Unilateral Training Methods for Strong and Powerful AF Legs
When you think of the most popular lifts performed in gyms across the country, they all have one thing in common: they are bilateral movements.
What are bilateral movements?
Bilateral exercises are movements that incorporate limbs on both sides of the body. Examples would be a push up, squat, deadlift, vertical jump, pull up, or bench press. These exercises are effective for developing maximal strength and power output because you are able to generate more force using more than one limb at a time. Not only are you stronger and more powerful using both limbs, bilateral movements offer you a better position for overall balance and coordination.
What are unilateral movements?
As you probably guessed, unilateral exercises are one-sided. These include movements such as step ups, lunge variations, sled/prowler exercises, or sprints.
The issue with most training programs is the overuse and emphasis of bilateral exercises along with the neglect of unilateral dominant movements.
Why would you incorporate unilateral exercises into your training?
First of all, no one is built symmetrically. Our movement patterns and even our limb lengths will vary between opposing sides of our body. If we try to train symmetrically all the time with bilateral exercises, eventually, we will further develop our muscular imbalances and inhibit our performance.
IMPLEMENTING UNILATERAL EXERCISES ALLOWS YOU TO STRENGTHEN YOUR WEAK OR INHIBITED AREAS AND IMPROVE YOUR IMBALANCES BECAUSE YOU’RE ABLE TO FOCUS ON ONE SIDE OF THE BODY AT A TIME. SOME KEY BENEFITS OF UNILATERAL EXERCISES INCLUDE:
- CORRECTING IMBALANCES
- IMPROVING COORDINATION
- STRENGTHENING THE CORE
- ENGAGING MULTIPLE STABILIZER MUSCLES
- IMPROVING ATHLETICISM
Most athletic movements are unilateral dominant. Running, punching, throwing, catching, kicking…Even jumping is mostly performed in a unilateral position since athletes are running and driving from one leg when in motion. One sided dominant positions like pitchers must incorporate one sided exercises into their training in order to correct the repetitive stress they are putting on their bodies while playing their sport. On a smaller scale, someone who works at a desk would find similar benefits from unilateral exercises given the way they sit in front of their computer or stand on the subway to and from work.
Lower Body Training
When you go to the gym, you’ll notice a lot of squatting and deadlifting going on, which is great. You don’t really see a lot of people voluntarily performing lunges or heavy ass step ups. When they do, it’s usually because they know they should but don’t necessarily want to. This is because these are hard ass movements to perform and can make you feel like a weak little b_!@#. You’ll find after incorporating some of these unilateral exercises into your training, your legs will add muscle and become stronger because of it.
HEAVY ASS SLED VARIATIONS
If you have access to a sled or prowler with a turf strip in your gym, listen carefully. The amount of return you get from sled or prowler variations is unlike anything you’ll get from other pieces of equipment you’ll find in the gym. Key major benefits include:
- MINIMAL WEAR AND TEAR ON JOINTS/LIGAMENTS
- EASY ON THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
- CONCENTRIC LOADED MOVEMENTS
- EFFICIENT RECOVERY
As with any exercise in the gym, the amount of variations are endless when it comes to sled and prowler exercises. Pushing motions are quad-dominant, while pulling or dragging motions will tend to be hamstring dominant depending on the variation you are performing. For instance, if you are facing toward the sled and dragging it while walking backwards, you will feel your quads engage as opposed to if you were pulling it facing away from the sled, which would light up your hamstrings.
How to Incorporate Sled and Prowler Training into Your Program
There is a time and place for everything. Since sled and prowler exercises are concentric-loaded movements, there is less punishment on your joint and ligaments, which helps you recover faster between workouts.
To gain strength and power, your body is going to have to generate enough force to stimulate a high response of motor unit activation when it comes to resistance training, such as the sled and prowler. With that being said, try doing this towards the beginning of your training session if you are trying to go heavy for 3-5 sets of 20-30 yards. You can use this as the main strength exercise of the workout or a supplemental movement after another strength exercise of your choice.
