If there is one thing that I’ve seen since coming into the fitness industry over 12 years ago, it’s the growth in the knowledge of the need for more specific glute work with a large number of people out there living today. Poor glute function often leads to an overworked low back and/or aggravated knees along with less than optimal movement quality. The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of this is great; however, there are other players around the hip and leg that are also very important to take care of, and in my opinion, a specific group of these often gets sad because they are not addressed and not included often enough in the conversation. While strengthening the glute muscles is great to help keep the outer hip solid, people often forget that there is a VERY LARGE section of muscle on the INSIDE of the hip and thigh. Bring on the adductors!Read More
A question I receive fairly often from people starting a new program is, “Why am I doing ‘x’ exercise?” Or, sometimes I’ll hear comments like, “Wow, this program looks a lot different!” Now, if it’s not a program I wrote, but was written by the one and only Nick Rosencutter, I’ll usually just give my default explanation of: he is crazy and wants you to suffer. If, on the other hand, I wrote the program, I will give them my rationale behind why I have them doing…oh I don’t know…hanging single-leg lateral calf raises with a chain for time.
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t get that crazy. However, statements and questions like the two mentioned are valid, and the exercises and sets and reps you are performing do deserve justification and should have meaning behind them. That is an article for a different time.Read More
Walk into most gyms today and the likelihood of seeing someone performing a unilateral (means single limb, for you non fitness folks) exercise, minus the ever-popular alternating bicep curl and possibly the occasional lunge, is slim to none. And that’s too bad, considering the numerous benefits there are to be reaped from adding these types of exercises into your training. Muscular strength and balance, athletic performance, increased joint and whole body stability, body awareness and more can all be improved through unilateral training.
But Tyler, what makes you so sure? How do you know?
Because for the first five years of my training career, I hardly performed any of them, and the ones that I did do were certainly not done exceptionally well. Now, thankfully this did not result in any severe injuries or problems, as I am convinced would have been the case had I continued on this path. However, I do believe that consistent and frequent smaller injuries and setbacks may have been avoided better had I trained smarter. The same ligament strain in my left lower back three years in a row, frequent patellar tendon/knee pain coupled with inflammation and poor hip mobility are just a few of the issues that might have been avoided with better balance in my program. Couple these minor issues with horrific lateral/frontal plane (side to side) strength and stability , which stemmed from a direct lack of unilateral training, and I was wonderfully set up for continued setbacks and a potential (major) injury.
(Note): I may have also learned just a thing or two from my boss, Nick Rosencutter. He knows a couple of things about training.Now, do I think that a lack of unilateral training is the exact reason I had those problems and imbalances and issues? No, not completely; but I do think it played a substantial role and that some of those problems could have been corrected and fixed sooner had I placed an emphasis on balancing out my bilateral to unilateral training (double limb to single limb).
So, let’s get to it.
One of the most significant reasons that unilateral training is important for almost everyone is because many daily life and sport activities simply do not occur with two hands/feet, fixed to a specific object, moving said object with both limbs simultaneously. You are constantly moving your arms, legs, hands, and feet independently of one another, and you may not even notice it.
That jog you went on this morning, carrying the groceries in one hand, and walking up and down stairs are all unilateral movements. How about performing a layup, throwing a punch, kicking a soccer ball, a tennis serve, or throwing a baseball, football, etc.? Many sport movements are just unilateral movements performed repetitively.
I can already hear the disagreement. But Tyler, don’t you know that the main barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses have way more advantages? Don’t you know not everyone has two hours per day to lift and just need to get in a quick workout with the most bang-for-your-buck exercises? Athletes need power and strength more than anything, so why are you worried about their muscular balance and joint stability?
What great questions and concerns! Allow me to explain. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree, as does the research, that compound barbell lifts such as the back squat, bench press, deadlift, etc., have the most benefit when it comes to increased muscle size, strength, and power development. And yes, if you are truly limited on training time and need to get in a quick workout, chances are bilateral exercises are going to be your first go-to, but not always; nor should they be.
