Dropping bilateral exercises in favor of unilateral training is an increasingly popular view-point among strength and conditioning professionals. Mike Boyle has even recommended dropping bilateral squatting entirely in favor of single leg work.
This is an interesting train of thought, and although I disagree that bilateral training should be completely removed there are some awesome benefits to single leg training. Being a former competitive athlete bilateral exercises like back squats have formed a major part of my training experience and are awesome for developing mental toughness, power, and pure strength.
Recently, I have struggled with some lower back issues which have limited my ability to do my favorite exercises: front squats, back squats, and deadlifts. Instead of battling through the exercises and making my injury worse I stepped back and devised a plan to substitute my bilateral exercises for unilateral exercises. I have been performing single leg squats, pistol squats, 1 legged deadlifts, step ups, and multiple lunge variations to comprise the majority of my lower body training.
Here are some common benefits to single leg training
- Better activation of the lateral sub system. These muscles are not activated during bilateral lifts, but are during single leg exercise due to increased stabilization requirements. These muscles include the gluteus medius, hip adductors, and quadrates lumborum.
- Because these muscles are used as stabilizers as they were designed, the exercise can be considered more “functional.” (For those who are looking to develop inner and outer thighs this is the best way, not the yes no machine)
- Increased balance from better stabilizer muscle activation
- Increased flexibility. Performing unilateral exercises can uncover some differences in flexibility and strength between different limbs. By working to minimize these differences we can potentially decrease injury risk and improve movement quality.
- Decreased lower back stress and spinal compression. Thus far my back has made great strides as I have been able to train my lower body without subjecting my spine to huge shear and compressive forces.
In Addition I have found noticed some less common benefits to single leg training
- Increased forearm size and strength. Try high rep step ups, split squats, or dumbbell lunges. Your grip will be absolutely destroyed
- Decreased systemic fatigue. Heavy lifting as I have done in the past is extremely taxing on the nervous system. With single leg training I am forced to use less weight as only 1 limb is doing most of the work. With this decrease in fatigue I have been able to increase my training frequency, resulting in a greater overall training stimuli.
- Increased stimulation to the upper body, specifically the traps, rhomboids, lats, QL, and erector muscles. Due to increased time under tension while keeping a tall chest and tight back the muscles that help serve this functions while controlling the weight
- Increased pain tolerance. By this I mean good pain! Try busting out sets of 15-20 rep front foot elevated split squats….they……are…..brutal.
n a perfect world I would still be performing bilateral exercises to start my lower body workouts, but would comprise most, if not all the accessory work to be single leg variations.
To add some single leg training into your routines stick with deadlift variation such as a 1 leg romainian deadlift, a lunge/step up variation, and an un-supported squat such as a single leg squat to a box for moderate/high reps between 5-20.
This post is not meant to disregard bilateral training and classic exercises such as the squat or deadlift, but to share my experiences and some potential benefits to adding single leg training into your regimen. It is always best to work around injuries, rather than through aches and pains or stopping training in its entirety.