my old school roots—I think the one-arm press is the answer to the question, “If all you had time for was one exercise, what would you do?” I like the fact that the athlete has to root into the ground, stabilize, rock up, focus, and squeeze without me ever having to say any of it. It also covers the Janda “phasic” muscle issue basically in one stop. It's almost always a challenge. If this movement gets weaker, I also know that “something” is going on.

Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, CPT

My favorite unilateral strength exercise is the one-legged dumbbell Romanian deadlift.

Even for trainees with a fair amount of experience under the bar, one-legged Romanian deadlifts are about as advanced as it gets as far as single leg movements go. Here, many things have to harmoniously come into play (core stability, hip stability, upper back strength, balance) in order to perform the movement effectively, and it isn't something you just haphazardly throw into the mix.

I’ve seen a lot of trainees with a fair amount of time under the bar attempt this seemingly “simple” exercise only to fail miserably and look as if they were humping a whale (if humping a whale entailed rounding the back and otherwise performing the movement with God awful technique). While performing the movement with a dumbbell in each hand is perfectly fine, I prefer offset loading where you only hold one dumbbell. In doing so, two things happen:

  • You place an added premium on engaging the core so as not to tip over. So if you’re standing on your left leg, hold the dumbbell in your right hand. As a result, the core musculature has to kick into overdrive.
  • Most people have weak glutes let alone ones that actually perform well. With an offset load, another major advantage is that the glute max (and posterior fibers of the glute medius)—both external rotators of the hip—have to turn on to prevent the femur from internally rotating and causing a cascade of events down the kinetic chain.

It's important to maintain good technique, so here are some pointers:

  1. Keep the neck packed. Many will view this as looking down, but, in fact, you’re just keeping the neck in a neutral position. Ideally, when performing this exercise, you want to think of your entire backside as making a straight line (i.e. maintain natural curvature of the spine) from your head all the way down to your toes. Put another way, think of it as making your spine long and your head follows the hinge.
  2. Crush the dumbbell with your grip. By doing so, you create a phenomenon called irradiation, which forces the rotator cuff to fire and essentially “packs” the shoulder nice and tight. This is important because you can’t think of this movement as actively lowering the dumbbell with your arm. Many trainees make the mistake of trying to touch the dumbbell all the way to the floor, resulting in a significant amount of lumbar flexion. Either way, it’s something you want to avoid, especially when under load.
  3. Instead, a better way to approach it is to think about pushing your hips back (again, keeping your back in a straight line throughout). So instead of actively thinking about lowering the dumbbell, all you need to do is think “hips back” until the dumbbell reaches roughly mid-shin level. At that point, you should feel some pretty significant tension in the hamstrings.
  4. Additionally, as you push back, you should feel the brunt of your weight shift back into your supporting leg’s heel. If you feel your weight shifting more toward your toes, try taking your shoes off, as the additional heel lift will shift your weight anteriorly (which you don’t want).
  5. Also, with the standing (supporting) leg, I like to tell trainees to keep a “soft knee.” It shouldn’t be locked or stiff. Ideally, you want about 15–20 degrees of knee flexion.
  6. To finish, try to “pull” yourself back through the heel and make sure you finish with your glute. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
  7. Be awesome.

Michael Boyle of MBSC

My favorite, as I’m sure you know, is the rear foot elevated split squat. We've replaced our conventional front squats (we haven’t back squatted in years) with this movement and have had great results. Our sprint times and vertical jumps continue to improve, and we've had zero injuries. That's my definition of a win win.

Martin Rooney of Training for Warriors

I use many different single limb activities in my training. For my favorite, I like heavy weighted lunge walks. Now, I know this may not completely be “single leg” like a step-up or one legged deadlift, but if people can say a Bulgarian split squat is single leg, I think the same of the lunge walk.

I've worked up to 225 lbs on my back with a barbell for this exercise. I believe this exercise not only develops overall body strength and challenges balance, but this can also be used to develop the cardiovascular system and mental toughness.

