Training fads and tools for the toolbox come and go, especially for unilateral work, the notion of instability, and its performance impact. For a long time, we looked at instability and the need to resist it as a training necessity. We’ve had Bosch methods come and go, and I’ve yet to see any major teams use the methods effectively. I find the inverse more useful—when we drive down instability, we drive up systemic benefits of a movement. This concept has limits, as a system still needs the freedom to achieve the right amount of stress.Hand-supported movements let athletes express intent & force development not attainable with heavy unilateral work, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Bilateral and unilateral hand-supported movements allow athletes to express intent and force development not attainable with heavy standard unilateral work. Hand-supported movements exist because pragmatists saw inherent problems with unilateral and bilateral movements and their ability to facilitate the desired stimulus.
Simply put, athletes need more stimulus under certain circumstances, and hand-supported movements are a great way to achieve this. Physiotherapists have been using upper limbs to assist the lower limbs since the inception of physiotherapy. When we consider what we can facilitate by using the upper limbs, we open up many potential additions to our exercise selection.
Why Hand-Support Anything?
Force production and stability live in the same spectrum as velocity. Stability refers to the ability of a body to restore itself to its original static equilibrium after it’s been displaced slightly. When it comes to very heavy unilateral loading, for instance, displacement is easily restored when forces are low.
When the forces produced are high and instability occurs, the base of support becomes more compromised, and the harder it is to right the body. Let me be clear; this isn’t the same as high-velocity running, which asks for force absorption and preservation after initial acceleration and requires a modicum of translational equilibrium to keep going.
Producing the highest forces requires bilateral facilitation, which is why most lifting sports have an initial bilateral component. The transfer argument posits that we need movements that, even in an abstract sense, reflect sports positioning. Enter unilateral training. Not to beat a dead horse, but unilateral training and the benefits of bilateral training are highly synergistic.
Unilateral training can be a weak link if high levels of force are required at low speeds. Therefore, unilateral training seems to have a large structural element. Because of the lower velocities, tissues must tolerate more. In high-force low-velocity training phases, unilateral work requires structural demand, and bilateral training requires neurological demand; we should plan accordingly.
This does not discount the usefulness of low-velocity high-force unilateral training, thinking from a transference context moving to acceleration phases in sprinting, ice skating, or attempting a takedown in wrestling and MMA. The way to overcome this weakness in unilateral training is to add to our base of support, which improves our stability.
Bringing the upper limbs into play is a simple and almost reflexive approach to adding stability to any movement. In the past, people would use a free limb in single side-loaded movements to stabilize, much like holding your arms out to walk a tightrope or gripping something upright to stand from a low position and so on.
I’ve long seen hand-supported movements used as regressions and progressions in rehabilitation scenarios to provide stability so that training effect can be applied as necessary. There’s no reason why we can’t apply this to the other end of the training spectrum.
One argument I’ve heard against hand-supported movements is, “if we are mitigating instability, then why not use machines like a leg press?” It’s a good question, and the answer lies in the reason machines pale in comparison to free weights—a fundamental argument in strength and conditioning orthodoxy.
Coordination and efficiency are still challenged to the degree that’s not available using only machine weights. Second-order effects like axial load, vertical loading, trunk stabilization, and bracing are all challenged enormously even when a greater base of support mitigates instability. You let in just enough chaos to challenge the system.
Boosting Bilateral Movements with Hand Support
The Hatfield, or hand-supported squat, is the poster child of hand-supported movements and probably the progenitor of this mode of thinking. Increased intensity and decreased risk while moving very high loads at high velocities make this an appealing and viable option under many circumstances. It also can do much for building confidence under big weights. Before abandoning social media, Cam Josse once thanked me for reintroducing him to a movement that made him feel “strong again.” The subjective sense of feeling strong has value also, particularly for athletes returning from injury or those who desire to keep in-season intensities high.Increased intensity & decreased risk moving very high loads at high velocities using hand support is appealing and viable, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
We must not, however, use it as a crutch for squatting. Hand support is best used with athletes who have well-established competence and strength in the squat pattern. I’ve had to chide assistant coaches at my facility for being keen to get clients lifting with hand supports before establishing a strong conventional squat.
