Allow me to ask you a few simple questions: Have you found yourself feeling a bit bored in the gym lately? Do you feel as if you’re working pretty hard but not getting much of a pump? Are you getting stronger, or are you using the same poundages week after week, month after month? Finally, and most important, are you seeing any new muscle gains?
The answers to those questions are very important because if you’re bored, not getting a pump and not getting bigger and stronger, why do you keep doing the same old thing? Do you actually think that one day your routine will magically start working for you again? Doubtful. While at one time you may have thrived on the routine you’re doing now, you’ve probably reached a point where you need to change things to get back on the path to progression. The human body loves homeostasis (read: staying the same), and if you continually provide the same types of stimulation’i.e., exercises, sets and reps’your physique will undoubtedly stagnate.
So you cannot become complacent in the gym. You will not gain muscle with a whisper’only with a scream. You must constantly seek out ways to provide a novel stress to your muscles to force overcompensation, which to a bodybuilder means increased strength and muscle growth.
Luckily, there are a plethora of highly effective ways to go about revitalizing a tired routine. One of the best methods of waking up muscles that are sleeping on the job is, well, being a little one-sided. Unilateral training, or training one limb or side of the body at a time, is an underused strategy that can greatly step up the intensity of your workouts and help you to push past plateaus.
There are several unique advantages to unilateral exercises that can help catapult your physique to new levels:
1) Increased concentration, as your mind and central nervous system are focused on one side of the body.
2) Enhanced fiber recruitment with each repetition.
3) A greater number of motor unit pools fatigued in the target muscle.
4) The evening out of strength imbalances that may exist between your right and left sides.
While each of those factors is extremely important, the fourth is, in my opinion, the most important. Strength imbalances can lead to injury as well as uneven development, negatively affecting your overall proportions and symmetry.
For example, if your right biceps is stronger than your left, whenever you do barbell curls, your right arm will dominate the movement from start to finish, greatly reducing the stimulation that the left biceps re’ceives. If you keep training your arms that way, it will enhance the strength imbalance as well as cheat the left arm out of the stress necessary to facilitate optimum growth. With unilateral exercises, however, the weaker side will be forced to fend for itself rather than to simply go along for the ride while the more powerful side does most of the work. ALL Once you begin to even out the strength levels of the two sides of your body, you should start noticing that your symmetry is improving and that many nagging injuries are fading. What’s more, all of your standard two-limbed lifts should skyrocket as well.
While unilateral training lends itself to just about every bodypart, there’s no greater challenge than training legs one at at time. A normal leg workout is brutal enough if you push yourself, but training legs unilaterally will truly separate the men from the boys. It will show who has the strongest stomach, the greatest threshold for pain, the best lung capacity and, most of all, the fiercest desire to become as good as he can possibly be. Unilateral leg training will call into play muscles you never knew existed and force you to call upon levels of focus you’ve never needed before. It will test you to your limits, but if you can pass such a test, you’ll be rewarded with the best kind of prize: more muscle.
Following is a list of unilateral ex’ercises that work the quads and hamstrings, with brief descriptions of how to perform them properly:
1) Unilateral leg extensions
Perform leg extensions as you normally would, but use one leg at a time. Complete all repetitions for one leg before moving on to the other.
2) Unilateral leg presses
Position yourself in a leg press machine as you normally would by putting both legs up on the platform in a comfortable position. Then move one leg where it will not be in the way of the descending platform. Perform slow, deep repetitions.
3) Unilateral lying, seated or standing leg curls
Perform any of these leg curl variations as you normally would’using only one leg at a time. Complete all repetitions for one leg before moving on to the other.
4) Smith-machine lunges
Position yourself in a Smith machine with the bar resting on a com’fortable area of your traps. Put one leg out in front of the other far enough to give you a nice, deep lunge. More-advanced lifters and athletes who have better balance can substitute dumbbells or a barbell for the Smith machine.
5) Bench stepups
Position a flat bench in front of you, and place one foot on top, making sure that the entire foot is solidly on the bench. Using the strength of the thigh and glute muscles of the elevated leg, lift your body up onto the bench. Lower yourself slowly and carefully back to the floor using the same leg that lifted you. Do not remove your foot from the bench between repetitions. For added resistance hold a pair of dumbbells. More-advanced lifters and athletes who have better balance can hold a barbell across their backs.
6) Unilateral stiff-legged deadlifts
Holding a pair of dumbbells, perform a stiff-legged deadlift on one leg. The nonworking leg should be off the floor and back behind you as you descend. Keep a slight bend in the working leg, and your back flat. Do not overstretch. This is a highly advanced movement that takes an enormous amount of balance to perform properly and safely. Do it very slowly and carefully, using very light weights.
Note: Do not expect to be able to simply cut your normal weights in half because you’re only using one leg. The added balance and stabilization required for unilateral movements make them far more challenging than standard exercises. For example, if you can normally leg-press 600 pounds for 10 repetitions, don’t expect to be able to use 300 pounds for one leg. You’re better off using about one-quarter of your normal leg press weight, or in this case 150 pounds. Of course, if you do unilateral movements often, your strength on them will increase quickly. Here are a couple of sample routines using these exercises:
Unilateral leg presses 3 x 10-12
extensions 3 x 10-12
Unilateral seated or
lying leg curls 4 x 8-10
Smith-machine lunges 3 x 10-12
Unilateral leg presses 3 x 10-12
extensions 2 x 10-12
Unilateral lying leg curls 3 x 8-10
Unilateral seated leg
curls 2 x 8-10
Bench stepups 3 x 10-12
Barbell lunges 3 x 10-12
Unilateral leg presses 3 x 10-12
deadlifts 3 x 8-10
Unilateral standing leg
curls 3 x 8-10
My suggestion is that you shouldn’t entirely abandon standard training; just use a routine like the above examples once every six to eight weeks. I do suggest that you perform at least one unilateral movement at every workout for the unique muscle- and strength-building benefits it can provide. Unilateral exercises are especially useful for athletes who require more strength and endur’ance in the balancing and stabilizer muscles, which will translate to vastly improved on-field play. And as mentioned above, bodybuilders will enjoy a more symmetrical and proportionate physique.
So, if you’re man enough and think you can handle the intensity of a unilateral leg workout, get some extra sleep’and then get ready to rumble! It’s time to get a little one-sided about your leg training.
Editor’s note: For individualized programs, online personal training, nutritional guidance or contest-prep coaching, contact Eric Broser at [email protected]. IM