I perform these barefoot to develop proprioception and strength in my feet and lower leg. During the performance, I pay particular attention to tempo, which is often overlooked by people. I concentrate on absorbing force and lowering for a full second under control. I come to a pause in the low position and then explode up as fast as possible. This helps to develop strength and deceleration ability in the lower limb, which is important for joint stiffness and injury prevention in sport.

These can be performed for either reps or distance. I commonly finish my leg training workout with three sets of twenty yards. Common mistakes are the knees tracking in or low back rounding. Make sure to use the appropriate weight and don't sacrifice technique for intensity. Dumbbells or kettlebells can be used in place of the barbell for people with either shoulder inflexibility or for a change in stimulus.

Nia Shanks of Girls Gone Strong

It’s a difficult task to identify one favorite single limb exercise. However, I can pick out a favorite exercise for a desired training effect.

One of my favorite single limb accessory exercises is the single leg back extension. Not only does this exercise blast your hamstrings and glutes, but it allows you to do so without loading your spine as with some traditional barbell exercises like Romanian deadlifts and good mornings. Furthermore, single leg back extensions aren’t overly fatiguing because you can’t use a ton of weight.

I performed this exercise frequently as I built my way up to sumo deadlifting 300 pounds for a triple.

When performing the single leg back extension, make sure the pad is below your pelvis so it can rotate forward (this will engage your glutes). Push your hips back as you lower yourself (you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings) and actively thrust your hips forward into the pad as you come back up. Squeeze your glutes hard at the top. Be prepared. It’s tougher than it looks. To add weight, just hold a dumbbell against your chest.

Jim Bathurst of Beast Skills

My favorite single limb strength exercise is the one arm hanging scapular depression/retraction. To explain this, I first have to explain the problem I see with the majority of people’s chin-ups and pull-ups. Instead of getting their shoulders down and back, their shoulders come forward and up. You’ll know this is a problem when someone’s legs come forward and they fail to get their chest to the bar. They get their chin over, but the chest can’t cleanly touch. They've lost strong positioning in their shoulder blades and their whole body curls inward.

To remedy this, we can hang from two arms and then eventually one arm and practice retracting and depressing the shoulder blades. Keep the arm straight and focus on the muscles around the shoulder blade alone. You will raise upward slightly. I prefer to put this at the end of the workout for reps of six to ten.

Get stronger and more capable of getting and keeping those shoulder blades down into position and watch your weighted chin-ups and muscle-up strength soar.

Max Shank of Ambition Athletics

I argue that the airborne lunge is one of the more athletic single limb exercises, though I do have a soft spot in my heart for the single leg deadlifts.

I like the airborne lunge for some of the same reasons that I like the single leg deadlift. It's unsupported, so you're training single leg stance. You have one hip in extension and one in flexion, similar to a normal gait (running, bounding), which is different than a standard single leg squat that has both hips in flexion. This further facilitates hip separation and flexibility. It's knee dominant but with a lot of glute emphasis.

A good airborne lunge requires good ankle mobility, leg strength, powerful hip extension, and balance—qualities that most people are lacking in some way. Get strong on the airborne lunge and prepare to be faster and more explosive in a split stance.

Simon Boulter

I’d like to finish by including my own personal favorite, the pistol squat. The pistol squat is one of the most valuable exercises an athlete can have in his little black book of tricks when training for strength, power, and increased muscle. Of course, that depends on whether or not the athlete can actually perform pistols. The truth is most can’t and won’t without a lot of work. After trying a few times and failing, most give up and never try again.

The pistol squat requires balance and strength. It's a unique exercise, easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. Going straight into performing a pistol without any prior one-legged training will probably leave you falling on your ass. Easing into a pistol with some rear foot elevated split squats and airborne lunges is an excellent approach to training for your first pistol.

Final thoughts

I certainly don’t recommend replacing bilateral movements with unilateral movements completely, but adding some into your workouts could be incredibly beneficial, even if only as accessory exercises. Unilateral strength movements seem to work best for me in the five to ten repetition range, as I feel most comfortable adding a moderate amount of weight while concentrating on good form and firing up the right muscles.

If you haven’t already, be sure to follow me on Twitter at #. Until next time, live strong and train hard.