- Encourage the athlete to stay tall and use the handles for support.
- Staying tall minimizes forward lean and lumbar stress, and the safety bar takes out the more problematic elements of heavy axial loads.
- The athlete should push-off only when using eccentrics or isometric methods.
The hand-supported squat has allowed my athletes to use loading above 125%-150% of the conventional back squat, and other coaches have reported larger percentages to me in some instances.The hand-supported squat allows my athletes to use loading above 125%-150% of the conventional back squat, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
We can perform the hand-supported squat in a few ways. The first obvious opportunity lies in supramaximal eccentric or isometric loading with weight releasers or with hand assistance on the concentric element (more on that later) or with spotters either side. The other lies in high-volume high-load options or hypertrophy type of work.
And, finally, it’s an intensive squatting option for athletes with a history of lower limb and back issues. This is probably due to the more upright posture, as it reduces sheer force in the knees and back. This makes sense, given that having more points of stability sagittally means less shear stress. Working with a spectrum of young and old combat athletes means I’ve helped deal with a lot of joint issues; we’ve used this movement often for those returning from ACL/PCL and quad surgeries.
People often ask me about mitigating arm contribution. Removing arm contribution entirely is impossible and defeats the point of a hand-assisted movement—the clue is in the name, after all. When we want an athlete to get feedback on how much they’re contributing, we string a tight band for hand support instead of another bar or handles; the band will depress increasingly the harder the athlete presses down, as demonstrated in the video below.
Video 1. The rise of the heavy hand-supported split squat is a useful trend for coaches who value tradition but demand evolution. The hand-supported split squat exercise combines unilateral benefits with safe overload qualities.
Hand-Supported Unilateral Movements: A Perfect Compromise
I’ve looked into this area extensively, and one of my early articles on SimpliFaster was about the safety bar hand-supported split squat. I have a reputation as the hand-supported split squat “guy,” but that credit falls to coaches like Cal Dietz and Devan McConnell. For squat type actions, hand-supported movements make sense, as they allow us to counter inherent instability, not so much lateral instability but from heavy axial loading.
I prefer the split squat to rear foot elevated split squat because the contribution from the anterior hip complex on the trailing leg is also trained when performing the lift. Devin McConnell has had enormous success, however, using rear foot elevated split squats with his hockey players where weights exceeding 500lbs lifted have not been uncommon. He has also led the way with measuring force involved in the action using a hand-supported split squat isometric push as one would test an IMTP or isometric squat push, using maximum force data to advance his program.
I covered the technical execution of the hand-supported split squat in my earlier post. Key principles apply as in other squat patterned movements: don’t compromise spinal stability for more load and minimize weight shift and overextension through the lumbar. I’ve also written about striving for a 90-90 position in beginners and then mellowing that specific execution, eventually gravitating toward increasingly idiosyncratic or sports positions. With wrestlers and MMA fighters, for instance, I encourage knee over toes on the lead leg leading eventually to heel elevated on the lead foot which matches increasingly sport-specific positioning.
The hand-supported movement is also useful during heavy ipsilateral and contralateral movements. Holding a heavy weight in the opposite or the same side of the lead leg allows us to get deep into the hip stabilizers. When an athlete becomes very proficient with this movement, they’re only limited by how much they can hold on to.
Video 2. Split squats with a single contact point (hand) enable the opposite arm to load the body asymmetrically. Beginning and advanced athletes can use this exercise to create favorable adaptions.
With the hinge, however, once we take it out of its bilateral wheelhouse, it tends to fall apart technically very rapidly. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with single-leg RDLs. I find the movement’s high requirements for spinal stability and lateral instability quickly rob it of any meaningful loading, even with athletes who are well-practiced. As a result, unilateral hinge work is usually low velocity and low force. This is great for beginner and intermediate lifters but isn’t enough stimulus for advanced trainees.
While the bilateral deficit certainly rings true in squat and lunge type movements, we can load unilateral quad and hip dominant exercises very heavy, nearly as heavy as their bilateral cousins. Bilateral deficit phenomena seem woefully lacking in single-leg hinge movements, partly because unilateral hinge movements have a single point of contact (one foot) stabilizations. An RFESS, on the other hand, has two points of stabilization (two-foot).
