Fixing Imbalances & Alleviating Weakness with Unilateral Work

The majority of strength training done with young athletes today is performed on both legs, we are bipedal humans after all. This could potentially be harming many young athletes, leading weaknesses weak, and creating greater imbalances in their strength & development…

As humans, we practically do everything on two feet. And in a gym setting, it’s no different. Many young athletes who are exposed to S&C work will be taught the basics of bipedal, compound movements such as squat variations, leg presses, and deadlift variations

These are all well and good, as we’re teaching them the basic movement patterns they need to learn - however oftentimes you’ll find that one side is weaker than the other in these movements, and the stronger side will take more of the load…

And this creates (or worsens) imbalances that shouldn’t exist…

If we truly have our young athlete's long-term development at heart, then unilateral exercises (both upper and lower), should make up a generous chunk of their strengthening work

Equalising Strength, Removing Weakness, and Correcting Imbalances

All of the above are phenomenal reasons to include unilateral work into a young athletes training program. Personally, years ago I used to have a “hip shift” on my squats and deadlifts whenever I would enter above 90% of my maximum - and my limited knowledge back then thought it was due to poor mobility

Aph Lunge - The Youth Academy
Single Legged Deadlift - The Youth Academy

So I began to work on mobility, it improved immensely, and yet the hip shift stayed the same. I was at a loss - until I began to re-discover unilateral work. I vividly remember trying to perform step-ups with a 15kg dumbbell in each hand and my left side (non-dominant) was a breeze. I transitioned over onto my right leg (dominant) and was humbled. I had a severe weakness and imbalance which was causing my shift

This was a huge eye-opener for me. And as I began to prioritise strengthening the right leg up to that of the left, my hip shift faded away until it was no more

And it was from this lesson I learned one of the many powerful aspects of incorporating unilateral work into training programs

Now, it forms the foundation of our warm-up & “rehab” work before any big lower body sessions. We will lunge with various implements, reverse lunge, step up, utilise bulgarian split squats, single legged deadlifts, single legged glute bridges, elevated single legged glute bridges for example

And on our upper body days, we will utilise dumbbells and kettlebells often for their unilateral dimension

Lunge - The Youth Academy

Another Hidden Benefit

Unilateral work requires an incredible amount of stability, and will also highlight any mobility issues. For example, it surprises use how many young athletes cannot perform a proper Bulgarian Split Squat due to poor ankle & hip mobility and stability

For something that is so basic a movement, it can bring about one of the biggest challenges young athletes face in a gym environment

Depending on the athletes training schedule, we love to throw in unilateral movements at least three times a week, especially during our warm-ups. The majority of this work is not done under load, nor for a great amount of volume, as our intention is for them to perfect the movement pattern and show total control. It is a rarity when we will push intensity on these movements, and one ever once proper mechanics and stability has been shown

Bulgarian Split Squat - The Youth Academy

Where To Begin

Try stepping up onto a box by driving through your heel where your knee angle is 90 degree to begin with. Is it the same on both sides? Easy?

What about lunging? Or placing your back foot in an elevated position and trying to lunge now…

How about simply standing on one leg and trying to deadlift, ensuring back stays straight, there’s no rotation in the hips, and the back foot never touches the ground…

2-4 sets of 6-12 reps will be plenty to begin with. Remember, this is not a place of ego, and the intention is the master the movement before moving on

Nick Maier