Let’s take for example, a basketball player. Their sport requires them to sprint (unilateral), jump (bilateral and unilateral), pass (bilateral and unilateral), and shoot (bilateral), among many other various movements put together in unpredictable combinations and at unpredictable times. This athlete must be able to stop, change direction, pivot, run, jump, lunge, do it quickly and at a moment’s notice, and do it all with a great deal of power and repetitively without fatiguing. Basketball seems hard! Take away the standard jump shot and rebound, and basketball is suddenly an activity that contains virtually all unilateral movements! Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that this athlete has some sort of foundational strength and stability in a unilateral stance? That this athlete should be able to, with proper execution and joint mechanics, move their upper limb in all different directions and planes of motion? That this athlete should be able to properly brace their entire abdomen and trunk, as one unit, while simultaneously jumping off of one foot, perform a layup with their opposite arm, land on both feet, and then run back down the court? If this athlete never trains unilateral exercises and only ever performs bilateral movements, their performance on the court will surely not be up the level it could be, had they structured their training a little better.
As stated earlier, many movements that you perform are not done with both arms and/or legs at the exact same time and working together, and your body isn’t designed that way either! Take for example, the Glenohumeral joint (that’s your shoulder joint for you non-anatomy folks). This joint is made up of multiple different structures, but what I’m concerned with here is your scapula (shoulder blade). Your scapula functions in many different ways. It moves forwards and backwards, known as protraction and retraction, rotates upwardly and downwardly, elevates and depresses, and even tilts. For good overall shoulder function, you need a healthy balance of all of these types of motion, working both arms together and independently of one another. One issue that arises when unilateral training isn’t present in your training is some of these scapular motions tend to get forgotten about and lag behind. If the only pressing you ever do is the standard bench press and its variations, you are not training any protraction. If your pulling movements consist of barbell rows, seated rows, and lat pulldowns, you probably aren’t getting enough upward rotation utilizing your lower traps. The point is your shoulder joint is complex and functions in many different ways, and if you aren’t training all of these different types of motions both unilaterally and bilaterally, you’re leaving your shoulder health to chance.
I know you want to learn more about your shoulder and how it works, so click here to get smart.
Finally, one of the most basic and maybe obvious reasons why you should include unilateral training in your program is for the likely fact that one arm, leg or side of your body is simply not as strong as the other side/arm/leg. Everybody has a strong arm,, “better shoulder,” that leg that feels stronger than the other, etc.
Really, try a set of split squats or alternating dumbbell presses. Chances are (if you’re lacking on your unilateral training) one side feels better or stronger or is easier. Now, what do you think happens when you jump under the bar for your back squats or bench press sets? Do you just automatically disperse the weight evenly between the right and left sides of your body? No! One arm or leg is probably doing a little more of the work to pick up for the slack of the other side. Now, what do you think would happen to your bench press if you brought up that lagging right shoulder? Or your back squat strength if your left quad was as strong as your right? It certainly isn’t about to go down! Unilateral training is a great way to bring up strength deficits and imbalances from one side of the body to the other, or maintain equal strength if you are already fairly balanced. Furthermore, unilateral exercises train different stabilizing muscles that simply aren’t fully engaged with bilateral exercises, leading to better overall muscular development, balance and stability.
Hopefully by this point I’ve convinced you that maybe tossing in a few unilateral exercises into your current program would be a good idea. If you have no idea where to start, check out a few suggestions below.
- Reverse lunge
- Supported 1 Leg Squat
- Single-leg RDL
- Single-leg glute bridge/hip thrust
- Single-leg leg curl
- Alternating DB Bench Press
- Single-arm cable push
- Single-arm DB shoulder press
- Single-arm face pull
- Single-arm pulldown
- Single-arm DB Row
* There are not necessarily any direct unilateral ab exercises, considering your entire trunk functions as one unit to stabilize your torso and spine. However, there are definitely some that may work one side more versus the other at different parts of the movement. Below are some of my favorites and what they focus on.
