When I trained Aaron Gwin he would come out to my facility in Grand Junction to get some hands on work. During one of those visits I was able to film a video with him going over the single leg exercises we were using in his program and why they were helpful for him on the trail. This is a re-post of that original article and video that appeared on pinkbike.com a few years ago.
Simply using dumbbells does not constitute unilateral training. Even though both limbs are moving independently, using both of them at the same time is still bilateral training. True unilateral training means that you are either doing one side at a time or at least alternating between the two sides. For example, a regular dumbbell bench press is still considered bilateral training while doing only one side at a time falls under the unilateral category.
Now on to the 4 indispensable advantages of unilateral training:
1) Increase pedaling power- The first advantage of unilateral training is that it is more specific to the function of pedaling a mountain bike. Pedaling occurs one leg at a time with each leg working independently of each other. Since unilateral exercises also require each limb to act alone it only makes sense to include these exercises in your program.
They also ensure that there is not a strength imbalance between your legs. You may find that one leg is significantly stronger than the other, meaning that you are getting less horsepower out of the weaker leg. This makes your pedaling far less than optimal and something that can only be discovered and addressed through unilateral training.
2) Injury rehab and prevention- Another advantage of unilateral training is that it helps to rehab and prevent injuries. After an injury it is extremely common to find that the injured side is weaker than the non-injured limb. When this happens it is impossible to restore that balance without using unilateral training. Even if you are not rehabbing an injury, making sure that you have balance between your limbs is also one of the best ways to decrease your future injury potential.
3) Recruit more muscles– Without getting too technical into anatomy, when performing unilateral exercises you are forced to use stabilization muscles that are simply not recruited during bilateral training (and no, standing on a wobble board or balance ball does not do the same thing). As an example, unilateral leg exercises require that the adductors and abductors (the inner and outer thigh muscles) to fire in a synchronized manner in order to maintain balance. In fact, this is the main reason that many people feel so unbalanced when starting unilateral leg exercises; they simply have not used those muscles in that way before and the body does not know how to efficiently accomplish the movement. Getting the body used to the demands placed on it by unilateral training will make for more fluid, athletic movement on the bike.
4) Build strength in a “spine friendly” manner– Just like anything in life, overuse of something will start to cause problems and while I love the squat and deadlift, after a while they will start to put undo stress on the spinal column. Using a unilateral version of these lifts will not only give you all of the previously mentioned advantages, they will allow you to do so with literally less than half the stress on the spinal column. Over the years this will add up to far fewer back problems and injuries. This aspect will also breathe new life into the training program of those who have suffered a back injury since it allows them to train hard enough to elicit strength gains in a way that does not greatly increase their chance of re-injury.
Add all of these up and you must include unilateral exercises if you are serious about getting everything that you can out of your training program. One of the best ways to introduce unilateral training into your program is to replace one of your normal training days with a unilateral training day, performing nothing but unilateral exercises on that day. Be forewarned, though, since unilateral training will produce some muscle soreness in places that you did not know you had.
To get you started, here are 4 of my favorite unilateral exercises for mountain biking:
- Bulgarian Split Squat: Stand in front of a bench or chair. Place one foot up on the bench and use the other leg to squat up and down. Make sure that you are able to keep the heel of your lead leg pressed down into the ground, that you can keep your torso upright and your belly button pointed straight ahead. Descend until you lightly touch the knee of your trail leg to the ground and then drive through the heel of your lead leg and squeeze your butt cheek to come back up.
- Single Leg Squat: Stand in front of a chair or bench, preferably one low enough so that your upper thigh is parallel to the ground when you squat down to it. Keeping your heel on the ground, sit back and down until you feel the bench behind you. Lightly touch the bench and then push through your heel, squeeze your butt cheek and stand back up.
- Side Press: Stand with a dumbbell in one hand like you were going to do a regular shoulder press. As you press overhead, bend over to the side. Keep your shoulders and hips square and really think about pushing your hips out as you bend over.
Time it out so that your arms lock out and you reach the end of your bend at the same time. Keeping the dumbbell pointed up to the ceiling, drive your hips back over your feet and get your torso upright. Lower the weight back down to the starting position and repeat. Remember to do your reps on both sides.
- Bent Row: With one hand holding a dumbbell, take the back of your other hand and place it in the arch of your lower back. Bend your knees a little bit and push your butt back behind your heels, letting your chest come down towards the ground. Be sure that you use your hand to make sure you keep a nice arch in your lower back.
Once you get down as far as your mobility allows stop and get your core set tight. Row the dumbbell up by thinking about driving your elbow as far behind you as you can. Don’t twist as you row up and keep your core tight and control the dumbbell on the way back down.
Here is a video with Aaron Gwin demonstrating each of these exercises: