How Often Should Weightlifters Do Unilateral Work
by Mike Dewar - BarBend.com
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Squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts (and their variations) are all bilateral exercises that are key for the development of technique, strength, and performance in the sport of Olympic weightlifting. In most programs however, coaches and athletes can integrate unilateral training to improve muscle growth, address movement limitations, increase stability, and prevent injury.
As a weightlifter, you can (and most likely should) train unilateral exercises in every session. Placement and purpose of these can vary, however adding them into warm up segments or after main technique and strength work (bilateral movements) is a great place to start.
I suggest you train 1-2 unilateral movements per session, making sure to use unilateral exercise for most muscle groups or movement patterns. These can be done with little to no loading for movement prep or core training in a warm up, or later in training sessions to increase muscle hypertrophy.
For more advanced lifters, or lifters who may not be able to perform bilateral squats (for whatever reason), they can use unilateral squat variations to increase leg strength, stability, and mobility with heavier loads as well.
Benefits of Unilateral Training for Weightlifters
Below are four main benefits of training unilateral exercise for Olympic weightlifters.
Build More Muscle
Unilateral training can help you build more muscle, and even increase strength. Research suggests that unilateral training can promote greater muscular stimulation. Referred to as the “bilateral deficit”, research indicated that EMG activity and strength recordings were higher in unilateral limbs when relatively compared to bilateral movements. The ability to isolate and train individual movements and muscles on an unilateral basis could help promote muscular development and growth.
Address Muscle Imbalances and Movement Asymmetries
When you only perform bilateral lifts like squats and deadlifts, you may allow muscle and movement imbalances to go unnoticed. Things like hips shifting in the squat, rotating the pelvis during the jerk, and knee pain are just a few issues many lifters deal with. The body learns to compensate which can mask the true cause of these issues, which can often lead to overuse injury, movement issues, and muscle weaknesses. By adding unilateral training into one’s program can improve potentially harmful muscular and movement based imbalances.
Helps You Build a Stronger Core
By training unilaterally, you are able to challenge stabilizing core muscles to adjust to the loading imbalance and stabilize the body. Research suggests that single arm pressing should lead to greater muscle activity and core stabilization in the trunk, showcasing the value of unilateral exercises when trying to further develop core strength.
Can Improve Injury Prevention
Injuries often result from overuse, muscular imbalances, and poor movement patterns. When only training bilaterally, coaches and athletes may not be able to see an acute issue prior to it becoming a chronic problem. By training unilaterally, athletes can better diversify their fitness, attack muscular weaknesses and imbalances, and close the asymmetry gaps that may go uncovered if only training bilaterally.
How to Integrate Unilateral Training in Your Training Program
Generally speaking, you can integrate unilateral training in your warm ups and accessory exercises. Some coaches and athletes may even opt to use lower body exercises like lunges, step ups, and Bulgarian split squats as a squat variation in some programs (typically done on a third squat day during base blocks or hypertrophy phases).
Adding unilateral exercises in your accessory work is also a great way to build new muscle, improve joint stability, and aif in improving movement patterning that is applicable to your main bilateral movements and lifts.
What Bilateral Movements are Key for Weightlifters
In the sport of weightlifting, there are bilateral movements that are essential to the sport, either because they are the sport specific movements (snatch, clean, and jerk), or they support movements that build the most strength and power specific to this sport.
Back squats, front squats, overhead squats, and deadlifts (snatch or clean variations) are all key lower body bilateral movements that should be done on a regular basis for most lifters (overhead squats may be phased out in more advanced lifters or not done as frequently as with beginners). These movements directly correlate to stronger legs and back muscles for snatches and cleans, and/or build overall leg strength necessary for the sport.
Push presses, strict presses, bent over rows, and pull ups are all upper body bilateral movements that are commonly performed by most weightlifters (of all levels). These indirectly translate into the competition lifts (push presses and their relation to jerks), or help to support positional strength necessary for the above lower body bilateral movements.
With the addition of unilateral exercises (see below), lifters can take an already effective program and make it a more robust program that can help address muscle imbalances, movement asymmetries, improve injury prevention, and potentially stimulate new muscle growth.
Best Unilateral Exercises for Weightlifters
Below are some of the best unilateral exercises for building muscle, addressing weaknesses and imbalance, and improving injury prevention that would otherwise go unchecked by only training bilateral movements.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a potent unilateral lower body exercise that can be used to build leg muscle mass, address limitations in leg drive (bilateral deficit), and can even be used to increase squat strength when trained with heavier loads. Unilateral lower body training is key for improving leg drive in the squat, as well as improving knee and hip stability.
Lunges can be done from a stationary position or walking. Both variations are helpful at addressing bilateral deficit, increasing leg strength, and improving knee and hip stability. Walking lunges have the added benefit of increasing dynamic stability and coordination as the lifter must establish a stable base with every step, which can translate to explosive movement and landings necessary in the snatch, clean, and jerk.
Single Leg RDLs
Single leg RDL’s are the unilateral variation of the RDL, which can help to improve hip function, address any muscular or flexibility imbalances in the hamstrings, and even help address any pelvic rotational issues that are unseen during bilateral variations. Single leg RDL’s can help to improve pulling strength and squatting mechanics, and help to protect against lower back injuries that may arise from limitations in hamstring flexibility or hi function during pulls and squats.
Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
Single arm rows are a bent over row variation that can address muscle imbalances of the upper body pulling muscles (lats). These can also be done when a coach or lifter is looking to attack back growth, but may want to be aware of or work around lower back or hamstring limitations (fatigue, soreness) which may not allow them to train the back muscles with enough volume as they would like.
Single Arm Overhead Presses
Single arm overhead pressing can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or even landmine attachments. The single arm overhead press can be done to develop the shoulders, increase pressing and lockout strength overhead, and improve shoulder stability; all of which are key for the snatch and jerk. The landmine shoulder press can place additional emphasis on scapular stability and reinforce proper scapular tracking during pressing and overhead movements.
Arm Bars and Turkish Get Ups
The kettlebell arm bar and Turkish get up are two kettlebell dynamic exercises that can be done to improve shoulder strength, scapular stability, and improve total body coordination and flexibility. These complex movements can be regressed for any level, and are great ways to load the body and joint to improve body awareness, stability, and strength that can translate to most athletic movements that involve overhead and core stability.
Improving lateral stability and core strength are two benefits of training side bends. The obliques are responsible for aiding in core stabilization during squats, pulls, and overhead movements (as well as the competition lifts). Side bends are a great way to help increase the strength of the obliques and also strengthen the torso to help withstand heavier loads.
Integrating unilateral exercises into your current training program is something that takes minimal effort, yet can reward you with more muscle, improve movement patterning, and help keep your joints and body healthy. Stary by adding one unilateral exercise per session, focusing on proper range of motion and stability, in either your warm ups or accessory training, and see which ones work best for you!