Unilateral Training

Unilateral training refers to using one limb at a time, as opposed to bilateral training which involves both limbs.

A leg press and seated row are bilateral movements while a single leg press and single-arm dumbbell row are unilateral movements.

Many actions in everyday life require us to use only one limb at a time. Regardless of what specific activity you are training for, unilateral moves help show weaknesses or imbalances within the body. It’s the discovery of these weaknesses, and corrections, that allow us to further improve our health and performance.

I personally love doing full body compound movements, training multiple muscle groups at a time. These are extremely efficient and result in a bigger central nervous system response, thus a better hormonal response, leading to better strength and body composition.

However, I always keep at least one isolation exercise or unilateral movement in my clients (and my own) daily routines. This way, we never allow one dominant muscle group to compensate for a weaker one, thereby exacerbating the imbalance.

If you are just starting to incorporate unilateral training, try a simple dumbbell row – one knee and hand on a bench, back straight, other arm hanging straight holding a dumbbell. “Row” the weight up to about the armpit, trying to pull the arm up and over with the shoulder blade (but don’t twist the torso).

Another simple move to start with would be standing on one leg. This can be done while doing other movements, such a bicep curl or internal shoulder rotation, or it can be treated as its own movement. Standing on one leg will reveal weaknesses at the joints, in the leg or core muscles, or even neurological proprioception issues.

My favorite unilateral movements, as exemplified above, are for the legs and the shoulder blades.
Unilateral training for the legs will reveal weaknesses or incoordination in the lower body, but also instability throughout the core, and may even provide an opportunity for postural analysis. Movements like lunges or single leg dead lifts (SLDLs) are my go to movements for clients trying to increase strength, stability, and function.

Unilateral training for the upper back is useful because it will teach an individual to move the arms in concert with the shoulder blades. If an individual is only using their shoulder muscles, when reaching, lifting, or moving loads, they risk rotator cuff injuries. However, if they can incorporate all the muscles of the upper back, they will have a safer strength potential.

Some advanced movements to work towards would be things like a one-legged squat (pistol squat) or a one-arm pull-up. To achieve either of these, the muscles, stabilizers, joints, and bones throughout the entire body have to be strengthened perfectly.

So, if your workout has stagnated and you’re having trouble adding repetitions or weight to your movements, try incorporating a few unilateral movements to reveal imbalances and weaknesses.

And remember: a personal trainer can help guide you through this process of exercise selection, providing motivation, and finding areas to improve upon safely, guaranteeing long-term improvement!

Testosterone

Eventually I want to post one-page “action plans” for things like improving blood cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, or normalizing hormone levels. But, before I can do that, it’s necessary to discuss these topics to learn the terms and find out what healthy numbers or ranges are.

We’ve already talked about cholesterol, so, today let’s talk about the hormone, testosterone.

Whenever I cite “maintaining healthy testosterone levels” as a reason for eating more of one type of food, or less of another, a woman within earshot will always proclaim that, as a female, they don’t care about testosterone levels.

One thing I’m realizing more and more is the power of certain words and the emotional response they elicit.

For example, “gluten” has started to develop a negative reaction from the general public. Alternatively, “low-calorie” is a very popular marketing label that makes people feel like they are making a healthy food choice.

The irony is that people aren’t sure what gluten is or that caloric content is dependent upon the amount of food consumed. “Gluten-free” does not make a food healthy and “low-calorie” foods are only low in calories if you eat a small portion.

How does this apply to testosterone?

My best guess is that when professional athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters started taking drugs to boost their testosterone levels to super-physiological levels, the general public’s perception of testosterone changed. Suddenly, testosterone was not a necessary hormone for life, found in every living creature, but merely a means to achieving unnatural levels of muscle and strength or boosting athletic performance.

So, what is testosterone really?

Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone but, more importantly, it is the most prevalent “anabolic steroid” produced within the body. Again, some words that may scare the general public…

Anabolic is simply the process of smaller units coming together to make larger units.

