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Chaos and Pain

  /  tips   /  Training Tips: Unilateral Vs. Bilateral Training

Training Tips: Unilateral Vs. Bilateral Training

Ed Shanks

When it comes to packing on the most muscle possible it is
hard to beat compound movements. One of the reasons why they are so effective
at building size and strength is that compound movements work both sides of
your body at the same time. Working both halves of your body at the same time is
referred to as bilateral training. Other movements that only train one side of
your body are referred to as unilateral training movements. These movements,
such as lunges, are good at isolating specific muscle groups. 

So, when it comes to designing your own training protocol,
should you include more bilateral movements than unilateral movements? At first
thought, you would think bilateral is the way to go. You can usually handle
more weight than with unilateral movements, and bilateral movements tend to be
the most efficient for training. So, what do you do?

Advantages of Bilateral

Most people love bilateral training movements. These are
your exercises like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. You are working both
sides of your body at the same time, and can push your body beyond its natural limit
to force it to grow and get stronger. In other words, you can pick up some heavy
sh*t and impress your fellow gym goers with your display of manly strength. Most
expert trainers will design their clients’ programs around the big three. They
are extremely efficient exercises. You train the most muscle groups in the
shortest amount of time when you use bilateral training. 

And yes, even I like to make workouts for people based on
the big three compound movements. However, the older I get, the more I have
come to realize that bilateral training is not always the best way to go to
gain the most muscle and strength possible. Did you just read that correctly?
Yes, yes you did.

Advantages of Unilateral

Like I mentioned above, I am a big fan of bilateral
training. I have been doing it for decades. However, I started to notice major
imbalances after an ankle injury. The result was over use of dominate muscle
groups that ultimately lead to multiple injuries.

Most of my issues started after my junior year in college. I
suffered a high ankle sprain in a basketball intermural league and was on crutches
for two weeks. I was back in action lifting and playing basketball at 100% after
six weeks. However, I had developed a weakness in my left ankle that would lead
to several injuries within the next decade.

My first injury occurred after a
friend of mine didn’t believe that I used to be able to dunk a basketball in
college (I’m only 5’11”). So, I naturally did what any sane-minded adult male
would do. I went out to the basketball court and proved him wrong. Unfortunately,
after I landed I realized that I had hurt my knee. I’m not sure exactly what
happened, but I think that the weakness in my left ankle caused my left knee to
take too much of the load when I landed.

And then there was my second flag
football injury. The first injury resulted in 11 stiches to my forehead to
close the hole from the collision with an opposing player’s elbow. The second
injury happened when I was in some of the best shape of my life. I was 230 lbs.
and ripped, plus I still had all my speed. During the last game of the first
day of the tournament, one of the opposing teams decided to test my speed. I
not only caught up to the receiver (he had a 5-yard jump on me) but I deflected
the pass at the last moment. The opposing team’s receiver was so shocked that I
caught him that he ended up falling on the play. I on the other hand felt a
slight squeeze in my right hamstring. I was on crutches for two weeks, and the half
of the back of my right leg was black and blue for a week.

I hurt my leg because my right leg
had been taking most of the load in everything I did. Running, squatting, bench
pressing, etc. The result was that I was out of alignment. I was strong as on
ox, but what’s the point if you are lifting 500+ pounds and your right leg is
doing 65% of the work? You won’t notice much of a difference in the size of your
muscles, but you will notice a difference in their strength.

Who would have thought that an old
ankle injury from the good ole college days could have caused so many issues? Is
there anything you can do? Yes, unilateral training.

Unilateral training allows you to activate
the neuro pathways of each side of your body separate from one another. For
example, the split squat is an example of a unilateral exercise for your legs. Lunges
are also unilateral exercises. As you get stronger and your imbalances correct
themselves, your bilateral movements will also get stronger. And more
importantly, you will give your muscles the proper rest they need to fully
recover, and prevent injuries.

In the next part of this series, I
will go over the best ways to incorporate unilateral movements into any workout

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