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Unilateral Training for Dodgy Knees and Feet

Glute Ham Raise

One of the frustrations of being active are the aches and pains that come along with it. There are ‘good’ pains, these are the pains that I think are being referred to in the ‘no pain, no gain’ saying. These are easy to recognise, they tend to come and go after a couple of days and are almost a reward for putting in a good shift. Then there are the niggles that stay. The niggles that you look up on Google to try and identify what it is, what’s causing it and how to make things better.

My particular niggles have been knee’s and feet. This resulted in any sort of distance running being impossible, hence why I’ve had to turn to different forms of activity, which has been mainly weight based i.e. kettlebells, free weight training and weighted circuit training.

We all have a dominant side, being right-handed mine was the right side. My injuries would also be on the right side. This made sense as this side tends to take more of the stresses and strain than the lesser dominant side.

Having done a bit of research I have been adding a significant amount of unilateral exercises into my program, particularly lower body to see if it makes an effect. Together with a varied exercise program generally my particular bunch of injuries have started to quieten off in the last few months (touch wood!). It does take longer to complete a workout adding these into your program, however I thought I’d share my experiences as the benefits are clear and may help others.

Builds Core Stability

When you work one side of your body at a time, you activate your core muscles to maintain balance. This forces you to work stabilizing muscles that don’t always get the focus they deserve. Core stabilizers are your deep trunk muscles. They include the transversus abdominis, internal obliques, multifidus, and paraspinal muscles. These muscles stabilize and support your spine, protect against injury and back pain and improve your posture.

Increases Resistance to Injury

When you train unilaterally, the joint muscles that stabilize the working limb are called into play. When you consistently work these muscles through unilateral training, it strengthens them. This protects the limb against injury when you’re playing sports and when you’re lifting. Too often we focus energy on only working the muscles that produce the movement while ignoring the stabilizing muscles that support these muscles and maintain balance.

Strong stabilizing muscles not only prevent injuries – they help the working muscles the “movers” work more efficiently by providing support and stability. Stabilizing muscles are the “support team” that work behind the scenes to help the movers work better together. When your stabilizers aren’t strong it limits the amount of weight you can safely lift.

Strong stabilizers are important for reducing the risk of injury if you play sports and for carrying out functional activities you do every day. When you bend over to pick up a heavy object, you use your stabilizers for balance. When these muscles are strong, it reduces your risk of falling or injuring yourself. Unilateral work helps to strengthen the sometimes neglected stabilizers.

Correct Muscle Imbalances

Most people have one side that’s stronger than the other. If you’re right-handed, it’s usually your right side. When you have a non-dominant or weak side, it creates a muscle imbalance that increases your risk for injury. Unilateral training where you focus on the non-dominant side helps to “even things out” from a strength perspective, creating a more balanced, stable physique.

Good for Rehabbing an Injury

Not only does unilateral training help prevent injury – it helps you rehab after an existing one.

When you don’t work a limb as hard due to injury that limb becomes weaker. Focusing on the weaker side through unilateral training will help you restore strength to the injured limb for greater symmetry and balance.

Great Focus on the Muscle

When you train unilaterally you can really focus in on the side you’re working. This lets you maximize the range of motion during that exercise. Plus, you’re activating more muscle fibers due to the stabilizers you’re working.

Improving Balance

Ever tried a one-legged squat? It takes a good sense of balance. Doing one-legged moves regularly will help you develop the neural circuitry you need for better balance. Start by doing shallow one-legged squats without any weight. After you’ve developed confidence squatting with no weight, add a dumbbell. Gradually increase the weight over time. It takes persistence and practice to master the one-legged squat.

Unilateral Training Benefits BOTH Limbs

Here’s something that surprised me. When you train the limb on one side it increases strength in the opposite limb as well. This is a phenomenon called muscle cross education. Of course, the limb you’re actively working benefits the most, but the opposing limb gets some strength training benefits even though it’s not being trained. Cross education causes about a 7.8% improvement in muscle strength in the untrained limb. This is true whether you work one arm or one leg. The opposite limb benefits too.

How can you explain this phenomenon? It’s not clear why cross education occurs. One theory training one limb modifies the neural circuits that control both limbs. How can you benefit from cross education? If you have an injured arm or leg that you have to rest, you can preserve some of the strength of that limb by training the uninjured limb.

Types of Unilateral Exercises

Well, these are few of mine for lower body…

Bulgarian Split Squat

Single Leg Step-up

Single Leg Calf Raise

Single Leg Glute Ham Raise

Lunge

Single Leg Deadlift

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