- Barbell suitcase hold: Lateral stability and frontal plane strength
- Rotating side bridges: Rotational strength and stability
- Kneeling/Standing/Squat Cable Holds: Anti-rotation strength
- Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: Lateral strength and stability
If this topic interests you and you want to learn more, check out some of these guys and dig through their stuff, because they’re way smarter than me. And older. Which means experience.
By Nick Rosencutter
Upper body training. Probably the most popular emphasis of training that you will see if you walk through most gyms throughout the country. Everybody loves pumping their biceps and building their chests up. If you are lucky, you might even find someone who enjoys chiseling out their upper back. While working the upper body might be a very common thing to come across, very few people actually understand how to train it correctly. This is because very few people understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the activities that occur up top. (and if these things were understood even a little bit, those lovely things below the belt called legs would never be neglected).
So, when we look at gym goers who do hit their upper halves a few times a week, we can generally put people into a few different groups.
Group 1- The Bench and Curl All Day Every Day Group. These people love working the muscles that they see in the mirror and do many variations of pressing and curls with some extra delt and tricep work thrown in for good measure here and there. Neglecting the opposing muscles in the back leads to problems down the road and they are left with imbalances and shoulder issues.
Group 2- The Train with some Push-Pull Balance Group. These people at least understand the importance of balancing out pushing and pulling exercises and try to do some kind of pulling exercise to provide some balance to whatever pushing/pressing exercise they might be doing.
Group 3- The Shoulder Mechanics Involve More than 2 Motions Group. These are those in the know that understand the anatomy and mechanics of the shoulder and train movement and muscle around their upper bodies with some decent anatomically balanced precision; often leading to less shoulder issues and better looking and better performing postures.
Digging into this a little deeper, while group 1 is way off of the map, group 2 at least has SOME realization about balancing out the anatomy. So what is it that they are missing that Group 3 is not? That my friends, is the question that we shall answer with the rest of this article.
To understand how to properly train, we must first look at the anatomy and mechanics. I’m going to keep this straight forward and basic so this doesn’t turn into a textbook lesson. The first thing we need to look at is the scapula (known as your shoulder blade in street talk) and the motions it is capable of. The scapula lays on the back of your rib cage and has connections with your clavicle (collar bone) and humerus (arm bone). When we talk about “push pull balance,” we are generally talking about protraction and retraction of the scapulae (although many people don’t get quality protraction even with their pushing), flexion/extension, and on some occasions, internal/external rotation of the glenohumeral joint (what most think of as the shoulder joint) .
While having some balance here is great, we also need to factor in the multiple other possible actions of the scap and gh joint. The scap can also elevate, depress, rotate upward, rotate downward and tilt forward and backward. The gh joint also internally and externally rotates, adducts and abducts. There are certain muscles that help to perform all of these actions. Anytime we move our arm, whether that be forward and backward, out to our sides or overhead and back down, our scapula, gh joint and our thoracic spine all need to move with a certain harmony amongst each other. When one of these is off, the other(s) must compensate in order to create further motion. Most commonly, the scapula stops moving or moves abnormally and the humeral head (top of the arm bone) glides either upward or forward to compensate, leading to impingement. Simply pushing and pulling neglects many of these actions, although if we are talking pushing and pulling both horizontally and vertically we are at least getting closer to the prize.
