Why Incorporating Unilateral Movements In Training Is Important To Athletic Development
“How much do you bench?” That’s usually the typical gym metric to see how strong someone is, but rarely will that help you in a field or court sport (at least not to the level you would hope).
Bilateral lifting has been a staple to many strength training programs and for good reason. You can load them more and they require less skill acquisition to initially learn them.
The problem that lies with only training these bilateral movements is that they don’t help you manage force on one limb. This is essential to control your deceleration and cutting abilities in a sport. The bilateral lifts can help you with managing high force outputs, but they don’t help you decelerate a turn from side to side as they are not built to do so.
For example, when an athlete has to change direction quickly from higher speeds, they have to quickly plant the foot, and as their center of mass comes over the leg, they need to slow it down and stop motion and reverse the direction with a high force output. The ability to create the high force can be achieved in the bilateral squat or deadlift, but the ability to center the mass and control the position at a single-leg would need to be trained in some form of unilateral work, whether that is a strength-training activity, plyometric, agility drill, or combination of any of these.
(See the angle of the hips. They are not square like a bilateral movement. Also, the chest is moving over the right leg in this case, centering all of the mass towards that side as he turns. He is starting to push off to initiate a turn to the left. If he planted on both feet like a squat, he wouldn't be able to create this motion).
The same goes for upper body movements. The unilateral motion and positions of the arms allow the thorax to turn and gives the body control above the hips as you rotate or change direction.
Bilateral movements restrict motion, especially the heavier you go. Reason being is that you don’t want to rotate as you lift heavy. You want to create more stiffness and decrease interference to allow you to produce maximum force. In athletics, we need to coordinate our ability to stiffen and relax to allow change of directions and turns to happen so we can transfer force in the right places at the right time.
Use a baseball player swinging a bat for example. Sure their legs are in a slightly wider squat stance, but do they squat evenly through the motion to swing?
They move by turning and loading the backside hip and stop the motion, push into the ground and shift towards the front side leg which allows the body to turn and transfer the force through the bat. Again, if the bilateral squat may give them the force production, but the coordination and ability to change their center of mass is done through unilateral and asymmetrical training.
(See how the left leg is getting loaded and the body is centering over that side before he moves through the swing to shift towards the right leg and accelerate through the ball. The black line shows his center of mass angle at this moment in time and the blue arrow represents the motion the hips will travel through as he turns.).
The implementation of these does not need to be extensive. They should be mainly focused on your biggest deficiency in movement patterns in a unilateral fashion. Below is an example of a lower body and upper body day of how this was implemented with a college soccer player that worked with us in the offseason to maximize their performance and movement abilities. (Bolded are the main unilateral moves that were added to address deficiencies).
A1) Front Squat 4x8-10
A2) Seated Box Jump 4x5
B1) Jefferson Split-Squat 3x12 (These were performed to assist with turning into a cut)
B2) HK Medball Throw 3x10 (To the up side knee)
B3) SL RDL 3x10 (back foot on wall, weight in opposite hand to promote turning into working hip)
C1) ISO Leg extension holds 3x30-45s (At 30 degrees of knee flexion)
C2) Leg Curls 3x10-15
C3) Copenhagen Bench Planks 3x15-25s each side
A1) Incline DB Press 3x8-10
A2) Staggered-Stance Low Cable Row 3x8-12 each (Opposite arm reaching on pull to promote thorax turning)
A3) Medball Chest Throw 3x10 (6lbs)
B1) Alternating Hand Elevated Push-Up 3x6-8 each
B2) HK Lat Pulldown 3x8-12 each (Pulling side is the down side leg)
B3) Meball Slam 3x10 (6lbs)
C1) HK Cable Lift 3x10 (To up leg)
C2) DB Lateral Raises 3x8-12
C3) Triceps Pushdowns 3x8-12
C4) Elevated Push-up Drop Catches 3x4
This was not extensive, but her ability to turn was being addressed as she could not land in a cut well and control the ability to slow down. The rest of the program addressed the needs in agility and speed work as well. You can see the Jefferson Split-Squats and the SL RDL’s assisted with gaining control and the single arm rowing moves addressed the same side turning control as well.
Small changes can make a big difference as long as you know what needs to be addressed and you track the progress.
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Dr. Peter Dionisopoulos is the owner and founder of Dynamic Performance & Rehab. He has worked with many high-level athletes and military personnel, but his true passion is to help active adults maintain their lifestyle by providing information and potential solutions to their aches and pains so they can continue with the activities they love.