Here we explore the various benefits of single legged exercises and why we incorporate them in our Training Programs at Varimax.
By Curtis Gee 11/22/2022
When we think of exercise, there are few things that may come to mind: how much weight we can move, how sweaty we get, how sore our muscles are the next day. Some of the most common movements that we focus on to work on these fitness concepts are two-sided (aka bilateral) movements that use both sides of your body at the same time (i.e: squats, deadlifts, jumping, etc…). These moves can make you stronger, but very rarely do we talk about single sided (aka unilateral) movements and how they can be just as, if not more, beneficial to bilateral movements, especially for lower body work. So let's talk about a few benefits to single sided lower body movements.
Core strength and balance It may seem obvious to most of us that working one leg at a time would strengthen our balance, but we may not know why. When we stand on one leg (for example, during a step up) we start using stabilizing muscles in the hip and glute that are not activated unless we shift our weight towards one side or another. If these muscles are weak, it will make it harder to stabilize and balance on one leg as we perform the movement. Performing unilateral movements in the gym is a safe way to work on these muscles and improve balance. As we get stronger, we can add load to unilateral movements that will provide additional demand on the core and increase overall strength.
Improving muscle imbalances and proprioception Another big advantage of performing unilateral lower body movements is improving muscle imbalances. When we squat with muscle imbalances, we often have a stronger side of the body that will take over the lift. Performing movements one leg at a time allows each limb to perform the complete movement, strengthening weaker muscles on the non-dominant side, eventually helping improve imbalances from limb to limb. Single sided lower body movements also help with overall proprioception (a person’s ability to sense where their body and limbs are in space). Proprioception is a big part of balance and coordination and the better it is, the better those aspects of our lives can be.
Safer and more targeted exercise We have all seen, in the gym or online, of someone biting off more than they can chew when squatting and deadlifting. When attempting a load that our body is not ready for we can lose form and be at risk for injury, specifically to back muscles that are more likely to give out before our leg muscles. Unilateral movements are done under lighter load while still being challenging. They also remove a lot of load on the back muscles which means the exercise will focus more on the desired muscles of the legs. More focus on desired muscles, more lean muscle development.
Everyday activities and sport specific performance Improving balance, core strength, proprioception, and strength are fantastic effects of unilateral lower body training, but the reason that we would do any of those things is to improve our ability to perform everyday activities and/or sport specific movements. During our day to day lives, if we are moving we are going to be on one leg. Walking, jogging, swimming, hiking, riding a bike, climbing stairs all require a person to move, balance, and power through with a single leg. The stronger your legs and balance, the easier those things become. And almost all sports require single leg or staggered movements. Running, golf, soccer, softball, and skiing are just a few examples of sports that benefit greatly from the strength and balance developed from single leg exercises.
Bilateral movements are useful exercises that help build lean muscle mass and burn calories, but don’t forget the advantages of working one leg at a time. Balance, strength and stability are all requirements of movement and are all greatly improved through unilateral movements.
Written by Curtis Gee, Elite Personal Trainer
Curtis has been teaching, coaching, and educating since before he could drive. Starting with youth and high school sports, leading to teaching and helping at-risk high schoolers graduate, to most recently, working with athletes and adults to achieve their health, fitness, and sporting goals.
When not at the gym training others or working on his own fitness, Curtis is an avid gamer, basketball junkie, and enjoys martial arts movies.