We can pump up unilateral hinge work by using a staggered stance, giving us two points of contact and, thus, more stability and more load. Pedants will argue that this is a quasi-unilateral movement, sure. But so are RFESS or split squats, if you think about it. I’ve had great results using staggered hinge work with athletes capable of using high loads. We can, however, further isolate with single lower body points of contact by effectively using hand supports.
Grabbing the rack in a hand-supported kettlebell or dumbbell RDL offers a single point of contact that allows for increased loading over freestanding versions.
Video 3. Using a hand-supported option for single-leg, kettlebell RDLs is a popular option for those wanting just enough unilateral qualities with the right amount of stability. Don’t worry, athletes don’t cheat as much as it would appear, as the exercise encourages pulling with the posterior chain.
Video 4. Lateral landmine exercises, specifically the RDL, are excellent for athletes as well. Using the hinge of the landmine from the side stabilizes the exercise in a similar but unique way.
The hinge pattern, however, is more difficult to train unilaterally at the high force high-velocity confluence. Think of the velocities involved in kettlebell swings, high speed pulls, and the like, where the addition of a hand support allows us to get more out of these movements. Here are a few examples worth considering.
Video 5. Instead of using the same arm and same leg, contralateral options are another variant that has a purpose behind it. Some coaches have added cables to the exercise for conventional resistance or isoinertial resistance.
Video 6. Kneeling KB swings are not just for variety, but they are specialized versions of the conventional counterpart. Kneeling provides the stability necessary to get most out of the KB swing exercise.
Hand-Supported Movements as a Full-Body Training Stimulus
Cal Dietz and Matt van Dyke make a compelling argument:
Increased support and the use of the arms allows for even more weight to be used than a barbell split squat would allow, leading to even greater stress being applied to the entire body. The use of the arms, along with the increased load, stresses the core to an even greater extent than a barbell split squat. Supramaximal eccentrics using the hands assisted, safety bar split squat creates total body stress, engaging the arms as well as the core to improve the musculo-tendon structure maximally.
Embedded within this paragraph is the idea that engaging the arms and the core turn a lower body exercise into a full-body exercise when loaded supramaximally. From my experience, doing supramaximal work and intentionally using the arms results in a full-body training effect and some of the sorest lats, abs, and triceps I’ve had from any exercise. It’s not cheating if using the arms is intentional, which runs contrary to earlier statements about making sure athletes don’t cheat the movement.
The next step is to objectively measure force application via a load cell in hand-assisted movements with active arm contribution versus minimized contribution and see what exactly changes when we facilitate movement using the whole body. My current feedback form is personal and subjective regarding athlete experiences as I don’t always have force platforms available.
Video 7. Heavy staggered RDLs provide the benefits of single-leg training with the balance of a bilateral exercise. Using RDLs that are heavy really creates a unique stimulus for athletes who are only using bilateral or unilateral.
When we do employ full-body intent on supramaximal exercises, for instance, obvious upper body contributors are core, triceps, and lats, which all work to main upright positions and then drive out of the hole on the assist. Afterward, athletes report feeling these working the most and experience DOMS in the following days. You could take or leave the upper body assistance component, adding or minimizing based on an athlete’s specific needs. I mention it here because its contribution should not be ignored.
Conclusion and Additional Ideas
I’ve experienced a lot of traction using hand-assisted movement across several contexts, bridging the confluence between overload, load, and return to intensive loading for post-rehabilitation athletes. Outwardly, many would question the use of a free limb to assist an exercise; I know I did when first seeing the hand-supported split squat—my thinking was isolationist rather than understanding the systemic intent.
As with any exercise implementation, hand-supported facilitation requires good positioning, technique, and patience that we ask of any movement or exercise we implement in a training program. Because hand-supported facilitation allows a large increase in loading potential, we can’t get ahead of ourselves and must make sure the athlete has jumped the necessary hoops. One of the strength coach’s duties is to affect change; the primary tool for this is exercise selection. When there are training gaps to be filled, pragmatists fill them not with abstract exercises that intend to make a difference, but with exercises that do make a difference.