May 31, 2018
One-Sided Advice

As a coach, you probably want the work that you do with athletes in the weight room to transfer to the field of play. According to an article for TrainHeroic by Nic Gill, professional strength and conditioning coach and consultant, one of the best ways to do that is to incorporate unilateral exercises into their training. While many programs focus on bilateral exercises, the reality is that most sports, whether running, jumping, or throwing, use unilateral movements.

Unilateral exercises don’t just add functional, real world movements to your athletes’ training, though. Gill explains that another important reason for adding these exercises is to stop past or present injuries from turning into future ones. Most athletes have had injuries at some point during their career, which can lead to compensation. Implementing unilateral exercises can help ensure that the athlete isn’t changing their movements and favoring one side over the other.

“The imbalanced body that naturally deemphasizes the injured side will overemphasize the other to make up for it,” writes Gill. “This tilting in the undercompensation/overcompensation see-saw may not only lead to issues with the injured muscle, joint, ligament, or tendon, but also create trouble up and down the kinetic chain from the site of injury.”

Even when there aren’t any injuries, your athletes could be favoring one side over the other. And according to Gill, bilateral exercises won’t always make these inequalities obvious. Unilateral exercises can help re-groove the correct patterns and address issues in asymmetry and muscle activation. Some of these imbalances might even be a part of the athletes anatomy, such as a longer arm or leg.

“While performing unilateral exercises is obviously not going to change the formation of bone or alter limb length, it can help the athlete minimize the potential negative performance impact of such anatomical imbalances,” writes Gill.

How can a coach who has been focusing on bilateral exercises implement unilateral movements into their athletes’ training regimen? For Gill, adding these exercises doesn’t mean completely overhauling his program. Instead, he keeps his “go-to lifts” such as deadlifts, back and front squats, weighted pull ups, and bench presses and adds unilateral exercises as accessory work.

“These often involve similar movement patterns to their bilateral counterparts, but have greater requirements for obtaining and sustaining trunk stiffness, single-limb stability and mobility, and symmetrical muscle activation,” writes Gill. “Single-sided exercises also require the client’s body to resist rotation, as well as creating different flexion and extension demands from double-sided versions.”

Here are a few examples of how Gill pairs his bilateral “Big Rock” exercises with unilateral accessory movements:

1. Bilateral Big Rock: Squat

Unilateral Accessory Exercises: Split squats, step-ups, lunges​

2. Bilateral Big Rock: Deadlift

Unilateral Accessory Exercises: Single-leg Romanian deadlifts, single-leg glute/ham raises

3. Bilateral Big Rock: Barbell bench press

Unilateral Accessory Exercises: Single-arm push-ups, overhead kettlebell presses, dumbbell bench presses

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