“Almost every significant breakthrough in the field of scientific endeavor is first a break with tradition, with old ways of thinking, with old paradigms.” – Stephen R. Covey
The concept of unilateral training continues to gain greater mainstream acceptance every year. In 2009, when I sarcastically said, “bilateral squatting is dead,” I was laughed at. To understand that reaction, we can turn to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who proposed the idea of three stages of truth:
Stage 1: Ridicule – When I began to espouse my thoughts on unilateral training in the early 2000s, most strength coaches simply made fun of me: I was soft. I was not a good enough coach. If I were a better coach, my athletes wouldn’t have back pain. Many said this even though they silently suffered with back pain themselves.
I was ignored by many but continued to build a following. The “meathead” crowd simply laughed at me, up until they realized that lots of coaches were listening to my message. That’s when the attacks really started. Conventional, bilaterally oriented coaches questioned my character, my motivation, and even my coaching skills because…
Stage 2: Opposition – As more coaches listened, thought, and experimented, the old guard became nervous. This was when the negative YouTube videos started, and I was invited to debate the old go heavy or go home crowd on podcasts. One clown on YouTube went so far as to say that my anti-squat stance meant that no one could ever use a toilet again. Others referred to me on their podcast as a p**sy. I was now portrayed as a salesman, hustling for likes, views, and customers. But I was still “anti-squat” because I couldn’t coach difficult-but-important lifts.
Stage 3: Acceptance (or Self-evidence) – We are almost there, but not quite. The old powerlifting/football crowd is still firmly stuck in stage 2.The reality is that we have found unilateral movements to be not only safer, but more effective, says @mboyle1959. Click To Tweet
The reality is that we have found unilateral movements to be not only safer, but more effective. It’s important to note that we do continue to do bilateral power exercises (Olympic lifts and variations), as well as both unilateral and bilateral jumps, hops, and bounds. In addition, with healthy athletes, we continue to use trap bar or hex bar deadlifts.
What we don’t do are bilateral squats! So, let’s get to the misconceptions.
1. Unilateral Training Traffics in Likes, Clicks, and an Agenda
The number one misconception of unilateral training—particularly as it applies to me—is that I’ve advocated unilateral training in order to create controversy and further my career. That could not be further from the truth. In fact, nothing generates likes and views like telling a bunch of people what they want to hear. The man who thinks he is right loves affirmation. I could have generated far more approval through the years by simply catering to the status quo.
My agenda is attempting to help teams win and athletes stay healthy. In the interest of full disclosure, I do also sell information products—trust me, though, they do not represent a majority of my income. Additionally, I do not sell equipment. I do, however, work for an equipment company (I’m a speaker for Perform Better), but I have not ever been involved in equipment sales as a profession.
2. Unilateral Exercises Are Less Effective
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about unilateral exercises is that they are less effective than the bilateral versions. Like many of the misconceptions about unilateral training, this belief is generally put forth by those who don’t use unilateral exercises. I love people who insist something doesn’t work in one breath, but then proceed to mention that they have never tried said method.
The research reads differently. In the past five years, I have seen and read numerous studies that compare bilateral exercises (primarily squats) to unilateral exercises (primarily split squat variations). In almost every study, unilateral exercises were, at worst, equal to bilateral exercises in the areas studied.If we can use a lift that is safer, uses less load, and provides the same result, doesn’t common sense tell us to do it?, asks @mboyle1959. Click To Tweet
If we can use a lift that is safer, uses less load, and provides the same result, doesn’t common sense tell us to do it?
3. Unilateral Exercises Produce an Inferior Hormonal Response
Many of the bilateral defenders espouse the hormonal benefits of heavy bilateral lifting. The thought process seems to be that hormones have load receptors and that a load in a unilateral exercise is not recognized like a heavy bilateral load in an exercise like the back squat. I can’t tell you how often I have seen the hormonal response idea used to validate heavy bilateral lifting.
Although evidence exists that heavy lifting produces a positive hormonal response, there have been no studies that I know of on unilateral versus bilateral training in regard to hormones.
There is support for the idea of heavy lifting producing positive hormonal responses. There is also some data showing that unilateral and bilateral are similar in this regard.
4. You Use Less Weight in Bilateral Exercises
Are we soft or are we smart? In our “hardo” strength coach world, things like unilateral training or functional training are seen as soft. Real men and women use big loads in big exercises.
This is another misconception that shows the bilateral crowd’s lack of math skill. Most experienced unilateral lifters will expose the target muscles (glutes, quads, hamstrings, etc.) to far greater loads than what can be seen in bilateral exercises. However, because coaches don’t multiply by two, the load is perceived as less. The key is to look at weight lifted per leg, not weight lifted. Alex Natera has done some excellent work to make this math easily understood.
What does not get exposed to higher loads is the spine. Take a look at some of the “Hatfield Squat” videos on the internet. I will 100% guarantee that the lifters in the videos are using far more than 50% of their best bilateral squat.
The load per leg in unilateral exercises can be much higher than in bilateral exercises. If we agree that the target of squats is the lower body, than this is very much in line with my “force transducer” argument from 2009.
I stated in 2009 that the back was a bad transducer (a transducer moves force from one area to another). The back is the transducer from the bar to the legs, and the reality is that it does a bad job. When the back fails, the failure often results in injury. If the target is not the back, why force the back to be the transducer at all? Why not allow the back to deal with half the load?
The back is not an effective vehicle to get force from a bar held on the back to two legs. That is just reality. The back becomes the limiting factor in squatting. That is not opinion; that is fact. You can watch hundreds of failed squats and you will rarely see the legs give out, while the torso remains solid and erect. I have competed in powerlifting and have watched literally thousands (maybe millions) of squats, and the vast majority of the time, failure occurs via a rapid lumbar flexion.
Frans Bosch states, “not only is the value of deep squats questionable, but so is the claim that double leg squats are particularly suitable for improving strength in the legs. Strength in the back muscles may be the limiting factor, rather than strength in the legs, and so double leg squats may in fact be a maximal strength exercise for the back muscles.”
5. Unilateral Exercises Are Fine…for Everything but American Football
Football strength coaches cling to the back squat for all the reasons above and probably a few more. Many strength coaches who do not have to deal with macho football coaches who grew up on back squats can easily switch to a unilaterally oriented program.
Any attempt to have a back-squat-less football program is immediately viewed as soft. One thing to try to remind sport coaches is that the most desirable ability in sports is availability. Great coaches understand that you win when your best players are playing!Many strength coaches who do not have to deal with macho football coaches who grew up on back squats can easily switch to a unilaterally oriented program, says @mboyle1959. Click To Tweet
I love the Henry Ford quote: “If I had listened to everyone else, I would have invented a faster horse.”
All I ask is that you give unilateral training a real try. So many of the opponents of unilateral training fight something they have never tried. Forget your bias. Forget what you like. Forget what your high school or college coach did. Give unilateral training an honest attempt.
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Speirs DE, Bennett M, Finn CV, and Turner AP. “Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2015 Jul 11. (Epub ahead of print).