Most novice lifters train from a canned program which usually consists of bilateral lifts using two arms and/or two legs. These exercises traditionally are presses, pulls, squats and occasionally bendovers. The compensation pattern for these lifts are to move the core forward or backward as the load increases or fatigue begins to set in. Most people are more challenged in terms of core strength and stability in the lateral plane, let alone the challenges of diagonal/rotational motion. In order to increase the core challenge on one side or through one hip to the same side or opposite side shoulder, consider adding single arm and/or single leg training.
Single Arm Presses
Single arm presses will make the core stabilize in order to prevent rolling off of the bench when doing decline, bench or incline.
When doing single arm overhead presses, the stance should be with one foot elevated onto a short box. This will unload the hip compensation pattern front to back and load the hip side to side compensation pattern. If the pressing arm is on the straight leg side, the load will seem heavier. On the bent or elevated leg side, the load will seem lighter as the hip will shift underneath the pressing shoulder. Most of the core training will take place above the hip when using a bench for support. Standing as in the shoulder press or when using a cable trainer or tubing for incline, the bench pressing pattern will engage the glutes and depending on the stance, other parts of the hip and core musculature. The decline will place more front side core load than normal single arm pressing while in a standing stance.
Single Arm Pulls
Single arm pulls will also add to core training while training the back and shoulder musculature. When standing the entire posterior core from the hamstrings, glutes, QL and erectors will definitely be involved to provide stability as the pulling motion is engaged. The stance (parallel, diagonal, linear) will influence the amount of stress through the posterior core as will the angle of the elbow in relation to the floor. The wide elbow, abducted away from the body will cause relatively greater stress through the core as the resistance is farther from the midline. An elbow near the body will feel stronger on each rep as the resistance is near to the midline. The linear stance will be easiest to execute one arm pulls from as it is in line with the line of stress. The parallel stance will be perpendicular to the line of stress and will cause a feeling of greater stress through the body.
When seated and doing one arm pulls as in a lat pull or low row, most of the core stress will be above the hip. To counteractthis, a small ball can be placed between the knees and squeezed to engage the inner sling adductors and low abs or an ankle band can be put around the knees and pushed out in order to stress the outer sling. I personally prefer training the inner sling with this exercise for most of my people. The opposite arm should punch forward as the pulling arm pulls back and the posture should be emphasized with a big chest attitude.
Single Leg Squats
The single leg squat is excellent for training the legs while not stressing the back. If the single leg squat is prescribed as a split squat with the rear leg elevated rather than as a pistol type squat, the balance is better and the core training can be pretty intense. In order to elevate the core involvement, I will assign a weight held in front, much like a steering wheel. This will make the front side core engage. If I want to stress the lateral core, I will assign a weight held in one hand at shoulder height on the opposite side of the leg squatting, as if preparing to do a shoulder press. This will create resistance above the hip on the opposite side forcing the hip, core and shoulder to stabilize against the forces. The front foot of the squatting leg should be turned in slightly in order to add more balance and the back knee should almost touch the ground, enhancing thigh separation needed for acceleration and sprinting. In addition, with the weight held in front, the resistance can be pressed to the right or left by a partner which will add rotational stress through the core.
The single leg sit back squat is executed just like a normal sit back box squat, the difference being the stance is very narrow and the opposite leg is extended in front to create a counter balance. The weight resistance is loaded in front in the hands or in the case of extremely strong athletes, the addition of a weight vest. Additional stress can be added by pressing right and left on the weight held at arms length, thereby adding rotational stress as in the split/pitcher squat. The addition of a partner will create vertical resistance as well as rotary resistance to the person doing the exercise which, at the hip, knee and ankle will cause the lower limb system to stabilize against this rotational resistance and familiarize the nervous system with this type of feedback. Rotational stress at the hip, knee and ankle is a prime cause of injury when coupled with a loss of stability in this system.
Step – ups
Step – ups are an excellent exercise to add opposite arm, diagonal core stress through the body in order to foster strength and stability on single leg movements such as running, walking, hopping, bounding and jogging. The weight will be held at shoulder height and at the conclusion of a short (4 – 8 inch), medium (12 – 16 inch) or tall (above 16 inches) step up, the weight will be pressed or just held at the shoulder pressing position. The hip is not allowed to “drop” upon the step down portion of the movement and is encouraged to drive through the shoulder in order to execute the step up and press portion of the pattern. Most people just limit their training to linear step ups. Lateral step ups and crossover step ups will enhance hip and ankle mobility and help to spare the knees and low back.
Single Leg Bendovers
Single leg bendovers are one leg good mornings, one leg RDL’s or one leg stiff legged dead lifts. No matter the range of motion,
the knee is flexed to some degree, the load is in the hand(s)s or on the shoulders and the hip is pushed back with a hinge motion in order to foster the hip hinge action, braced core, pillar posture that is a key to low back health. Single leg bendovers (as opposed to double leg bendovers) are usually much more stressful to the inside hamstring adductor area (especially when lifting the swing leg up for thigh separation) and much more challenging to the balance and stability system. If the weight is in the opposite hand and the swing leg is moved out in order to move the weighted hand inside the support foot the rotational stability and strength required is very demanding, even with very light loads. Posture is paramount. The back should be flat, the abs braced and the pillar core maintained throughout the movement. The foundational movement pattern of the bendover should have been mastered prior to assigning this exercise. If the swing leg is rotated the other way and the hand(s) go outside the support foot, this move is similar to the follow through on a throw and is slightly easier to accomplish.
Adding some single leg and single arm training to your workouts will accomplish many things. It will add core stress, lower loads, are safer, creates a greater neural load, will increase balance/stability and are more functional, more akin to the normal movement patterns of the body in normal life skills as well as sport skills. Try it – you just might like it!