A1: Overload the eccentric by performing the concentric bilaterally then the eccentric one side at a time. Alternate the eccentric responsibility each rep. The tempo should be controlled and the shifting of tension should happen smoothly. Keep the hips extended throughout. Rest 30 sec before A2.
A2: Same idea as A1. These should be very controlled with the goal of unilaterally overloading the eccentric. Full rest before returning to A1.
B: Set these up in a rack (if possible) and with a stable box to stand on that is ~18-24 inches tall. The working leg should be on the box with the off leg hanging off the side. Use your upper body to provide support. Start the eccentric as if you're performing a step down (more hinge) then halfway down begin to slowly "swing" the off leg forward in a pendulum motion until you're sitting in a deep pistol squat position. Drive out of the bottom using your quads and maintain an upright torso. The tempo here should be slow! Upper body is for balance rather than to take tension away from the working leg. Get as much ROM as possible here. Rest as needed between legs.
C: These should be performed in a manner similar to the DB version. Utilizing a Pit Shark Belt Squat (preferable due to the arc of the carriage) and facing to the side allows the natural motion to put more stress on the working glute. Attach a D handle to the clip and hold it in your contralateral hand while your ispilateral hand holds onto the frame of the machine for support. The tempo should be slow and your low back should remain neutral even though there will be slight rotation around the working hip. Start very conservatively on these. Take full rest between each set.
D: Use load that would be about your 15 rep max. These should be done preferably on a seated, pin loaded machine rather than a linear, plate-loaded leg press. Rest 20 sec between each cluster and take the final to 1RIR. Perform all sets of the cluster on the same leg before switching.
E1: Start in a side plank position with your upper leg placed on a bench. The bench should be on the inside of your lower thigh just above the knee. Ease yourself into the tension to support your bw with the top leg adductor. Then slowly perform dynamic reps, allowing your hip to lower to the ground before bridging back up to the start using your adductor. These place a ton of stress on the adductor/groin so make sure to really ease into the tension and avoid forcing the ROM. Perform set on each leg here before moving on. Rest 60 sec before E2.
E2: Again, start in the side plank position but with your legs bent at the knees and hips. Elevate your knees by ~12 inches but with the outside of the lower thigh being the pivot point now. Allow the hips to drop to the floor before bridging up using your abductor and "opening" at the hips at the top of the ROM. This will engage both the bottom abductor (for bridging) and the top (for opening the hips). Keep the tempo slow and controlled and attempt to keep the tension in the glutes/hips rather than your abs/obliques. Full rest before returning to E1.
Goals Of This Session:
We're aiming to intensely stimulate all aspects of the lower body with novel, unilateral variations and techniques. Absolute load will be sacrificed here for symmetrical output.
-5-10 minutes of steady state cardio such as incline walking, elliptical, or recumbent biking.
-Soft tissue manipulation in the form of 3-5 min of light foam rolling the mid-back, quads, and adductors. More specific work can be done using a small lacrosse ball (or something similar) and working through bound up tissue in the calves and glutes.
-Specific mobility with single leg glute bridges, alternating birddogs, and banded wall sits.
Common Exercise Modifications:
2 Up/1 Down Lying Leg Curls- Alternating Lying Leg Curls, 2 Up/1 Down Seated Leg Curls, Single Leg Standing Leg Curls
2 Up/1 Down Leg Extensions- Alternating Leg Extensions, Single Leg Extensions, Single Leg Band TKE Step Downs
Pendulum Pistol Squats- Pistol Squats, FFE Split Squats, Assisted High Step Ups, Assisted FFE Skater Squats
Single Leg Braced Pit Shark RDLs- Single Leg Braced DB RDLs, B Stance DB RDLs, Single Leg Braced Cable RDLs
Single Leg Press- Single Leg Squat Press, Single Leg Hip Press, Hatfield Bulgarian Split Squats
Copenhagen Plank Ups- Copenhagen Planks, Standing Single Leg Cable Adductions, Slider Lateral Lunges
Side Lying Hip Raises- Side Planks, Side Plank Stars, Side Lying Straight Leg Hip Abductions
Common Program Modifications:
Advanced trainees- Push A1, A2, and B to 1RIR with the last set of A1 and A2 being to concentric failure. Add a set to B.
Intermediate trainees- Keep the program as is
Beginner trainees- Switch A1 to Single Leg Lying Leg Curls and A2 to Single Leg Extensions. B should switch to FFE Split Squats at 3000 tempo and for 3x8-12 each (3RIR). C should become B Stance DB RDLs at 3000 tempo and for 3x8-12 each (4RIR). D should switch to 2x12-15 each (4RIR). E1 should be changed to Copenhagen Planks for 20-30 sec holds and E2 to Side Planks for 20-30 sec holds.
Male trainees- More time will be needed for recovery between each set and each leg as fatigue will accumulate quickly at higher intensities and loads. D should require more feeder sets before reaching 15RM. Volume may need to be decreased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (stronger trainees may need less working sets).
Female trainees- B can be changed out for a unilateral hip extension variation if glutes need to be prioritized more than quads. Shorter rest between working sets and less feeders/warmup sets will generally be needed. Volume may need to be increased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (better conditioned trainees may need more working sets).
