Bilateral vs Unilateral Movement Development for Runners

By Mark Blomeley

Ok, so you’re probably looking at the title and thinking what the? Let me explain…

To put this simply, bilateral movement refers to a two arm or two leg movement, whereas unilateral refers to a single arm or single leg movement. In other words the question that I want to answer for you today is should you be doing single leg or double leg lower body movements to assist your running performance.

Generally the school of thought that has been around a while is that runners should do unilateral movements because that’s more specific to their sport. The other philosophy that has impacted on strength training for running (as well as every other sport) is the body building philosophy, which traditionally uses mostly bilateral movements.

The truth is that we need both bilateral and unilateral movements within our strength training.

Bilateral movements are our general athletic movements that need to be developed regardless of what sport you are training for. Our two key lower body bilateral movements that need to be trained are the Squat and Deadlift. Learning to squat and deadlift properly allows you to build strength to absorb the high impact of running and allow you to build strength in both the posterior chain (gluts, hamstrings etc) and anterior chain (hip flexors, quadriceps etc), both of which are critical to running performance.

Unilateral movements are also important from a specificity point of view, in other words, we want to be strong and stable when we stand and ultimately move on one leg. We can squat and deadlift all day but if we can’t single leg squat without compensatory movement then we are going to lose efficiency when we run. Therefore, it’s critical that you also include single leg exercises in your program such as single leg squats, lunges etc and then progress up to single leg power exercises as well, such as single leg long jumps etc.

So make no mistake of it, you need to include both double leg and single leg strength exercises in your program. Now hopefully you understand why. In a future article I’ll go over how many sets and reps to do for each exercise, but for now you can start to include both sorts of exercises in your program.

Lastly, the most important rule that I follow with lower body strength training for runners is where possible, do all of your lower body strength work on your feet. That’s right, get rid of leg press, leg extension etc. When you’re seated you have very little ability to include glut activation which is absolutely critical to becoming a powerhouse runner. If you stick to squats, deadlifts, lunges then you’re on the right track.

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