Balanced Strength: A Primer on Single Limb Training

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 16, 2013 · 24 comments

in Fitness, Health & Sports

inch-lifting

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Anthony Yeung.

In our quest to sculpt a powerful and masculine physique, balance and stability are often overlooked. Sure, we want to add plates to the bar, grunt, and move heavy objects – but if our fitness rests atop wimpy foundations, we’ll limit our strength and make ourselves prone to injury.

By using just one limb (known among fitness geeks as “unilateral training”), however, we can build a strong body and develop balance and stability at the same time.

Unlike exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses where both limbs work at the same time, unilateral training splits the body into left and right halves and strengthens each arm or leg independently. This gives us two distinct benefits:

1. It reduces injury risk.

Training on just one leg can help guys who have disc issues or back pain by reducing sheer stress and saving your joints. When you do single-leg exercises, you can’t push or pull as much weight, which decreases the compressive forces on the spine. If you can squat 300 lbs, for example, and can only split squat 120 lbs, you just spared your back 180 extra pounds of force. Compounded over time, that’s a tremendous difference.

Using just one limb also fixes imbalances between your right and left sides. Have you ever heard someone say, “My right arm is stronger than my left”? Aside from being an easy joke, having that kind of asymmetry can cause injury. When one arm or leg is stronger than the other, it’ll bear more weight every time you squat or deadlift. The weaker limb won’t have a chance to catch up, and you’ll waste energy trying to make up for the difference. It also puts an uneven strain on your body, which further increases injury risk.

Finally, training just one limb adds some instability to your exercises to force the tiny, stabilizing muscles in your body to work harder. Often, these muscles weaken over time and can’t support bigger, more powerful muscles like the chest and hamstrings. By incorporating unilateral training into your workouts, you’ll strengthen those neglected stabilizers so you can move more effectively and safely during training and sports.

2. It helps you get strong and manly.

Training on one limb can help you pack on serious size and muscle. Even though you won’t use as much total weight, all that weight is focused on just one arm or leg, making the exercise just as hard – and often harder.

For example, if you did a single-leg squat with 60 lbs while weighing 180lbs, that’s 240lbs of load per leg. To spread that across two legs, you’ll need 480 lbs of load, which is equal to a 300-pound barbell – that’s a manly back squat! (And by fixing your asymmetries, activating your stabilizers, and building single-limb strength, don’t be surprised that your double-leg or double-arm exercises improve.)

It’ll also improve your athleticism. Running, for example, is a series of jumps from one leg to another. In fighting, you use each arm or leg independently. In fact, if you look at a lot of manly sports (i.e. football, rugby, and bear-wrestling), athletes always accelerate, jump, and slow down primarily on one limb.

Exercise Guide

These are several of my favorite unilateral exercises divided into lower body, upper body, and core work.

Lower Body

Split Squat

The split squat strengthens your quads, narrows your base of support, and forces your core and stabilizers to work extra. It also directs most of the weight onto your front leg, making it a great intro into single-leg training.

To make it harder, elevate your front foot to increase the range of motion, elevate the back foot to put more weight on the front, or — if you’re really manly — do both. Your legs will be screaming tomorrow.

Single Leg Squats

Face away from a box or bench, sit down, and stand up with just one leg.

Too easy? Lower the box or add weight by holding dumbbells or wearing a weighted vest. For an even greater challenge, do a single leg squat with no box!

Step Ups

Step onto a large box. Stay tall and be careful not to push yourself up with the bottom leg. Instead, pull yourself up with the top leg and drive through your heel.

Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts

It targets your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles and also activates your knee stabilizers and core. By doing a deadlift on one leg, you’ll get a unique workout on your legs and hips that develops great strength without all the stress of heavy conventional deadlifts.

Upper Body

Single-Arm Cable Row

This is a great single-arm exercise that targets your back, shoulders, and arms. Set the handle to chest-height and row. To make it harder, move to a split squat stance or lift one leg up.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench

These fix the asymmetries that could be holding back your barbell bench press. They fire the stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and really target the core.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Press

Overhead presses have long been a staple of manly exercises – they build great upper-body strength and develop awesome size at your shoulders, traps, and arms. By using only one arm, however, you’ll get the same benefits of an overhead press while building balance and stimulating more tension at your trunk.

