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!

Recovery Weeks

Wow! It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Sorry, I was on vacation visiting family throughout New England, and then snowboarding in Stowe, Vermont!

Had a few indulgences, definitely didn’t get as much sleep as normal, and didn’t get into the gym as much as I liked…but heck, it’s only 2 weeks out of the year. And believe me, after those 2 weeks, I couldn’t be happier to get back to pursuing this healthy lifestyle I love so much!

This week, I figured I’d talk about a fitness topic that is overlooked far too often – the importance of a regular, planned recovery week.

No matter what your focus is (fat loss, muscle or strength gain, improved endurance, etc) you can’t train at the same intensity week after week without serious damage to your body and even your mind!

There are many different ways to structure a recovery week. Some people take an entire week off while others just drop the volume of their workouts.

Since my main focus is increasing my strength using heavy powerlifts (squat, bench press, deadlift)  I take what I would call a “deload week” every 5th week. During this week, I drop all my weights or repetitions down so I am only doing about 50% of my normal workload.

I find that, still coming to the gym and going through the motions, but not struggling or pushing too hard, keeps me primed for the following week when I return to my normal intensity level, but offers me a much needed break from the constant stress of trying to handle new, heavier weights.

Even if you aren’t training by lifting heavy, your joints, connective tissues, bones, and muscles are being used in a way that is not typical in everyday life. It’s this imposed demand, and recovery from the demand, that causes the body to improve, getting stronger, faster, or fitter.

The part that most people overlook is the mental aspect of training. One thing I tell all my new clients is that the first 8-12 weeks of a new strength-training routine is where they’ll make the most progress. This isn’t due to increased muscle size but rather a neurological adaptation that improves how the body recruits and fires muscle fibers.

It’s this same neuromuscular connection that fatigues the central nervous system during exercise. There are even anecdotal reports of athletes becoming physically ill the night before squatting, or overtraining with another form of exercise.

For this reason, I recommend everyone take a recovery week every 4 to 12 weeks. The exact frequency, and what to do during this off week, is totally up to the individual, their program, and their goals.

If you are training for general fitness, making slow and steady progress but never pushing too hard to set personal records, working out at a moderate intensity 2 to 5 days a week, a recovery week every 8 weeks or so is perfectly sufficient. If you are lifting very heavy, training the muscles to failure, or constantly trying to beat your previous records, a recovery week every 4 weeks or so may be more useful.

The best thing I’ve done for my training, long-term, was to include a recovery week every 8 weeks. Then, once I started powerlifting a few years ago, I increased the frequency of that recovery week to every 5th week.  As an individual with serious lifting goals, it can be tough to force myself to not lift heavy week in and week out…but I know, as soon as I return the next week, the recovery was worth it.

So give it a try! Maybe time your recovery week with a trip you may be taking, or take a short recovery next time you come down with a cold, or just plan a regular week as a light week. I promise the benefits for your body and mind will be worthwhile.