Unilateral Strength Training for the Athlete

Sometimes the most effective forms of training an athlete are the simplest.

Walk into most gyms and sports performance centers and you will see majority of people doing leg exercises either seated (leg press), or with both feet on the ground (standard squat). It seems, no matter how much information comes out on the benefits of unilateral exercises (single leg training), there will always be those who persist on having both feet firmly placed on the ground.

Unilateral Strength

One of my favorite pastimes has been challenging the bigger stronger athletes or gym rats who squat or leg press ridiculous amounts of weight, to get onto one limb and try a single leg squat or split lunge. It’s usually proves for some good entertainment, because never mind the lack of balance or range of depth they try obtain, but the inability to even do a single leg squat their own body weight!

In my opinion, a male weighing 80kg weight who can squat double his bodyweight, but cannot effectively do a single leg squat (without any added weight) to 90 degree range or further, is not ‘strong’ or functional.

Why is it that you don’t see many people doing unilateral strength training? Well, the answer maybe boil’s down to the fact that firstly, it’s tough and secondly, It ain’t sexy if you ain’t good at it – simple.

Most of these ‘strong’ big guys in the gym will usually look at me doing a balance exercise on an Airex pad or half foam roller like I’m a ballerina or an injured athlete going through his rehab program. But then when I ask them to give it a try themselves, they get onto one leg, start to sway, then follow it with a one foot tap dance, desperately trying to maintain their balance.

The thing with bilateral exercises (ie: machines, traditional squats, leg press etc..) is that it has a shorter learning curve and requires less stability and core activation – Not ideal for an athlete who requires great movement skills and aims to stay injury free.

Unilateral exercises on the other hand are more joint friendly, demand more core activation and more stability – elements that are crucial for the healthy and wannabe faster athlete.

In my method of training (McCaw Method), I like to combine single leg strength work with single leg plyo work. The combination of the two help create a more stabile, stronger and explosive athlete.

In fact, a recent study (Carvalho A, et al – Journal of Human Kinetics) on the effects of strength training combined with plyometric exercises on athletes, proved that they not only increased lower limb strength, explosiveness and improved VJ performance, but also reduced body fat content. But my best evaluation and test of this, has been with the athletes I have worked with.

Some of the best uni-lateral exercises I use with my athletes include: Single leg squat on half foam roller, Split lunge squat, Dumbbell Lunge Variations, Single leg bounds, Single leg hurdle jumps, etc.

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