Old School Single Leg Training Video with Aaron Gwin

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 a few years ago.

See Team Yeti’s Aaron Gwin demonstrate several exercises every rider should be using to get faster on the trail.One of the best ways to improve your riding is to include a heavy dose of single limb training, also known as unilateral training. While bilateral training is better known and also important, there are several unique advantages that unilateral training offers that makes it a must to include in your program. Before I get into their 4 main advantages, though, let me clear up a common misconception.

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:

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  1. Wild-Bill says:

    Great post

    Reply • September 19 at 6:05 am
  2. Tony says:

    Coach…thanks for the re-run of this training session. Very usefull info.

    Reply • September 19 at 7:02 am
  3. Mike says:

    I really liked something you had said during this video. “We’re mountain bikers ~ not weight lifters.” You also mentioned how your training plan with Aaron was aimed at making him stronger without beating him up and hurting his performance on the bike. Hearing this was really helpful to me. I spent a good portion of my life lifting heavy weights, and buying into the “no pain no gain” and “feel the burn” philosophy. I quit that about 7 years ago, and have been primarily doing body weight exercises ~ (Matt Furey’s Combat Conditioning). Even so, I believe my thinking has been all wrong when it comes exercise, and I have been mentally struggling as of late with how and when to do my workouts without adversely affecting my riding. I have tell you James, the timing and the selection of your posts has been uncanny. From the moment I stumbled upon your site a month ago, each article or video has specifically dealt with each question of mine as they arose during my transition from clipless to flats ~ as well as the questions I have when it comes to exercise. Right now those two comments of yours are busily reprogramming my mind. I don’t know what my next question will be, but I’m sure you’ll cover it. You should change your title to ~ James Wilson ~ Author, Professional
    Mountain Bike Coach, and Psychic.

    Reply • September 19 at 8:22 am
  4. Nico says:

    Excellent! You can easily see that Aaron has been doing these drills for a while, I might give them a try ,I currently dont have my bike, some burglars broke into my house and took it, so I´m not quite motivated to work out rigth now

    Reply • September 19 at 10:01 am
  5. Gregg / OMR says:

    Great point about not getting beatup from exercising… save that for the trails. The single leg squats and BLFs are a standard with me now. Sometimes it’s best just to go back to basics!

    Reply • September 20 at 1:07 pm
  6. sb66er says:

    A frequent question comes to mind each time a squat type exercise is used; for example the Front Squat and especially the Single Leg Squat (from UMWP) the leg is allowed or encouraged to go beyond 90 deg (thigh to shin angle). The neuromuscular system triggers the hamstrings to shut off and the quads to engage once the knee is extended out past the ankle…and more so as the angle is increased. You encourage to press the heel into the ground and squeeze the glutes on the way up, I am assuming because you recognize the need for glute and hamstring engagement, but the position you teach to is counter-productive for proper neuromuscular firing. Why should an exercise extend beyond the range of motion on the bike to the point of “de-training” the proper muscle usage? On the Bulgarian split squat you encourage a good forward foot position and the usage of the bench doesn’t allow Aaron to go beyond 90 degrees. But if you notice Aarons foot is continually adjusting for balance even though he is strong in these exercises because his inner hamstrings, glutes and related muscles are not being trained to utilize the muscle group properly. Strength is of no value if the neuromuscular system doesn’t tell the muscles to fire during the pedal stroke, etc.

    Reply • November 11 at 9:01 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’m not sure where you get your info but it is a bit off. First, when you watch someone pedal you will see the shins move forward. While I want a vertical shin for deadlifts and other hip hinge movements, being able to squat where you’re shin moves forward and the trunk remains more vertical is both a normal human movement and one you use on the bike so you should train it.

      Also, I have no idea where you got the idea that the hamstring is “shut off” as the knee travels forward but that is also not true. The hamstrings may not be as engaged as they are on an exercise where you don’t bend the knees as much but they are certainly still engaged and firing in order to extend the hips. In fact, they are largely responsible for getting you back out of the bottom on a deep squat.

