If you’ve spent anytime in a gym you’ve probably heard the term “functional training”. It refers to the use of exercises that mimic everyday movement/activity and have application to your structural health, strength, balance, range of motion or athletic demands. Ask someone to name a functional exercise and more often than not they’ll probably say: “a squat” or “a deadlift” or “one of the Olympic lifts” and they’d be absolutely correct. Not many people would respond with a single limb exercise (commonly known as a unilateral exercise) such as a pistol squat, a lunge, one-legged deadlift or single-arm press. These are all just as functional if not more so than the bilateral exercises. How many times in the day do you see a person jumping their way down the street or trying to kick a football with both feet at the same time? A lot of the activities we perform on a day-to-day basis and during sport are unilateral.
I’m not suggesting you abandon all forms of bilateral training but that it could be beneficial to include unilateral exercises in your training program. Some of the reasons to use unilateral exercises in training include:
- Engage more muscles: Unilateral exercises require more balance/ stability meaning you are forced to recruit stabilising muscles. For example, when you stand on one leg to do a single leg squat you engage muscles that normally would not be engaged, or engaged in a different manner in a standard two-legged squat.
- Build strength in a “spine friendly” manner: Too much of anything is a bad thing, and weightlifting is no exception. Constant heavy spinal loading will have consequences on your spine’s health such as lumbar spine degeneration, decrease in intervertebral disc height and numerous other issues. Unilateral exercises decrease spinal loading by more than half and still provide an excellent training stimulus.
- Life and Sports Specific: Most of the functions we perform on a daily basis and in sport are unilateral. An example is walking or running which occur on one leg at a time. With that in mind it makes sense to include exercises specific to these actions, what could be more “functional”?