It’ll also help you build the physique of 19th century, Prussian bodybuilder, Eugen Sandow:

sandow

Core

Single-Arm Carries

Since the beginning of civilization, men have had to carry things over long distances – fresh kill, briefcases, women, etc. Who knew it could be such a great exercise?

Grab one dumbbell, stand straight, and walk. Because the weight only pulls on one side, your core must fire to prevent your body from flexing. To make this exercise harder, use a heavier weight, walk for a longer distance, or hold the dumbbell over your head.

Chops

Chops develop your core stability and strength in a diagonal and rotational pattern, which is vital in athletics. Focus on moving your arms without twisting your trunk excessively.

How to Incorporate Single-Limb Training Into Your Workouts

Do your bilateral lifts – bench, squat, deadlift, chin-ups, etc. – first, then do single-limb exercises to get the best of both worlds. Heavy double-limb exercises require a lot of energy and should be done early in the workout. They also help you build overall strength and stimulate a big hormonal response.

Follow that with single-leg and single-arm exercises, making sure to do the same weight and same number of repetitions on both sides.

Sample Upper Body Workout

  • Bench Press — 3 x 6
  • Chin-Up — 3 x 6
  • Single-Arm Cable Row — 3 x 10 each
  • Single-Arm Dumbbell Press — 3 x 10 each
  • Single-Arm Carries  — 2 x 20 yards each

Sample Lower Body Workout

  • Squats — 3 x 6
  • Deadlifts — 3 x 6
  • Split Squats — 3 x 10 each
  • Single-Leg Deadlift — 3 x 10 each
  • Chops — 2 x 10 each

Start slow and you’ll quickly build a strong, balanced, and manly body.

________________________________

Anthony Yeung, CSCS is a fitness coach, online consultant, and fitness writer who specializes in athletic performance. Get tips and coaching at anthonyjyeung.com

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Todd August 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm

This is great insight. I think the more I have tweaked and injured stuff the more I need to do single limb training so the other limb isn’t overcompensating.

I’ve realized that my right knee/ankle, and one pec are weaker than the other. So giving them their own attention definitely helps.

2 Bogdan August 17, 2013 at 3:14 am

Thanks man. Good article!

3 Jimmy August 17, 2013 at 7:52 am

Great article on how to become more sculpted.

4 Nate August 17, 2013 at 8:20 am

Thanks for the article. I would, however, include what I would consider to be the greatest single-limb functional strength exercise known to man: the one-arm pullup.

Can’t do it? Most people can’t. But it is something that can be slowly worked up to, is a thrill to achieve, and builds arm, shoulder, and upper back strength like none other. Oh, and no weights/gym required!

5 Anthony Yeung August 17, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Todd, I too dealt with minor injuries until I switched to (primarily) single-limb training. Now, they disappeared!

Nate, great tip! Plus it looks badass… imagine jumping up and cranking out a few from a street sign! Manly, indeed.

6 Brandon August 17, 2013 at 8:25 pm

I would disagree with your math in point to.

First, a single leg is approximately 20% of a persons total weight.

Second, when you preform a squat the working leg adds a negligible amount of weight.

Third, a persons body weight is not factored in when calculating or assessing you 1 Repetition Maximum.

So, if you weigh 180lbs and single-leg squat 60lbs the math would look like this:
180lb x .8 + 60lbs = 204lbs.
204lbs x 2 = 408lbs.
408lbs – 180lbs = 228lbs for the regular squat. Still a decent squat but not as much as you originally estimated.

I agree with your opinion on unilateral movements but I disagree with your math.

7 sean August 18, 2013 at 7:38 am

The single arm farmer’s walk is also called a suitcase carry. Just throwing that out there incase you see the other term used in a program.

8 Tao August 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Brandon you make a valid point, but then your own math is wrong at the end. If a one legged squat includes only 80% of your body weight, then a 2 legged squat would equal 60% of your bodyweight. Using your formula

180lb x .8 + 60lbs = 204lbs.
204lbs x 2 = 408lbs.
408-180x.6=300lbs.

300lbs is A very respectable squat indeed. Though we are failing to mention the balance and coordination that are required to do an ‘equivalent’ one legged squat.

9 jojo August 18, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Todd you may want to get your atlas checked out. severe muscular variations are usually a sign that the atlas nerve in your spine is off a bit.