Moving overhead involves multiple pieces, including flexion of the glenohumeral joint, upward rotation of the scapulae and extension of the thoracic spine
Pulling with good protraction of the scapulae and pushing with good protraction of the scapulae
Internal and External Rotation of the shoulder joint (in this instance while the scapulae are in a bit of retraction)
When we look at the most common pushing exercises that are performed, the bench press is definitely towards the top of the list. When we look at pulling exercises, a row variation is towards the top of the list as well. When done correctly, the row will work the rhomboids, mid traps and low traps, the main muscles that pull the scapulae into retraction (they pull your shoulder blades together). When done correctly, the bench press will work your pecs, anterior deltoids and triceps with the actual motion of the press; however, a correct set up involves pulling the shoulder blades together (retraction, as we learned a couple of sentences ago, which also utilizes the rhomboids). When we do too much pressing like this, without any protraction of the scapulae and pair it with straight rowing exercises, we end up getting what we call anterior glide of the humerus, where the top of your humerus (arm bone) moves towards the front of your shoulder joint, creating impingement. This occurs because when the scapulae fails to protract sufficiently during a push motion, the humeral head compensates by moving forward in the shoulder socket excessively (anterior glide); this ends up happening if we never train scapular protraction with our pushing movements. (Similarly, if our scapulae stop upwardly rotating when we move overhead, the humeral head tends to glide UP in the socket, causing impingement at the top of the joint)
To add further complication, when we add in any kind of shrugging exercise which involves elevation of the scapulae, the rhomboids are under pressure even more since they also assist with elevating the scapulae. Throw in some pulldowns or pullups, which involves downward rotation of the scapulae, which also activates the………guess what?………the rhomboids! So while at first glance, you might think that many people would need lots of rowing and pullups to balance out all of their pushing, you can now see that its not so black and white. When you add in the fact that any kind of pressing exercise and any kind of vertical pulling exercise also involve internal rotation of the shoulder joint, we can start to see some patterns occurring. Pecs, lats and deltoids often become overactive, pulling the shoudler joint into internal rotation and, along with the rhomboids becoming overactive, limiting protraction and upward rotation of the scapulae. While many of these people do have overactive rhomboids, many of them do still need to “open up” their shoulders. So how do we do this without creating further complications?
We need to balance out the types of pushing exercises we do, being sure to include exercises that allow us to get protraction and/or upward rotation of our scapulae
We need to train upward rotation of our scapulae and external rotation of our shoulder joints and/or do this ALONG with retraction.
Some people might be excessively depressed and some excessively elevated. This must also be factored into any programming.
Balancing out our pushing exercises
Rather than just bench pressing, incline bench pressing, decline bench pressing etc. we need to do some pushing that allows us to move our scaps freely. Landmine presses, cable pushes, overhead presses, and pushups are some great ones. These allow us to get either quality protraction or upward rotation, or some combination of the two. Ensuring that our scapula is able to move effectively in these pathways will better allow our humeral head to stay centered in the glenoid fossa (shoulder socket), preventing impingement and keeping our shoulders healthier.
Training our scapulae to upwardly rotate and stimulating the external rotators of our shoulder to help counteract all of the internal rotation going on are essential. Beyond that, we need to train some retraction without the rhomboids taking over. Y variations and basic external rotation variations are great ways to take care of the first two. Face Pull variations are a great way to conquer our third mission here. With a face pull, our scapula is in a position of upward rotation as we pull towards our head. Since rhomboids are also downward rotators of the scapulae, this takes them out of the movement to a certain extent and allows our mid and low traps to do more with the retraction of the exercise. So we have retraction with good recruitment of the mid and low traps in a position of scapular upward rotation, which is great. Add in the fact that we also get some external rotation at the shoulder joint as we pull, and you have a phenomenal exercise that can really do a lot to help balance out all of the issues that we talked about earlier. Both double and single arm variations work well here depending on the situation and person at hand. If there is side to side imbalance going on (one scap is positioned or moves differently than the other) then it is usually best to start with single arm face pulls.
If somebody is excessively elevated in their shoulder girdle, it is important to be sure that they do not shrug up as they perform these pulling exercises as this will add to the tension that they most likely feel quite often through their necks and shoulders. Performing a high to low face pull might also be a good idea to encourage some depression of the shoulder girdle as you pull. Being sure to keep the shoulders down and back on most pushing and pulling exercises is important here as well.
