Since most people are not going to make a living as a professional sports star or a fitness athlete, what are we training for? Most people use their training in the gym to keep them healthy and improve their performance in what they do outside the gym. One aspect of training that I believe can be missed in the gym is the idea of working on unilateral and variable loading to more closely resemble the demands of everyday life and sport outside the gym. In our daily lives or in sport we are not always going to be picking up or carrying something that is perfectly balanced and stable, but in the gym this is often times what our exercise regimen will primarily consist of. If we are using our time in the gym to support what we want to do outside the gym then we need the two worlds to resemble one another. Today we will discuss what unilateral and variable loading strategies/exercises are and give examples of a few of our favorites of each that you can start programming into your workouts.
Let’s start by defining the term unilateral, this is loading of one side or one limb. Think of a new mother carrying her baby in a car seat or a waiter/waitress carrying a heavy tray of food over their head through the restaurant. Both of these are simple everyday examples of someone placing a load on one side of their body, and if they have not developed a proper strategy to brace against this type of uneven loading then what do you think they are going to do? They are going to contort their body into some position in which they feel they have created a stable system in their body. This places an uneven stress on many of the joints and ligaments of the joints being contorted to achieve this compensatory position. However, if we program in and train some of these types of movements we can develop the proper motor control and muscular strength to perform these types of tasks in our everyday lives without putting our joints at increased risk of pain or injury. Here are a couple of examples of some unilateral loading exercises.
Suitcase carries also known as single arm farmer’s walk is an exercise in which you hold a load such as a kettlebell in the picture above, on one side of the body and walk for a prescribed distance. When performed correctly this is an exercise that can improve strength and control of the core musculature on the opposite side of the weight. The person should focus on maintaining a braced neutral spine (aka tighten the “core”) and upright position of their torso, if you are unable to maintain this position you need to lower the weight. This will help reduce stress to the joints of the lumbar spine when performing a single armed carry such as the mother with the car seat.
In the unilateral deadlift place a kettlebell, barbell, sandbag, etc. on one side and perform a deadlift maintaining all the principles of the standard deadlift. As with the suitcase carry above, this will help us build the strength and control to perform functional lifting tasks of everyday objects that are not typically going to have perfect balance. Like helping someone move a couch. There is no secret to dosing this exercise the same exercise prescription used for the typical deadlift can be applied the the unilateral deadlift.
When using the term variable loading we are referring to a load or resistance that will be able to move leading to a challenge in creating and maintaining stability throughout the exercise. Variable load training also provides immediate feedback on a person’s ability to maintain good positions throughout a movement. The less control you have, the more the load is going to move and shift demonstrating lack of muscular control during that particular movement pattern. Consider activities such as carrying a large container of water and as the water moves inside of the container it can cause you to lose control of the container or of your own balance. Again another real world example of activities that are not often practiced in the gym, but do happen in our daily lives.. Here are some exercises to work on variable load exercises.
Suitcase carry or Farmers walk with variable load
Keeping it simple we can perform the farmer’s walk or suitcase carry from the earlier exercise with the weights suspended from strong resistance bands. This will allow the weights to swing and bounce on the bands causing the muscles to have to work harder to control the movement. As stated above this provides good feedback on how well you are able to control the trunk lean or sway while walking.
Squats with hanging weights
Here the weights are again suspended from the barbell using the thick resistance bands to create a variable load. This will challenge the limits of stability throughout the movement. This exercise allows for challenging exercise under a lower load, and there is no hiding any flaws in your squat technique here.
We hope that this has given you some ideas about how unilateral and variable loading strategies can be incorporated into your exercise regimen to further your resilience to everyday life outside the gym. We must practice for all situations to be ready for all situations. Throw some unilateral and variable training into you programming and become a Prime Mover!
When exercising or in everyday life one of the more difficult things to do is to perform sustained work in an overhead position. Many people complain about feeling too tight in the shoulders to be able to get into a full overhead position. While the mobility of the shoulder joint can definitely affect a person’s ability to obtain an overhead position, there are two other factors that can be equally or even more important and they are often overlooked. These are thoracic spine mobility and flexibility of the latissimus dorsi muscle. Without having the ability to obtain full thoracic ext and adequate flexibility of the latissimus dorsi muscle a person cannot obtain and or sustain a proper overhead position regardless of how good their mobility is in their shoulder joint. Let’s dive a little deeper into these two factors and then discuss some simple mobility exercises to help address these issues.
The thoracic spine is the longest section of our spinal column running from the base of our neck down to the level of our abdomen. It is also inherently more immobile than the cervical and lumbar regions of our spine secondary to the fact that it is attached to our ribs. As you can see in the picture below the thoracic spine has a rounded curve to it called kyphosis.
Because of the kyphotic curvature it can limit how high up a person can raise their arm regardless of their shoulder mobility. Shown in the image below is a depiction of a spine with an increased kyphotic curve of the thoracic spine and how that limits shoulder movement and the ability to get the arm overhead.
This is something that can be worked on through utilizing techniques known as joint mobilizations to the area affected. Joint mobilizations can be applied manually by a licensed physical therapist or chiropractor, or there are self mobilizations techniques that can be very beneficial. There are a number of self-mobilization techniques, shown below is a basic option to get people started. It is the thoracic extension over foam roller technique. Lay on the floor with foam roller running across your mid back, with hands behind head extend yourself over the foam roller and then back up in a slow controlled motion. Perform for approximately 60-90 seconds moving the foam roller over different segments of the thoracic spine.
The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in the upper body and it’s primary responsibility is to perform shoulder adduction, shoulder extension, and shoulder internal rotation. These actions have an almost direct antagonist relationship to the proper overhead position, meaning that tightness within this muscle would cause limitations or compensations to overhead positioning. Below is a picture of the latissimus dorsi.
In the presence of increased tone/tightness of the latissimus dorsi there are mobility exercises that can be done to improve the mobility and stretch tolerance of this large muscle. One simple but effective technique to work on latissimus dorsi mobility is shown below. Begin standing or kneeling, and place arms on a bench, table, chair, etc. in front of you with the thumbs pointing up. Make sure to be bending from the waist and maintaining a neutral spine position, also attempt to sit your body weight back to increase the stretch felt. Can be prescribed in a number of ways, our preference is to perform multiple repetitions moving in and out of the position for 60-90 seconds as opposed to maintaining a prolonged static position.
This has hopefully provided some simple ideas around not just relying on shoulder mobility exercises to improve overhead position, but understanding the relationships of the spine and latissimus dorsi on overhead mobility. There are certainly a countless number of other variations to work on these aspects of overhead mobility. However, regardless of which mobility exercises a person finds that they respond to, it takes consistency over a long-period of time to make the kind of lasting effects that we all want to see. So find mobility exercises that can cause a short-term effect on your overhead position and put in the work and you will be able to obtain and maintain a proper overhead position to continue to improve for your overall health and fitness.
When most people hear the word deadlift they get a nervous look on their face and often times tell you that they have been told by their doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor, etc that they should not perform deadlifts due to their back problems. Well I am here to tell you that avoiding this movement pattern is not the answer, and honestly almost impossible to avoid. So, instead of avoiding maybe we should start prescribing this movement.
Every time you bend down and pick up an object from the floor you are performing a deadlift movement, and most of us are doing it wrong. A majority of the population will just bend forward rounding their back and shoulders to pick something up off the ground placing unnecessary stress throughout their spine putting themselves at an increased risk of injury.
Here are some statistics about low back pain:
Those are some daunting numbers to digest. When I look at those numbers it tells me that the typical treatments currently being offered in our healthcare system are not as effective as they could be. So what is missing? I believe part of the answer is truly teaching people the proper mechanics of lifting. As I said earlier the deadlift is one of the most common movement patterns utilized by humans while just performing everyday tasks.
Most people will tell you that they know they are supposed to lift with their legs and keep their back straight, but that is the extent of the common person’s movement training. Let me tell you from my experience as a doctor of physical therapy, that instruction leads to a wide variety of movement strategies that people are adopting with a vast majority of these movements being inappropriate and likely to lead to injury. It is my belief that there is a significant disconnect in what it truly means to maintain a proper position of the spine and lift with the legs. So today, I want to give some basic instructions on how to safely and efficiently lift something from the floor, utilizing the principles of a deadlift.
Here are simple cues that I give my clients when teaching them to perform a deadlift:
Here is a photo of what the finish position should look like:
This movement strategy allows you to maintain a proper neutral position of the spine reducing the injury-producing shear forces to the spine, as well as reducing the amount of stress placed on the knees when compared to squatting all the way down. With this information, let us start to fight the epidemic that is low-back pain, and get people back to being able to lift heavy objects from the floor.
1. Jensen M, Brant-Zawadzki M, Obuchowski N, et al. Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Lumbar Spine in People Without Back Pain. N Engl J Med 1994; 331: 69-116.
3. In Project Briefs: Back Pain Patient Outcomes Assessment Team (BOAT). In MEDTEP Update, Vol. 1 Issue 1, Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, Rockville, MD.