10 Brandon August 18, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Tao, you are correct that a regular squat removes 40% of a persons body weight from the equation, but as I stated in point 3 of my original comment “a persons body weight is not factored in when calculating or assessing you 1 Repetition Maximum”. So, if a 180lb person were to squat 300lbs the total gross tonnage they would be squatting 300lbs + 180lbs x .6, for 408lbs total. However, your math, although sound in theory, is not correct either, as I and Mr. Yeung both removed the persons total body weight from the equation as you would if you were assessing your 1RM. The addition of the extra 20% due to the addition of the extra leg is what leads to a higher weight (e.g. 60lbs external weight + 20% of a persons total body weight over what you would normally be squatting).

Again, I don’t completely agree with the benefits of unilateral movements, including the addition of balance, coordination, and core stability, but disagree with Mr. Yeungs math.

11 Brandon August 19, 2013 at 1:52 am

I mean to say I DO completely agree with the benefits of unilateral movements, including the addition of balance, coordination, and core stability…

12 Claude August 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thanks for clearing this up. I’ve always wondered the purpose of the single arm lifts and such. Now I know and I will be trying some.

13 David August 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I have done many of these and a few similar exercises for a while as part of the Athlean-X program. I can attest to how well it works.

14 Carl Monster August 19, 2013 at 8:30 pm

I am incorporating these into my assistance work at the gym; boy are they awesome!!! Thanks!!!!

15 bodypuncher August 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I agree with the article because I started using 50 lb and 75lb dumbbells as my only weight equipment a few years ago. My late-40′s, former athlete joints are feeling great and, thanks to this training and a few handstand pushups, I can overhead, dumbbell press 90lbs with one arm at 180lb bodyweiight. I recommend one arm overhead press, dumbbell clean and press, dumbell deadlifts. Go as heavy as you can with good form and don’t work past failure. Do one set only. Pistols are good, but hard on the knees– a good alternative is to hold your left foot behind you with your right hand, and grab the dumbbell with your left hand, and do a squat so that your bent knee goes down about an inch from the floor next to your foot. It will save your knees compared to pistols and give you good resistance.

16 bodypuncher August 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm

For related info one single limb training websurf “bent press” “side press” “Sig Klein overhead press” etc.

17 Anthony Yeung August 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm

bodypuncher,

Great tips! And wow, those are some strong numbers. Impressive!

18 Stephen August 25, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Just to bring a balancing viewpoint into the discussion, Mark Rippetoe’s article here on T-nation has alternative viewpoint.
http://www.tnation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/rippetoe_goes_off;jsessionid=757ABA85C0A75D2BABF16104A330CCEA-mcd01.hydra
Specifically the section “What does imbalance really mean” addressed unilateral movements. Not dismissing some these movements, but hard to argue with Rippeotoe. I plan to be moving heavy bilteral barbell loads as my primary strength training to maximize stimulus and load. Some great assistance and skill movements to practice here though.

19 Brandon August 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Stephen, I believe the article you meant to link was this one. Thank you for the other side of the argument. Although I, and I’m sure the writer, disagree with Mr. Rippetoe’s opinion (despite Starting Strength being one of the best strength training books ever written) I appreciate hearing the opposing side of any argument, if for no other reason than being able to back up my own position.

20 bodypuncher August 28, 2013 at 11:54 am

I read the article that Stephen tried to link and then Brandon linked. Depending on WHICH dumbbell exercises you do, the article’s point and dumbbells do not conflict. My earlier post said to do d-bell overhead presses, clean-and-press, and deadlifts — all are total-body exercises and not isolation exercises. The Rippetoe article says that, too, and condems isolation exercises. As for one-legged v two legged squats, deads etc…the bit about asymmetry is a threat whether you use one leg and a d-bell or two legs and a straight bar, because it has to do with the user’s technique. Even with a straight bar some people overcompensate one side.

21 Carlos September 1, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Boy started putting these tips into my weekly workout routine and I can really tell a difference already. Thanks for these tips!

22 evilcyber September 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

True in many points. However, there are some exercises I wouldn’t do unilateral, such as the dumbbell fly.

23 Johnny September 15, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Hey guys, I was wondering if y’all looked into doing a post on stretching or a simple stretching routine. Way I see it, that would be very helpful. Especially before workouts or even on “off” days.

Thank-you.

24 Gregory Bolton September 21, 2013 at 7:37 am

I don’t care about the math, one legged squats (also called pistols) are harder than two legged squats and you will have a hard time regardless of your level of conditioning.

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