First, the terms:
Bilateral – Symmetrical stance, toes in line with each other, both feet on the ground
Asymmetrical – Stance in which feet are offset from one another; typically with one foot more forward than the other or could be more off-center from the centerline of your body; both feet on the ground
Unilateral – Only one foot firmly planted on the ground. The other may be resting on a platform for balance or just dangling in air.
Apple Pie – A dessert made with a flaky pastry crust and caramelized apples. Ice cream or sharp cheddar cheese is optional. Bonus points for sugar-glazed top crust.
Yes, those are my shoes. Yes, I do wear them near daily when fashion allows.
At this stage of my life, I’m focusing most of my leg training on unilateral movements and perform most of my standing, upper body movements in an asymmetrical stance.
Single Leg Training
What you may not consciously realize, is that most of our movement outdoors is unilateral or asymmetrical. If you think about what we do outdoors, most of it is done on one foot (even if only briefly): hopping from boulder to boulder, stepping over logs, riding snowboard, or getting through a cruxy spot on a climb by doing a high step. Very rarely do we square up, set our feet, and perform some kind of movement requiring maximum muscle activation of the entire lower body.
Single leg training helps you develop balance. Bosu balls and Indo boards are about the most worthless pieces of workout equipment I can think of and only help you develop balance on a moving platform. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time on a ship or walking around with basketballs strapped to my feet.
Balance is the combination of three systems: proprioception, visual, and vestibular. Proprioception is the body’s awareness of itself in space, based on the signals it receives from joint positions transmitted through the central nervous system (CNS). Visual is pretty obvious. It’s the brain’s interpretation of the surface you’re standing on or moving over as seen by your eyeballs. Vestibular takes place in your inner ear and sends signals to the brain about your head’s spatial position.
All three of those can be trained singularly (specifically) or together as one system. Assuming your eyes and inner ears are working fine, unilateral movements mainly train your proprioceptive system and intramuscular coordination.
The other reason I love single leg movements is for joint mobility. I know people that can hit a parallel squat but tumble over backwards as soon as they try to do a one-legged pistol squat. Also, joints are supposed to be mobile and should be able to be moved throughout their entire range of motion (ROM). Strictly doing (heavy) bilateral movements can actually inhibit ROM. Es no bueno.
So, getting to it, my favorite unilateral movements are Bulgarian Split Squats, Pistol Squats, and Step-ups. Most people will likely think of “lunges”, but I don’t care for them on a personal level (they made fun of my mom once) or a physiological level. I am by no means a perfect form Nazi, but I do think they put unnecessary stress on the knee even when done with “perfect form”. If I have to do lunges, I opt for reverse lunges.
If your balance sucks or you have poor joint mobility when just starting out, I recommend doing them in this order: step-ups > Bulgarian Split Squats > Pistol Squats. At each stage of that progression, intramuscular coordination and ROM is increased. However, you don’t have to master one before moving onto the next. Each movement can be scaled to your current ability and can be all be done in parallel. But most likely you’ll master a step-up while you’re still holding onto a pole for a pistol squat.
Step-ups are fairly simple. Find a box you can easily “step-up” on and do it. Depending on how bad your balance and mobility are, you may have to start with a 6” box and work your way up to something a little more substantial, say, 24”-36”.
Bulgarian Split Squats
In my 3rd YouTube video ever made, I demonstrate Bulgarian Split Squats. I was nowhere NEAR as comfortable in front of the video camera as I am these days, if you can’t tell. This will definitely increase the necessary ROM and you take the balance portion to the next level. Don’t worry, you can still use your back leg to help out.
And finally, the pistol squat. This requires the most balance, mobility, and coordination of them all. You are not likely to be able to do a full-on pistol squat the first time you try. If you’re interested in seeing a progression, I’m sure you can find them on YouTube or let me know if you’d like me to film one. I’d be glad to!
A Case for Bilateral Movements
Ok, I don’t completely neglect bilateral movements. I no longer have a need to squat 325lb. (undocumented personal record is actually 365lb.) or deadlift 420lb.
What do you think about all of this? What else do you want to know? Do you already do any of these, and how do you think they’re helping (or hurting) your performance?
Don’t Miss Your Chance
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Great article – thanks for including the videos. I’ve been struggling with this on my right leg recently – it’s getting more stiff and sore than my left with my new running regimen, which involves lots of outdoors and trail running – where I naturally lead with my dominant side. Thanks!
Hello, Susan. Exactly what have you been struggling with? Mobility, strength, balance, all of the above?
First of all, I hyperpronate like no one’s business. Even in minimalist shoes, with the exception of my vibrams.
That said, this will sound weird, but it’s getting ‘worn out’ quicker than my left. I’m pretty sure that this is because my main ‘treadmill’ is a local trail that goes uphill mostly, until you turn around to come back. My backup ‘treadmill’ (for when it’s dark) is a road run that has a couple pretty steep uphills and then is mostly downhill till you turn around and do it in reverse. I lead with my right 90% of the time and I think I’m under-utilizing the left. The whole stride seems to be out of balance
This manifests itself in stiffness mostly, but I think it’s due to being out of balanced with strength.
With regards to climbing / high steps, I struggle lifting my leg to the max height of my flexibility and then I struggle to utilise any power from it once my foot is that high.
Would these exercises be beneficial for that specific weakness, or can you think of anything else?
Gary, these would absolutely help. If you’re having troubles getting your foot high enough, that’s the (lack of) mobility portion I talk about.
As for the strength, all of these will build end range of motion strength. That is, when our muscles are stretched or compressed as far as possible, that’s when they are weakest. These movements train those end-ROMs fabulously with the pistol squat being King. However, if you are not able to do the freestanding pistol that I posted, there are ways to scale it down and make it easier until you are able. Likewise, there are ways to EXTEND the ROMs of step-ups and Bulgarian split squats.
Also, it depends on how “weak” you are. Single leg movements may not be your starting point. Ass-to-grass squats (assuming you have the mobility) would be very beneficial too to build raw, all-around strength.
Thanks, I will build in some training on my non-climbing days and see how I get on 🙂