      I think you are also falling victim to the extreme end of “sport specific training” when you suggest that muscles only be worked in the range of motion they use in sport. One of the benefits of training is to allow the body to move through full range of motion and use different movement patterns than what you use in your sport in order to maintain health and balance. If you’re hurt from your knees not being healthy then it doesn’t matter how fit you are.

      Lastly, that video was shot a long time ago and Aaron had just been introduced to single leg exercises. Having never done them before he was still working on his basic balance with them. His foot was adjusting because his muscles were trying to figure out how to move efficiently in that position, which is one of the points of training. The Bulgarian Split Squat is a great way to teach the muscles to fire in the proper way and being unbalanced in that position is a sign that you need to work on it, not that the exercise isn’t training them properly.

      Again, I’m not trying to be smart ass but I think you need to read a bit more and actually work with some riders and produce some results with them before you call my methods into question. They are based the best practices of the top strength coaches in the world. It is great that you want to understand movement, how the brain controls it and how that all applies to training but you’ve still got a lot to learn.

      Reply • November 11 at 9:46 am
  7. sb66er says:

    James, My observations of your program in using them for my own riding/training are far from just falling prey to conventional knowledge. Quite the opposite; I’m not trying to be a SA either, but my info comes from the most advanced neuromuscular testing center where it was proven on my own body that the quads engage and the hamstrings disengage beyond 90 deg. If you look at super elite athletes in almost every sport they miraculously stop their leg bend at 90 deg when possible, whereas the rest of us mortals let the knee travel further forward during the same movement. The best athletes in the world regardless of sport utilize this neuromuscular optimum, innately because, this is cutting edge science and it goes beyond the conventional wisdom that I think your program follows. Aaron stops his thigh in an optimum position because his body innately knows where his optimum is…not because someone taught him to stop at that position.

    I am able to train an athlete’s body to stabilize and utilize the right muscles at the right time by not allowing the leg angle to extend beyond it’s “optimum” position. This has to be at a subconscious/neuromuscular level and every time an athlete goes beyond the optimum position and overly engages the quads, the muscle memory is set to the wrong standard.

    In the seated pedal stroke the leg bends beyond the 90 deg but only during the “non-firing”, non-power position of the stroke. Seated and standing, the leg is at 90 deg when the power stroke begins.

    Cross training/sport specific position training is not the point here. I realize the benefits of what you are saying, but when proper firing is compromised, the body has less power when called upon.

    Believe it or not, I am asking these questions because I want to continue to do your program, but since I am giving you the benefit of a doubt even when I know better, I still want to make sure that there isn’t a reason that I am missing. Thus far over the past 6 months, your reasoning has been elitist and not remotely close to recognizing that you could be wrong and that decreases my confidence in your program.

    Reply • November 11 at 10:13 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      My opinions aren’t elitist, they are just backed up with over over 15 years of professional experience – 8 of them working with mountain bikers – and thousands upon thousands of dollars being spent to educate myself through books, seminars and mentorships. I’ve personally worked with hundreds and hundreds of people over the years, not to mention all those who have bought online programs from me and what you’re telling me doesn’t add up based on all of that.

      When someone who has considerably less experience and time investment comes and tells me I’m wrong based on what I see to be a misunderstanding of the situation I have to correct it. I am more than happy to acknowledge when I’m wrong and make changes but what you have presented has in no way come close to challenging what I know to both work and be the practice of the best strength coaches in the country.

      I’m not sure exactly what you had tested and how it was tested but again, I think you are misinterpreting what you saw. And it you look at the bottom of an Olympic Lifers catch position at the bottom or sprinters shin position in the starting blocks and try and tell me that their shins are stopping at 90 degrees then you and I have different opinions on what 90 degrees is, which may explain our problem. To say that athletes never extend their shins past 90 degrees again goes against everything I’ve read, see and experienced and is simply not true.