Common Injury Modifications:
Knees- Though there will be some demand placed on the knees from the quad-focused, extension work, the unilateral nature will go a long way to reducing the total strain. Changing A2 to a regular Single Leg Extension and removing the eccentric overloading of 2 Up/1 Down will be helpful. Additionally, B and D present vectors for irritation but this can be easily offset by adjusting the execution to be more hip dominant rather than quad biased.
Hips- There will be less total strain placed on the hips from unilateral work BUT more demand due to the inability to revert to compensational load dispersion. This is an overall good thing but can be short-term problematic. If B or D cause issues from the deep hip flexion, consider shortening the ROM as needed. If the rotational aspect of C is a no-go for the working hip, stick to a regular implementation of the Single Leg RDL with no rotation. If E1 or E2 are bothersome, consider going with static variations for each and carefully titrating the tension.
Low Back- This is where the benefits of lower body unilateral work become a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it can be a savior and allow low back issues to be worked around. On the other, previously developed compensations present themselves readily when stability is lessened. Of all of the variants in this session, C has the most potential for irritation due to it being a hinge and the rotational component. If the low back is a limitation here, consider adjusting the movement to a B Stance RDL or Single Leg Hyperextension for short term relief.
There is no doubt that unilateral training has MASSIVE benefits for not only functionality but also symmetrical hypertrophy, maximal force production and injury prevention—some aspects of single arm/leg work should be incorporated into pretty much every training session that you do.
But there is still that ever-looming question...
How much should we actually be doing?
Despite the training session outlined here, every exercise of every workout should NOT be unilateral. Too much of a good thing quickly creates contradictory trade-offs and begins to deviate away from our specific goals. And while this balance is a moving target that isn't afforded the simplicity of a black or white value (I wish it was as easy as an even 50% should be unilateral!), we can break down the pros and cons of "too little" vs "too much" to refine our programmer's cap and get a little closer to optimal...
Let's start with the more fun stuff and expand off our introduction a bit—
Why should we be incorporating unilateral movements into our training?
1) Symmetrical hypertrophy
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that an over-reliance on bilateral training will eventually lead to compensation patterns. This is actually a super natural, common byproduct of training in general, but taken to its extreme, it's pretty easy to see how things can start going sideways. With more advancement and muscular development comes more room for imbalances to pop up. Adding in a healthy amount of unilateral work will force the lagging side to catch up by disallowing those compensations from occurring.
2) Maximize force production
Similar to how hypertrophy can develop unevenly, so too can strength. Though asymmetry in force production is typically a bit harder to notice as it's happening, this problem can grow to be much more problematic than imbalanced muscles. Our bodies lean into those same compensation patterns and solidify the same poor mechanics until we're eventually left with nothing but dysfunction. By taking a step back and focusing on single leg/arm work, we can rectify those decrements, level out strength and coordination, and improve our bilateral force production when the constituent parts are working as intended within the whole.
3) Injury prevention
When you have notable muscular and strength discrepancies, your body is a ticking time bomb—it's only a matter of time before that dysfunction catches up with you in the form of tendinitis, chronic muscle strains, or worse. Incorporation of unilateral work as a regular part of your strength training or even mobility/prehab work can go a long way towards correcting these issues and ensuring you can stay one step ahead of the gym reaper.
Sounds pretty amazing right? Well, not so fast...
What are the downsides of unilateral work?
1) Inefficient and time-consuming
This is the classic "two-for-one" deal but not in a good way. If we're wanting to transition a good amount of previously bilateral volume over to unilateral, we should also understand that this means we will have to now, in essence, perform two sets for what used to be one. While this isn't the end of the world on its surface, it can create some issues for those who are time-restricted or for people who have higher volume requirements.
2) Suboptimal stimulus-to-fatigue ratio
Piggy-backing off of the point above on inefficiency, there is a very real chance that the systemic effect of "doubling" the volume will not be able to even equal the stimulus created from the bilateral counterpart. Outside of specific, unilateral single-joint exercises like biceps curls and leg extensions that can be supplemented with external stability, most of these variations are going to require a massive uptick in demand placed our "core" structures. Our hips, low back and abdominal complex are all going to bear the brunt of this increased demand—This can be a good thing when it comes to strengthening our anti-rotators and locking in proper pelvic positioning, but there are also the very real downsides of increasing axial stress and potential failure points. While unilateral work can definitely aid in directing tension and stimuli to the right places, does that offset the trade-offs mentioned above?
3) Lower systemic integration
Our bodies are not meant to be isolated by function. We're not supposed to be creatures of hyper-specificity. This may be somewhat reductionist, but we have evolved into the most complex organisms on the planet, capable of a spectrum of physical feats irreplicable by any other species. So it doesn't really make sense that our muscles would need 20 minutes of setup on a specially-designed machine just to be able to perform effective cross-bridging cycles. And for those of us that have spent years reinforcing this biomechanical precision (my hand is up), there is a greater-than-zero chance that our bodies have started to forget how to coordinate across these siloed systems. Unilateral work can actually be a great way to jump-start this integration (provided we're talking about proprioceptively demanding movements), but a full reboot comes from bottoms-up, bilateral synchronization.
So how much is too much with unilateral work?
If it detracts from your progression, it's too much.
If you don't have enough time to finish your sessions, it's too much.
If your body has forgotten how to operate bilaterally, it's definitely too much!
The key, with most things, is in finding the right dose when weighing the risks and rewards.