Unilateral Strength Exercises for Lower Body By Patti Waller
Ask a triathlete how often they do strength training and the answers may be seldom, just the offseason or not at all. The reality is that eliminating or skimping on this fourth element can transfer to weak performance, muscle imbalance or injury.
Unilateral training works a single arm, leg or side of the body instead of the bilateral method that uses both limbs, such as squats, bench press or pull-ups. Unilateral training can help bring kinetic chain discrepancies back in line in regards to power.
This method forces stabilization through other muscle groups that may not occur with bilateral training. With that said, unilateral training is difficult without the knowledge of technique and a foundation of strength training exercises. Working with a qualified strength and conditioning coach is beneficial.
Now, I am not against weight stacks — they have a place in the strength training world — but I prefer body weight training utilizing dumbbells, kettle bells, bands, balls and suspension strap systems like the TRX. Using the body for stability and mobility creates a realistic picture for sports performance. What is your training purpose? If it is training a weaker muscle group, then one may perform increased reps or sets on one side and single reps or sets on the stronger side — trying to create a balanced body. Examples of unilateral training for the lower body are below.
In regard to reps and sets, begin with 10 reps and add 5 as it becomes easier. Work up to 20 to 30 per side. Number of sets can vary. I choose 3 to 4 max, but a beginner may do less. Exercise caution when adding weights. I find anything over 20-pound dumbbells compromise form. A weighted vest is a great option if available.
It is difficult to block time off for strength training when three aspects of the sport dominate your life. But this element really is a foundation for better speed, agility and less injury, thus helping you to be a long-time athlete in triathlons.
Single leg step-ups on a box or bench (12 to 24 inches)
Stand with feet parallel about hip width. Step right foot onto bench, keeping the torso upright. Lift up to raise the body onto the platform raising the left knee to hip height (balance move). Lower down to place the left foot on the floor in its starting position. May also be performed laterally — stepping up with the bench to the side of the body.
Single leg squat using box or bench (8 to 24 inches)
Stand facing away from bench or box, extend right leg back and place foot on top of the bench or box. Lower hips by flexing the knee of front leg until the knee of rear leg is almost in contact with floor. Return to original position by pressing through front leg and raising hips. Keep torso upright during squat, mobility in hip flexors is important. Front knee should point same direction as foot throughout movement. Start with a lower bench to gauge range of motion.
Stability ball bridge with single leg hip extension and hamstring curl
Lie down on mat face up, place the calves on top of a stability ball. Toes should be at 12 o’clock. Contract abdominal/core muscles. Maintain this contraction throughout the exercise. Arms are placed at the side of the body with palms on the floor. Raise the hips and press the calves into the ball for stability. Do not lift the hips so high that the low back begins to arch. The body should be in a straight line — shoulders, hips, knees. Lift a leg off the ball, maintaining the stability in the hips. Slowly curl the ball toward your hips until the sole of the foot is on top of the ball. The toes may point away from your body in this movement. The hips will continue to lift as the ball is pulled in. Keep the torso stable. Slowly push the ball away, until the knee is straight. To increase difficulty, cross the arms over the chest to reduce contact points on the floor.
Patti Waller is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Clinical Exercise Specialist and Trainer. With 10-plus years of experience, she coaches entry level and seasoned age-group triathletes. Her commitment to performance transfers to her own competitive nature. An accomplished IRONMAN triathlete and marathon runner, she aspires for longevity in the sport and hopes to help others continue their journey with personalized program development. www.edge2fitness.com