I got this question from a blog reader after seeing my blog post on the benefits of unilateral training for mountain biking…
I’ve credited heavy deadlifts and the tension I learn to generate from them with helping be walk away from some hard falls.
Q: “Hey James, given all the benefits of unilateral training why would you want to use bilateral training?”
A: My primary reason would be because you can expose your body to higher intensity levels (i.e. weight) with bilateral training and often more than simply your unilateral weight X 2. For example, if you can single leg squat with 50 pounds I guarantee you that you can front squat far more then just 100 pounds.
This does provide your body with a stimulus you can not get from unilateral training, namely the amount of muscle tension needed to move that much weight. This skill of being able to produce more muscle tension can be beneficial. For example, knowing how to generate max tension in your body can help brace yourself for a fall. While you want to roll out of a fall (making tumbling drills essential for trail riders) sometimes the trail just throws you down in a way that doesn’t allow you to do much more than take the impact. I’ve credited heavy deadlifts and the tension I learn to generate from them with helping be walk away from some hard falls.
The guy who has really championed the use of unilateral training is Mike Boyle and even he sees a benefit to and uses bilateral exercises. When I did his mentorship a couple years ago he told me that the idea was to build a certain amount of strength with the bilateral lifts and once that was achieved, maintain that strength and turn the focus on getting stronger with the unilateral exercises. This made a lot of sense to me and is the model I follow – at a certain point the amount of stress you put on the body with bilateral exercises reaches a point of diminishing returns and the focus needs to switch to improving the strength in “less stressful”, and arguably more functional, unilateral exercises.
I’ll also say that time becomes a concern when using exclusively unilateral exercises. For this reason I use a lot of alternating reps for the upper body (where you alternate sides for the prescribed number of reps) and save the true unilateral stuff for lower body exercises.