About 373 moons ago or so, I went to a Cirque Du Soleil show. I had wanted to check out Cirque for an appreciable length of time, so when I heard they were coming through Hotlanta to drop straight artistic and athletic fire all over I was there in a heartbeat.
And it was awesome. Holy shit was it awesome.
As someone who enjoys training and makes getting people in outstanding shape my gig, the athleticism and strength of the performers was unlike anything that’s ever come across these eyeballs. The amount of body control, spatial awareness, and strength were seriously impressive.
As someone who enjoys somewhat obscure artistic shit, mindset, flow, and meditation it was on another level. The story was a bit weird and involved a giant lizard man, which I didn’t totally get. Like I said, somewhat obscure artistic shit.
But the music, Oh baby, the music. I think I worked out to the Cirque Du Soleil Amaluna soundtrack for 3 weeks.
Also, seeing high performers in their element, in flow, is a truly unique experience. They are the best in the world at what they do. The amount of focus, time, effort, and dedication they put in for their craft shows on stage. It’s truly poetry in motion.
Seeing things like Cirque often get my trainer gears turning. Specifically, what kind of training are they doing? How heavy do they go? How often are they training?
No doubt there’s a ton of body weight work and has been for years.
But what about weights? And what can we learn from them when it comes to helping us get jacked, shed fat, and perform better?
I’m willing to bet they do a ton of unilateral work in the gym, and so should you.
You can squat, deadlift, and bench all day every day. Those are some of my favorite lifts in the whole damn world. But, those lifts aren’t always for everyone all the time.
Incorporating unilateral lifts can be invaluable to a program, and is an often forgotten aspect of the program. That’s how it was for me, and it’s something I’ve changed in the recent past.
For the past 3 months, I haven’t back squatted, barely benched, and I’ve done very little conventional deadlifting. Instead, I’ve done more Bulgarian split squats, lunges, Single-leg Romanian deadlifts, single arm presses and rows than I can comprehend.
Going into this little experiment I thought I’d probably lose my bro card, come back weaker, but with a little better balance. Giving up those lifts can seem like heresy to the lifting community, and if you tell anyone you’ll be publicly shamed, tarred, and feathered.
3 months later, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m stronger overall, especially with my abs, and I’ve got better balance than most card-carrying ninjas. And still, have my bro card. Unilateral training, ftw.
What are unilateral lifts?
Unilateral training is single leg or single arm movement vs. using either arms or legs at the same time.
For example a traditional squat is a bilateral movement. You’re using both legs. A unilateral variation would be a lunge or Bulgarian split squat.
You rarely see people knocking out well-executed and heavy unilateral lifts. Why? They’re hard*.
But you should be doing them. Not because you want to perform all over the world, dress up like a lizard man, and dazzle millions with your acrobatic prowess. But because unilateral lifts are some of the most overlooked lifts in the training world, and that’s a shame.
Here are 3 reasons you should be doing unilateral lifts. Lizard suit optional.
One of the biggest reasons unilateral lifts are excellent is that they allow you to get the same training effect as a bilateral lift while using less weight overall. This may seem like a small deal, but for long-term development it’s huge.
Why? Because at some point in your lifting career you’re probably going to get hurt. It’s a fact of life, especially if you move hundreds of pounds at a time. By moving less weight and staying under control, your risk of injury goes down.
The longer you can train without injury, the more long-term progress you can make. It’s common sense, but common sense isn’t so common.
The interesting thing I’ve found in my own personal unilateral experience is if you focus solely on unilateral training for a few months when you come back to the basics you’ll likely find your setting new PR’s every damn day.
Why? You’ve probably corrected any major imbalances that existed, and as we’ll learn, developed more core strength and stability.
Get better abs.
With most basic lifts you’re going to get some very good core involvement. They aren’t the only ab exercises you’ll ever need, as is some people like to say, but they’re still very good.
Unilateral lifts take that to an entirely new level by throwing an anti-rotational component into the mix.
If you’ve never done one-arm dumbbell bench press, one-arm rows, lunges, or other unilateral lifts then the first few times doing these will actually leave your abs sore.
Anti-rotation is a powerful component to ab training by causing more oblique involvement. As an added bonus you’ll probably notice you’re abs probably show more even if your body fat isn’t super low. I know mine made their presence known, and I’m by no means lean enough to be shredded right now.
Unilateral lifts help you shed fat faster.
Performing heavy rows, split squats, lunges, or presses with just one arm or leg is a complete game changer. These movements are metabolic powerhouses, which makes them a perfect option if you’re trying to drop fat. If I’m programming for someone to drop fat, unilateral training in some form or fashion is in that program.
Why do they work so well for fat loss?
Even though you may be moving less weight overall, you’re still performing a ton of work using only one limb. Additionally, a set of 8 reps using a bilateral lift is going to 30+ seconds. Make that lift unilateral, and you’ve probably doubled the time of the set.
You’re now performing more overall work throughout each set, and that adds up to a lot more work over the course of a workout. You’re also likely causing more muscles to fire at once because you’re abs haven’t gotten a break at all, which burns through a metric fuck ton (real measurement) of energy.
If you Bulgarian split squat for day after day are you going to wind up in a Lizard suit dancing to some very dramatic metal music and flipping through the air? It’s tough to say. I don’t know your life. But if you do, call me. That’d be one hell of a testimonial.