When I meet a new client for the first time I always start with assessing their movement patterns.
Our bodies move in 3 planes of motion.
These include: Sagittal (front to back), Frontal (side to side), and Transverse (rotational).
Single leg (unilateral) exercises allow us to maintain and express our movement variability, or our body’s ability to move freely in multiple postures, positions, and planes of movement.
Conversely bilateral lower body exercises (exercises that train both sides together) only train the body in the Sagittal plane.
I believe that single-leg training is an important part of any strength training program that I prescribe for my clients. It mimics our natural gait and athletic movements. Most of all our daily movements outside of training are single-legged and it’s important to have a strong base to perform our daily activities.
One of the most important reasons for training single leg is to improve balance. Falls are the leading cause of injury and death among the elderly so one of the primary ways to prevent falls is improving balance and stability in a single leg stance.
When you use a split stance or one leg position, your body is challenged to maintain an appropriate level of balance and coordination to keep you from falling over. Stabilising muscles only fire when your body feels its centre of gravity is shifting and falling over.
Bilateral exercises are done with both feet side by side, a position much easier to stabilise in because you have a wide base of support. During a two-legged exercise, a balance demand is not triggered, and the important stabilisers stay dormant and leave joints unprotected.
Hence unilateral exercises train you to improve balance to a greater degree.
Tying in with balance, another benefit that ties into training our bodies on one leg and in multiple planes of movement is improving core stability. Since unilateral exercises work the body in different planes you not only have to stabilise against forces in sagittal plane but also in the frontal and transverse planes. The balance demands increase with single-leg exercise, creating a greater challenge for the core musculature, which activates stabilising muscles including the glutes and core.
Improving muscular Imbalances
We all know that we aren’t perfectly symmetrical creatures. We have asymmetries due to our internal anatomy, injuries and compensations we’ve developed, or even due to our sporting backgrounds. Always performing bilateral exercises furthers this imbalance, since the stronger leg will always do more work than the other.
We often have one leg that is stronger than the other, either due to previous injury or just having a stronger side. Having an imbalance in the strength of your limbs forces your body to compensate for one side’s weaknesses. This is one of the major contributors to alignment issues
Notice that I always demonstrate single leg exercises on my left leg as I feel more balanced and comfortable on that side so naturally tend towards using that leg!!
Single-leg exercises can pinpoint these muscle imbalances. One of the biggest benefits of unilateral training is the ability to build strength independently between legs, promoting strength and balance on both sides because they isolate the right and left side muscles.
Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense its location, movements, and actions. It’s the reason we’re able to move freely without consciously thinking about our environment.
Proprioception relies on receptors in your muscles, tendons, joints and skin to measure the position of your joints, the length of your muscles and the force produced by your muscles. The receptors send this information to your brain, which interprets the data to get an understanding of your body’s position.
Train your feet and you will make dramatic improvements in your proprioception hence single-leg exercises increase proprioception.
Reduction of Injuries
Single-leg exercises are safer for the hips and lower back. Single leg movements, unlike bilateral exercises, do not lock the pelvis, which is built to have some reciprocal movement in order to protect your back. If the pelvis is locked, the lower back must compensate for it, putting pressure on the lumbar vertebrae and lower back muscles. This compensation is especially detrimental for older adults, who tend to have increased stiffness and reduced mobility.
- Single-leg training is a critical tool for developing balanced strength and promote muscle growth and great muscle strength because it works more muscles
- Unilateral exercises help balance left-right strength and size asymmetries.
- They improve general balance and proprioception
- They’re like athletic movements such as running and bounding and therefore have a strong motor carryover to sport.
- They give a strong base to perform our daily activities, and it’s important for exercise and personal training to reflect that!
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring