Here’s a good one – What are the similarities between an elephant and a flamingo? It’s not a trick question I swear, one is a bird with skinny legs and one is the largest land mammal on earth, so there can’t be many similarities between the two, right? Wrong!
Both have the ability to stand on 1 leg….quite well when need be. Although these animals are polar opposites in terms of size, strength and mass, Flamingos can stand on 1 leg for hours on end, and elephants can be trained to support their immense weight on a single limb like this.
So, why can’t you? Regardless of how strong or big you are, you should have strength and control on a single limb. Whether it’s for sports performance, injury prehab/rehab or aesthetics bro, the ability to control the body with only one limb is imperative to function optimally and often pain-free. Therefore, it should make up its fair share of a training program.
I unfortunately don’t often see this. I find that single leg exercises are often seen as being too hard to master, or not worth the time since they can’t overload the body as effectively as another bilateral exercise. In short, they are only considered appropriate for those trying to be a ‘flamingo’, rather than an ‘elephant’.
I find this incomprehensible. Although I think every good program should have a good bilateral exercise foundation that you can grow, a good program should also be supplemented by a unilateral exercise foundation that you can grow. But why? Why should you become one with your inner flamingo and inner elephant?
Getting good at controlling all directions of movement
One downside to bilateral movements is that they are mostly forwards and backwards, or up and down. Whilst its super duper important to have strength here, it’s also super duper important to have strength moving left or right, diagonally or even rotationally. You’d be surprised how much you need this strength to perform bilateral exercises, but how little those bilateral exercises actually build that strength.
Core, or trunk strength, comes into play a lot here. When you reduce the stability in your support base (i.e stand on one leg), it tends to stimulate more trunk musculature as a reactive stability measure. Furthermore, when you overload one side of your body by holding or carrying more in one arm, it does the same thing. This is good, and we often implement combinations of these in our own client’s programming.
Reducing risk of injury
It’s very easy to develop compensations during a bilateral exercise as your body will naturally find the easiest way to complete the movement. The only downside to this is that sometimes a compensation can result in certain muscles not getting trained – and a weak muscle is usually an easily injured muscle.
Single leg work has been shown to stimulate similar levels of EMG activity in the larger muscles, but to also include the smaller muscles in the party – making them perfect for bodybuilding, powerlifting, certain stages of rehab, or basic prehab/corrective work.
Becoming a resilient human being
The most common argument against unilateral training is that you objectively can’t lift as much weight on a single leg, and therefore you won’t get the same stimulus for strength that a bilateral exercise can give you.
Scientists debate on this topic day in, day out – arguing that single leg training is superior due to the Bilateral Deficit (this is interesting if you want to read more about it somewhere else), or that it’s inferior because the reduced stability means you cannot exert the same force you could if you were stable on two legs. In the end, both arguments have a point.
However, the debate often misses the fact that what unilateral training does do really well is build strong, resilient people that can handle the physical demands of whatever sport they do. This is always just as important than the performance aspect alone, as you can be the best at what you do – but what’s the point if you break down every time you do it. So just because you can master squat 200kg doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to master a 150-200 kg lunge. I’m not kidding, people can do that – it’s crazy!
You can’t go wrong getting strong, but..
.. you can go wrong if you neglect certain aspects of your training. If you lift well, lift heavy and program smart, more single leg strength will translate into more gains, less pain and one happy Haynes.
Accredited Exercise Physiologist at PerforMotion
Follow me on Instagram @tomhaynes_aep