In the human body, this translates to muscles, bones, and all cells in the body rebuilding or becoming stronger.

Testosterone certainly helps with increasing muscle mass, but it is also necessary for maintaining any lean muscle mass, reducing body fat, and increasing bone density. In fact, low testosterone levels are a leading cause of osteoporosis amongst women and the aging population.

Testosterone production naturally decreases with age, and low testosterone levels become rather cyclical. This is because fat cells in the body convert testosterone into the female sex hormone, estradiol, thereby lowering testosterone levels further and creating a more favorable environment for fat to thrive and lean muscle to break down.

In addition, the interplay between different hormone levels in the body plays an important role in the development and growth of multiple forms of cancer. Simply put, high estrogen levels and low testosterone levels will stimulate the growth of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers.

For these reasons, I find it very odd when women in a gym tell me they are not concerned with their testosterone levels. In my mind, the point of the gym is to provide your body with a stimulus that it will recover from; making it stronger and better in the process. And, without testosterone, the body cannot recover adequately.

I’ll wrap up my post there but be on the lookout in the coming weeks for a short and simple action plan to maintain healthy hormone levels in the body.

For now, try to differentiate the concept of athletes raising their testosterone to unnatural levels through the use of drugs and the importance of naturally-occurring testosterone in your body.

Foam Rolling

As a change of pace this week let’s look at the recovery technique known as foam rolling.

As the name implies, foam rolling is the act of position one’s body on a foam tube and rolling over different muscles or tissues. I have mentioned foam rolling before when listing different recovery techniques, but today I’ll explain this topic in depth.

The technical term for foam rolling is “self-myofascial release”.

Our muscles are encased in soft tissue known as fascia, hence myofascial release.

Very often, training, or alternatively, inactivity, can cause muscle tension, soreness, and reduced blood flow through the tissue. By massaging (rolling or kneading) the fascia, blood flow will improve and the soreness should dissipate.

The act of foam rolling can be very painful in the moment, particularly when you roll over a muscle you used recently training (known as a “trigger point”).

I always joke with my clients that foam rolling “is the only time you’ll see me cry”. If you read my previous post that first touched upon foam rolling, you’ll recall that I have a metal Trigger Point roller that can be frozen, resulting in a more intense feeling.

Now, just to clarify, I am not a “no pain, no gain” type of trainer. I always like my clients to feel like they can complete a few more repetitions or intervals to ensure they are not overtraining. But, I will still tell them that, as long as they are rolling on muscle and not bone or cartilage, the immediate resulting sensations may not be pleasant.

If you stick with it for long enough however, you should notice improved recovery, primarily due to less time spent feeling stiff and sore after workouts.

The most common parts of the body to roll are the abductors (the outer thigh…particularly the IT Band), the adductors (inner thigh), hamstrings and glutes, and the length of the back. But, if you search around online, and are willing to crawl around on the floor for long enough, you can find a way to roll almost every muscle in your body.

I tend to use a softer roller in the morning to warm up my body for the day and save my metal roller for before bed to really dig in and massage my sore muscles from the day.

Foam rolling is not only for recovery from intense exercise however.

A quick anecdotal testament to the efficacy of foam rolling: I had a middle-aged female client that had extreme low back pain her entire life. Doctors, chiropractors, and even physical therapists were not able to give her any relief. We tried strengthening her core, we tried improving hamstring and hip flexibility, but nothing worked. Finally, at the end of one session, I had her roll out her thighs. When she woke up the next day, her back pain was gone. No amount of strengthening, stretching, or resting helped as much as a simple self-myofascial release.

I have some of my beginning clients lay on a foam roller, lining their spine up with it. Even this will help alleviate muscle tightness throughout the chest and back. And it may even reveal postural issues stemming from the spinal alignment

So, next time you are at a gym that has a foam roller, try taking a seat on it and slowing rolling along your back, thighs, hamstrings, glutes, or calves. It may be awkward and uncomfortable in the beginning but the benefits are definitely worth it in my professional opinion.