I played 2 on 2 volleyball with my sister and niece and nephew on Saturday night, using a clothesline as an improvised net!
My niece Madelina was my teammate.
Madelina: Aunt Laura! I thought you were good!
Me: That was 25 years ago!
Don’t worry, I got my groove back after a couple of plays! What ‘groove’ I have left, that is. I left most of it back in the 80s.
Did you know that if you play sports, you should do a lot of exercises that utilize unilateral movements?
This is where you say, “No, Laura, I didn’t know that. Tell me more!”
What Are Unilateral Exercises?
Unilateral exercises are movements that work one side of the body at a time, or movements that work the sides in significantly different ways.
An example would be the single-leg squat. You might have both feet on the ground, yet in a single-leg squat you will place the majority of your weight, and hence the workload, on only one leg and use the other to assist only as needed for balance.
We use unilateral movement constantly in our daily life and especially in sports. Working my legs in this way allowed me to move laterally to get behind the volleyball last night.
You should’ve seen me. I was amazing.
(I was so-so.)
What are the Benefits?
Balance, Joint Support & Core Work
Unilateral exercises work the small stabilizer muscles that are forced to activate when the body is off balance. This is great news for building core strength that’s needed to work under movement and also resist movement, increasing your core stability while under pressure of force.
Balancing on one leg, for example, requires your adductors and abductors (inner and outer thigh muscles) to activate, thereby improving the muscular support for the hip, knee and ankle joints.
While playing volleyball, you have to move, then for the briefest moment “get set” to control your contact with the ball, often while in an imbalanced position of some sort. A worthy opponent will almost never send over a volley with plenty of time to get fully set up to play it.
Unilateral exercises will more closely mimic movements we use throughout our day, and especially when we play sports. Because these exercises build our balance and strengthen the muscles that support proper joint movements, we decrease our risk for injury as we change directions, pivot, zigzag, jump, and bound, typical movements required in sports and even everyday activities.
For example, we just unloaded a couple of hay wagons on the farm. Did we use strict bilateral weightlifting form while tossing bales? Of course not. We twisted, tossed upward and sideways, bent over with weight mostly on one leg, and so on.
Similarly, nearly every movement I made during volleyball was unilateral in some way.
Unilateral exercises overload one side, thereby greatly increasing your potential strength gains. And, because unilateral exercises are not done with heavy loads, you can focus on strength gains without taxing your spine. This makes these a great addition to your standard lifting regimen, adding variety and just as much challenge with less risk for injury.
Even Out Imbalance
Most of us have one side that is stronger than the other. This is mostly due to the activities we do daily, such as always reaching to grab things with our dominant arm. Working the body with unilateral exercises can help to diminish the disparity between the sides.
I coach my clients to work their weaker side first. That way we know we’ll get in a solid effort before fatigue begins. If we begin with the already-stronger side, and then we’re feeling tired by the time we get to the weaker side, we’re again putting the weak side at a disadvantage and feeding that imbalance.
When you get both sides equally strong, your bilateral lifts like squats and bench presses will improve greatly as a result!
Will unilateral training improve my volleyball skills? Well, the best way to get better at volleyball is to practice volleyball, but building my strength using unilateral training certainly helps and allows me to continue doing things like this without worrying much about injury!
If you’ve been following along, you already know that I include unilateral exercises in almost all of my workouts! I’m a big fan of how they quickly ‘up’ the difficulty and complexity of an exercise without having to use heavy weights or complicated equipment.
Do you incorporate unilateral exercises into your workouts?
What are your favorite unilateral exercises?
What sports do you play?