Programming adjustment for single limb training

I am a big fan of unilateral training, both for upper and lower body exercises. Especially for lower body. I also work with bilateral exercises as I believe they are also an important part of a balanced training program. But I think a program without unilateral training is missing something.

The primary reason that I love unilateral training is that it helps to identify strength and flexibility differences from side to side. I see these across all types of people, but especially among those who play a sport that uses one side more than the other. If you think about it, this is almost every sport with the exception of running, swimming and cycling (If I missed one please let me know in the comments below). Even those sports will tend to have a unilateral element to it:

  • Swimmers often breath almost  exclusively on one side
  • Cyclists will typically shift more with one hand, grab their water bottle with one hand, coast with the same foot forward,  initiate climbs with the same foot…
  • And runners? Well, okay, that may be a truly bilateral sport.  And yet most of the runners that I see at Custom Strength have major imbalances from left to right. Perhaps this is from the non-running hours of the day.

Basically almost everyone has some differences left to right. In fact I’ll quantify that: 83%.

I put every client that I see through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and 83% have shown at least one left to right asymmetry (from my article about the FMS trends I have seen).

That 83% is pretty much the reason I like unilateral training. That and fringe benefits  like rotary core strength development, improved proprioception, and gaining a large training effect for each leg without over-loading the back.

About that training effect for each leg.

This is one of the great aspects of unilateral training: you can really strengthen each leg. A 150 pound single-leg Romanian Deadlift gives the same leg training load as a 300 pound Romanian deadlift. As a trainer, I much prefer the former because it means I don’t have to worry about that person’s back carrying 300 pounds.

At some point, as people spend more time doing unilateral training, particularly for the legs, I have noticed that the quality of the last few reps on the second side drops. It makes sense if you think about it. If you are working in the 6 repetition range, then by the time you are on your 5th and 6th rep on the second leg, you are actually on the 11th and 12th rep for your core, your back, your grip, and your central nervous system (CNS).  And with some exercises, such as split squats, the non-working leg is actually doing work; so when that leg becomes the working leg, it is not starting out fresh.

We could argue that we just need to improve our strength, stability and fitness level to be able to excel throughout the full set on both sides. But what are we really achieving by doing so? If the best way to meet our current goal is to work in the 12 rep range, we would work in the 12 rep range. But we’re not. We’re in the 6 rep range. So let’s work in the 6 rep range!

Tweaking your programming to address Unilateral Repetition Overload (URO)

URO? Really? Okay, you caught me. I’m just making terms up because I couldn’t think of a better way to say it and I am amused by the bastardization of the English language. I suspect I will go to linguist hell for this where I’ll spend an eternity being subjected to people saying “expecially”, “expresso”, and “supposably”.  I digress…

Most fitness training or performance training programs I put together use supersets or circuits with 3 to 4 exercises for the strength portion of the workout. To address URO – something that I believe is a shortcoming of unilateral training –  I have started making minor changes to the way I set up the superset or circuit.  So far I am only using for my own training, but I am loving the result so much that I plan to introduce it to my clients this week.

As an example, here is an how I setup the strength portions of my workout today:

Circuit A:

3 sets of:

  • Single leg Romanian Deadlift (SL RDL) one side x 5 reps (145#)
  • Kb Floor press with glute  bridge (horizontal push)
  • SL RDL other side x 5 reps (145#)
  • Off bench leg hold (an ab exercise I’m playing with – more on that in the coming weeks)

Circuit B:

3 sets of:

  • Split squats one side x 5 reps (145#)
  • One arm KB row, each side (horizontal pull)
  • Split squats second side x 5 reps (145#)
  • Cable-push pull (a rotary core exercise)

It’s very simple: I did one side of the heavy lower body unilateral exercise, did another unrelated exercise (either core or upper body), came back and did the other side, and then did a 3rd exercise. Then rest, and repeat the circuit. It is so easy to program, and really improves the quality of those last few repetitions on the second side.

In the case of the SL RDL, I find there is also an added benefit that it also allows me to go heavier without the need for straps (I am a proponent of straps, but like people to do as much as possible without for grip strength).

The idea for trying this actually came to me a couple of years ago when someone suggested on the Strength Coach forum that they were considering doing one side of their unilateral exercise one day and the other side the next day. I replied that I thought that might be excessive and lead to potential problems based on what people do in between, if they miss a day, or from getting post-workout soreness on one side only, and suggested a better option would be to just split up the sides within the workout itself as I suggested here. For some reason it took me until very recently to actually put that into practice. I’m very glad that I finally did.

You will notice in the workout above that I didn’t use this approach for the upper body unilateral training (one arm KB rows). As I get heavier I may do so, but I think so far that the nature of upper body unilateral training is such that there is less crossover from side to side, and thus the URO is reduced. If you think otherwise, please do share in the comments below.

If you use unilateral training, give this a try and see what you think. I’d love to hear how it works for you and your clients.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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6 thoughts on “Programming adjustment for single limb training”

  1. Thanks Marc, and apologies for the super late reply. I’m guessing your fibula is better now! Thanks for the article link. I am always keen to read more about the bilateral deficit.

  2. Thanks Risto. Try splitting the exercise up as in the article and I think you’ll find improvements. As for the RFESS – the vest is a great option. I like the creativity with the backpack, but what about wearing it backwards – so the weight is on the front instead of the back. This will tend to force you into better posture and so might be more comfortable. Wearing a backpack on our backs tends to force us into a forward lean. And of course, make sure the backpack can actually hold the weight! I’d hate to have it break and you end up with a weight falling on your foot.

  3. Apparently I’m behind the times! Glad to see that others are finding this approach works. Thanks!

  4. Nice article, Elsbeth. This is exactly how I’ve been programming my unilateral lower body stuff for the last year or so. It started as a need for my stronger athletes and now I use it for most.

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Wow, this is very creative, Elsbeth. Thanks!

    I’ve been having issues with this myself on RFESS. My weights have gotten a little too heavy for my grip that my second leg suffers because of this.

    I don’t have access to a weighted vest, but I could put some dumbbells in a school bag. This would let me use a little lighter dumbbells in my hands so that the grip wouldn’t be a problem. But what you suggest here would work also.

    Weighted school bag feels a little uncomfortable for the shoulders and lower back to be honest, but maybe that’s an option right now. What do you think?

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