      Also, what is an optimal stopping position today can change based on improvements in mobility and motor control. If you just let people move how they want and say that they just choose what is optimal then you are missing the point of training, which is to challenge people to improve and not just reinforce what they already have. Aaron’s lack of hip and ankle mobility and single leg motor control is what stopped his shin at 90 degrees, not that it is the “optimal” position. If someone has a clean movement screen – which he didn’t – I’d be more inclined to let someone do what comes naturally but in the presence of dysfunction you can’t just say that someone is going to move in the optimal way.

      Again, when I have one guy who had a research group of 1 (himself) tell me that the shin angle should never go beyond 90 degrees and that all athletes do that all the time I don’t know what to say. We are so far off in our understanding of human movement and how we can change it and optimize it that I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

      But I would like to leave things open for you to let me know how things go as you implement your method of training with the riders and athletes you work with. Mine seems to have worked pretty well so far and I’m always looking for better way to do things so please be sure to share the results and testimonials from riders who have had success with that style of lower body training.

      Reply • November 11 at 10:47 am
  8. sb66er says:

    James, lately I’ve been studying tons of video and pics of elite guys like Nico Vouilloz, Fabien Barel, Greg Minnar, Jared Graves, etc. trying to find times where their leg position loads beyond the 90 deg. I have to admit I am realizing that they hit that position on big drops at high speed…didn’t realize that..but otherwise they don’t allow their legs to go beyond 90. So, I see a benefit in your method for those instances. I’m 50…I think I will skip the big drops at high speed though.


    Reply • November 11 at 10:51 am
  9. sb66er says:

    James, no point in arguing. I was asking to find out if there was something that I didn’t recognize. FYI, my point about it being tested on me was to point out that I experienced it first hand, not reading it in a book or hearing someone say it. My almost 30 years of experience in the collegiate and professional field of sports skill maximizing was recently rewritten with my fortunate exposure to cutting edge neuromuscular research. To not know is the foundation for saying others are wrong. (BTW, Usain Bolt is at 90 deg or greater in the blocks and at all points of power drive for 100 meters. Roger Federer is at 90 deg about every single time he loads to hit a tennis ball 95 mph, Adrian Peterson is at 90 deg when he plants to make a cut.)

    Contact EVO UltraFit in Phoenix and get up to speed on why the elite NFL, NHL, PGA, ATP, WTA, MLB athletes are going there to tap into what I am talking about. Seriously, I was just trying to find a common ground on an advanced perspective of hip/leg motor skill. Wish you were more open minded. I am just recently applying what I know to the MTB and recognize there is alot I don’t know and am anxious to learn.

    Reply • November 11 at 3:18 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Try walking up stairs without your shins pushing past 90 degrees…or running up a hill…or check out the differences in knee health between Powerlifters who force that 90 degree shin angle when they squat vs. Olympic Lifters who routinely go ass-to-the-grass and let their knee angle go past 90 degrees.

      The examples of regular and sport movement that takes your shins past 90 degrees are numerous. While I would agrees that when delivering max power into the ground you’ll end up at that 90 degree shin angle it doesn’t mean that you don’t want or need the ability to accommodate that movement pattern.

      It still doesn’t sound like you want to find common ground, you want to tell me why I’m wrong. I’ve tried to explain that you do indeed go past 90 degrees on the bike and in sport. Pros may minimize that compared to others but it is still there and part of basic human movement.

      So what exactly is your point? You even acknowledged that you were wrong and that your shins do indeed go past 90 degrees on the bike and I’ve listed other examples of when it happens, showing that you were wrong in several of you original points but you still keep telling me I’m the one who is closed minded and need to get up to speed on things?

      Again, I’m glad you had your eyes opened to some new things but your talking about a world I’ve been immersed in for over a decade. And you may have met some smart people but they aren’t the only ones out there talking about this stuff and may be leading you down the wrong direction with it. Are you familiar with the Functional Movement Screen and how you can use it to impact training decisions and change movement patterns? If not check it out, it might be the missing piece of the puzzle for you.

      Reply • November 12 at 12:38 pm

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