If somebody is excessively depressed, we need to get their shoulder girdle back up to a respectable level to allow optimal movement and to provide better support for the neck. These people often feel like their neck is “tight,” since its always being pulled on and stretched with the scapulae sitting lower than they should be. Factoring in the possibility of rhomboids being overactive from our earlier examples, we need to train elevation without overworking them more. Enter the Y shrug. This exercise allows us to engage the upper traps to help pull the scapulae up without adding fire to the rhomboids and levator scapulae, while also encouraging positive upward rotation of the scapulae via the lower traps, upper traps and serratus anterior muscles. Check it out above.
While I could go on all day about more factors that could possibly be considered in our shoulder puzzle and this is by no means an exhaustive list, these tips can and should go a long way in helping you to achieve a better balance around your joint; not to mention they should also help improve your lifts and your physique if those are goals of yours. After all, you can’t have a full road map on your back without hitting all of the muscles that are part of it.
In case you didn’t watch this video earlier, check it out now. We go through a lot of the anatomy considerations mentioned in the article and it should help put some of the things mentioned earlier together for you.
Check out the fourth part of our movement series on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s In Motion and learn how to control rotation with the half kneeling cable hold.
Watch the video HERE
Check out the third part of our movement series on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s In Motion and learn how to properly pull and row.
Watch the video HERE
If you haven’t already done so, check out our 21 Day New Years Challenge Program at www.rufpchallenge.com. 21 days of developing sustainable habits to jump start your success in 2016!
If you have been exposed to any type of movement or postural training, you undoubtedly know at least to a certain extent that “being tall” and having open shoulders are important when pushing or pulling or in many cases, standing or sitting posture. Exercises such as rows, w’s, pull aparts, etc. train our upper and mid back muscles such as the mid and low traps and rhomboids to become stronger and more endurable so that we can have more opening in our anterior shoulder region. You essentially train this “opening” with these exercises. While this is generally a great idea for many people, a common mistake that is often made is substituting posterior rib tilt for scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades together). In a failed attempt or an exaggerated attempt to open the front of the shoulders up, people will tilt their ribs back and overextend their lower and mid backs instead of simply driving their shoulder blades together and opening the chest up. I especially see this with many high school athletes that I work with.
This should be watched for with many exercises and positions. The cue “big chest” can sometimes work but many times can lead to the rib tilt just discussed instead of simply opening the anterior shoulders up. “Be tall” tends to work better when fixing this problem. This carries over to squats, standing posture and many things in between. Next time you are thinking of fixing that shoulder posture: Be tall and open those shoulders up but don’t get too crazy and crush your low back. One final thought: If someone has no flexion in their thoracic spine, their scapula will be unstable until you restore that flexion so “shoulder opening” exercises won’t help as much until that happens.
Below are a video of a Band W with level ribs and then a Band W with posterior rib tilt . As I mentioned, this is a compensation you want to be aware of with many exercises, movements and positions. Take note and your posture, movement and strength will improve. Other example vids can be found here: proper position and improper position.
Rows are an important exercise to strengthen and develop the upper and mid back, improve shoulder and head posture and to make you an all around awesome person; however, many people do them entirely wrong and in turn, make themselves much less awesome. It is essential to get proper motion through the scap and glenohumeral joint along with proper positioning of the thoracic spine. The low and mid traps, rhomboids, lats and posterior delts should all work together to accomplish the job (with a little assistance from a few other players but for now we won’t confuse you) Mid and low trap are often not engaged as much as they should be. Today, our awesome intern and great up and coming coach, Brittney Wilinski, shows you how to properly perform a row and common mistakes that are made. She even puts in a nice tongue twister for added entertrainment 🙂 See if you can catch what I did with that last word and then try saying glenohumeral 5 times fast. Enjoy!