Picture this: You have just completed a strength cycle for your back squat. You go to test your 1 Rep Max and… *Cue the sad trumpets*… No improvement. You have trained hard, you’ve eaten well, you’ve made sure to prioritize your recovery and nothing to show for it.
So what happened? Well there are a few factors to consider but for the purpose of this article I want to focus on one: Strength Balance. And let’s take that one step further by talking about unilateral strength, in this case, your left leg vs your right. Imbalances or discrepancies in strength (in addition to mobility and flexibility) can lead to pain and discomfort in the limb that is taking on more of the load but can also lead to poor performance and inevitably plateaus in progress.
“What we see in CrossFit programming is overzealous training of the squat pattern, with some form of squat being strengthened or conditioned on most days. In the novice or intermediate we will also see poor control in the bottom of the squat which increases the absolute load on the anterior knee and hip, and possibly the back. Holding tempo and developing strength in the bottom of the squat are important to develop in athletes who have painful squats.”
But whether your lack of progress is due to pain or not, most of the training we see is bilateral (front squat, back squat, strict press, strict pull-up). When was the last time you trained or beyond that even tested your unilateral strength (Front Rack Step Up, Single Arm Press, Single Arm High Pull)?
In the case of the above scenario a similar situation arose for an athlete. She was stuck at a 225# back squat despite significant training to improve. When she tested her Front Rack Step Up she was able to complete FOUR reps on her right leg with a 45# barbell. Her left leg… ZERO! No wonder a traditional back squat program was not helping. She had been basically squatting with one leg. With a quick shift in her training, she focused on her unilateral strength over the course of the next few weeks with front rack step-ups, bulgarian split squats and other unilateral movements always completing one extra set on her left leg. At the end of the program, she retested her back squat. 245# BOOM!
The takeaway: The strength was there, she always had the potential, she just had to access it.
In another awesome case, PR Star Fitness, a gym in Virginia all tested their athletes back squat numbers. Athletes were given the choice between back squats or step ups for the 6 week cycle. At the end of the 6 weeks, back squat numbers were tested again.
722 total lbs were added to back squat maxes in 6 weeks. Athletes who chose back squats added an average of 6.8 lbs to their squat (3.1% increase). Athletes who chose step ups added an average of 17.5 lbs to their squat (9.5% increase). They also tested Push Press, splitting the gym’s training between Push Press and Landmine Press. Focusing on just bilateral Push Press added an average of 1.4 lbs to an athletes Push Press (1.1% increase). Training the Landmine Press added an average of 13.2 lbs (an 11.1% increase).
So, whether you are struggling to get your first strict pullup, increase your back squat or bench press consider testing your unilateral strength. This just may be what is holding you back. How often does your gym train unilateral movements? Have you ever tested your strength ratios?
Check out the following article Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review for more in depth research on how unilateral exercises have greater benefit than bilateral specific to the squat.
If you are looking for more in depth advice or training suggestions, be sure to ask one of our amazing coaches or set up a personal training session or series to test your own strength balance. If you are not a member, but are curious about CrossFit or learning any of these movements, be sure to check out our KICKSTART PROGRAMS including our Comprehensive Kickstart that includes a Movement Screen for Flexibility and Mobility.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I LOVE WHITEBOARD DAILY (@whiteboard_daily) for quick and easy visual explanations. Another great account to follow on this topic is Active Life Rx (@activeliferx). If you aren’t already following them on IG or FB you should be!