What do I mean by concentric-loaded?
Lets take weight training for example, specifically the squat. In the squat, you are lowering yourself to depth during the eccentric phase of the lift. After loading during the eccentric phase, your muscles are working to push your body up to full extension through the concentric phase of the lift. Your musculoskeletal and nervous system are fighting against resistance during both phases of the squat, resulting in increased muscle fibre breakdown, with added pressure on the supportive joints and ligaments.
Since you are moving in one direction when it comes to sled and prowler training, you are putting the body through concentric phases. This results in less stress on the musculoskeletal and nervous system, allowing your body to recover more efficiently between training sessions. That’s not to say you don’t gain any benefit from a hypertrophy or strength and power perspective. In fact, the opposite is true.
Incorporating heavy sled and prowler variations into your workouts will make you stronger, faster, more explosive, and add some serious muscle to your legs. Fact.
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT VARIATIONS
Easily one of the most hated exercises in the gym. The Bulgarians are some cruel bastards. Personally, it’s a love hate relationship when it comes to these because even though they feel like complete ass when you’re doing them, the gains speak for themselves. Next to sled work, Bulgarian split squats are on the top of my list when it comes to unilateral exercises that are guaranteed to make your legs stronger and pack on a ton of muscle. With your back leg elevated, you are forced to stabilize with your lead leg, ‘waking up’ more motor units and engaging muscles you don’t really work in bilateral movements such as squat or deadlift variations.
As with all exercises you see in the gym, the amount of split squat variations you can perform is endless. If you’re looking for where to start when it comes to split squat training, think about what you’re trying to accomplish by performing this exercise first. Are you new to split squats and want to learn the basics? Are you an athlete looking to get more explosive and develop power? Are you a weekend warrior looking for a brutal exercise that is going to add muscle to your chicken legs?
DUMBBELL BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
You can start by having your foot up on a bumper plate for slight elevation or a bench for the full variation. This is one of those exercises that I use consistently in my clients’ programs and in my own, and I always hate myself for doing it. But love it at the same time. Try tilting over slightly at the torso, keeping your chest over your lead knee to eliminate hyperextension in the lower back. Not only is this a great exercise to develop muscle and strength, its an effective way to stretch the hips because of the extended position the back leg is in.
BARBELL SPLIT SQUAT (BACK RACK)
Having the bar in a back rack (behind the neck) position provides more recruitment from your glutes and hamstrings.
BARBELL SPLIT SQUAT (FRONT RACK)
Having the bar in a front rack (in front of the neck) position provides more recruitment from your quads and core in order to stabilize the barbell and keep an upright torso.
ZERCHER SPLIT SQUAT
This will murder your quads because of the front loaded weight and will also make your upper body (upper back, core, and arms) to work throughout the movement in order to support the barbell. Tread carefully.
PULSING SPLIT SQUAT
These are a pain in the ass because there’s no break during pulsing split squats. Your legs are in constant motion and tension throughout the entire range of motion. Adding a half rep in between each full rep creates more time under tension for your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Great for bodybuilders or anyone looking to pack on muscle in their legs.
DYNAMIC BANDED SPLIT SQUAT
This advanced variation is for athletes or anyone looking to increase their speed, power, and explosiveness. Dynamic banded split squats are one of those exercises that are pretty much guaranteed to make you jump higher and sprint faster. How powerful you are is determined by how much force you can generate within a condensed period of time. By performing these split squats explosively, you are training your body and nervous system to think fast. This will increase the amount of motor unit activation your body is able to generate, which translates directly to increases in overall strength, maximal power output, speed, jumping ability, and muscle hypertrophy.
EXPLOSIVE SPLIT SQUAT WITH KNEE DRIVE
This one is for the sprinters, or anyone looking for some badass plyometric training to incorporate into their program. Explode up and drive your knee toward your chest, keeping your front foot in dorsi flexion to train you to land in an optimal position that is ready to generate power and explode forward into your stride.
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