If you hang out on social media networks long enough, there is no doubt you are going to run into various peoples’ videos of them lifting very heavy weights on a back squat, bench press, deadlift, or any of the other well-known lifts to which the general population can relate. While you are bound to see a lot of variety of exercises, they all seem to have one thing in common: they are bilateral feats of strength. Bilateral means that the lift is done using both sides of the body at the same time. To use the above examples, on the bench press both arms move simultaneously, just like both legs do on the squat and deadlift (obviously these are full body lifts, but you know what I’m saying).
Recently at Summit Strength I have had multiple athletes mention to me that they feel that one of their arms or legs feels weaker while doing a compound lift. This usually manifests itself in an uneven bar path or the knees turning in on the squat or deadlift, so it is actually fairly easy to spot. Both of these can be dangerous movements to allow, particularly the knees going in, or “valgus”, as it stresses ligaments in a way prone to injury. So, how do we solve this problem without just going way too light on the weight? The answer comes in unilateral training.
Mike Boyle, one of the fathers of strength training in the United States, states on his blog that when his facility started adopting unilateral training such as split squats the athletes were actually using a proportionally heavier load, per leg, than when doing the back squat. Heavier load equals greater strength development which makes a better, healthier athlete.
Another reason to utilize unilateral movements is to improve your bilateral exercises. Let’s say, for example, that your left leg is weaker than your right leg. When you squat, you are going to overcompensate for the strength imbalance with your right. Not only does this prime you for injury, but it also holds back how far your squat can develop. By doing a unilateral exercise such as split squats, the left leg can develop strength equivalent to the right, thereby injury proofing your body and allowing you to push farther and higher on the squat.
Some great unilateral exercises include: