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!