Center Your Training on Unilateral Movements
Very few of us train for the sake of training. Every coach I know and every athlete and trainee I work with ascribes a “why” behind their “what.” We train to improve performance. Better performance of functional movement patterns that leave us better equipped to conquer the physical challenges that arise in everyday life. Better performance in the sports and hobbies of our choice. Regardless of your training motivation, we seek to enhance our abilities in natural (or at least pseudo-natural in the case of sports) human movements.
Imagine the vast range of movements you use throughout a day, or an entire lifetime. Add in the equally vast set of movements in the world of athletic competition. Scan through your list to pick out the movements that are completely symmetrical. I can think of very few.
Compare that to the way that most people train in the gym, even those who train primarily “functional movement.” Push ups, pull ups, squats, kettlebell swings, deadlifts, nearly all other barbell movements, rowing, and jumping rope are all bilateral, completely symmetrical movements. These are all wonderful training tools to improve performance, but the closest imitation of real-life patterns will always come from unilateral movements. Rather than use unilateral movements as accessory work, utilize unilateral and single-side-dominant movements for the bulk of your training.
Types of Unilateral Movement
Athletic movements fall into three primary categories: single-side-dominant, side-to-side transfer, and repeated cyclical transfer. Completely one-sided movements are as rare as completely symmetrical ones, because every functional pattern will recruit the core.
- Single-Side-Dominant: These are movements like hitting a tennis ball or a volleyball serve. They are focused primary through one half of the body where the driving leg is the same side of the dominant arm (as with a tennis swing) or the legs are nearly removed from the equation (as with being airborne in a volleyball serve).
- Side-to-Side Transfer: These are most common and happen when power initiates though one leg and transfers across to the other half of body. A baseball swing, a golf swing, throwing, and kicking a ball or opponent are all examples of this.
- Cyclical Side-to-Side Transfer: These are also quite common and include movements like running, walking, swimming and cycling. They are symmetrical on the macro scale but each individual phase (stride, stroke, etc.) comes primarily from a single-side of the body.
Why Go Unilateral?
Among many of my coach friends, I am considered a “kettlebell guy,” a distinction I enjoy, but fear might be misunderstood. I do not prioritize kettlebells for myself and in my program design simply because I find them fun, interesting, or rewarding, although all of that is true. Kettlebells remain my primary tool of choice because of the unique training effect they provide and the opportunities for unilateral movements that they create.
Unilateral movement immediately exposes any mobility imbalances or strength discrepancies you have. And you probably have more than you imagine. Training unilateral movements while modulating the relative intensity and volume between sides can diminish or all but eliminate these imbalances.
Most symmetrical movements do not present any significant balance challenge. Singe-side focused exercises typically require a single limb to stabilize while acting as the primary mover, developing both balance and joint stability. In my experience, these two training effects provide the greatest contribution to injury prevention and longevity.
By spotlighting imbalances and adding a stability and balance component, unilateral movements disallow bad habits and side-to-side interdependence. I’ve seen many athletes stall out on heavy squat progress and exhibit a slight imbalance in their squat form (watch their feet, knees, and hips), only to discover this imbalance to be glaring when testing an exercise like a rear foot elevated split squat, or a box step up. I find the same huge gaps when comparing kettlebell presses to barbell presses.
We can mask imbalances and unknowingly turn supposed symmetrical movements, like a squat or press, into a single-side-focused pattern. If this happens subtly enough, it can even elude a discerning coach’s eye. Well-intentioned bilateral training can accidentally widen an already present imbalance.
What Are You Trying to Be?
Unless you compete in powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, or CrossFit that require big numbers in all the “big” lifts, you will benefit by shifting your focus to unilateral movements.
Trade more deadlifts for single-leg deadlifts, trade more squats for pistols, lunges, split squats, and step ups, and choose single-arm pressing movements (especially bottoms-up).
Detractors will claim that you need to perform heavy squats and deadlifts to gain meaningful strength. I agree. High-percentage loading and the innervation, bone density, and connective tissue strength that follow should be a large part of any effective training program. But for most trainees, these should be seen as the accessory movements to unilateral training, rather than the other way around.
To all coaches and athletes fearful to reduce your use of the “big” strength lifts, I leave you with two questions:
- Which patterns do you really want to optimize?
- How often is the strongest team member in the weight room the best athlete on the field of play?
No matter your sport, you training has to cover these bases: