In one of his more recent T-Nation articles, famed strength coach Mark Rippetoe (author of such grand classics as “Starting Strength”) rips into the modern fitness trend of shying away from heavy barbell work in favour of unilateral (one-sided) exercises and isolation training.
What I feel was left unsaid was that there is a time and a place for both unilateral and isolation work, but I’m mainly going to stand in defense of unilateral training this time. (Rippetoe really seems to hate Bulgarian split squats…)
Why is barbell work better for maximum strength?
I’m glad you asked.
There are many ways to get strong, but if you want to drive your maximum strength through the roof and continue to make improvements in the long term, heavy barbell lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, and Olympic lifts) are a must. With both feet and both hands involved, there is an inherent level of stability in barbell work that allows you to deal with much heavier loads more safely.
Try this: stand in your squat stance and screw your feet outwards into the floor, locking them in place. That’s how we create a super stable platform for squatting, and with both feet on the floor you’ll feel like you could bust the soles off of your shoes! Try the same thing on one foot, and you’ll start to spin pretty quickly. In a bilateral (two-leg) stance, the rotation of each leg neutralizes that of the other, and together they create crazy amounts of stability for the squat. Single leg movements require you to stabilize a bit differently and, while it’s important to know how to do that, it doesn’t create nearly the same rock solid stance as when both feet are firmly planted.
What this means is that the weight in an exercise like a step-up is not only limited by the fact that only one of your mighty tree-trunk legs is allowed to play, but it’s further reduced by a lack of shoe-shredding torque to keep you stable and aligned. There will come a point in your training where the amount of load you can tolerate in a one-sided exercise will not be heavy enough to stimulate efficient strength gains.
Does this mean I should never do one-sided stuff?
What? No, no, no. Who said that?
In your defense, Rippetoe didn’t really address this in his article, and I think that’s why it comes across as being so one-sided and extreme. The dude never said that lunges and their ilk are useless, only that they are a poor substitute for barbell work when it comes to training for maximum strength.
Look, plenty of the physical challenges of life and sport are asymmetrical. Even just climbing a flight of stairs is a one-leg-at-a-time kind of deal. We need to be prepared for these challenges, so we need to make sure we’re addressing these motor patterns in the gym.
But not as heavy lifts. The risk just doesn’t outweigh the benefit (which will constantly diminish as you get stronger).
Instead, one-sided exercises (and this includes dumbbell pulls and presses, even if you’re using two) serve as excellent tools for your assistance work. These exercises do a great job of making asymmetries in strength, mobility, and skill pretty obvious, since the weak side can no longer feed off of the strong side, so they’ll help you tighten up your athletic profile and stay more resilient to injury. In some cases, too, these exercises represent unique motor patterns that you should be familiar with (like lunging), so they’re worth including on that merit alone.
How much unilateral training you include in your program will vary of course. If you have a known asymmetry, you may want to give it a little extra love. If you’re an athlete going through general training early in the season, you’ll probably want a little more of this to make sure those weaknesses are dealt with before the intense training begins.
Okay, okay, wrap it up.
Easy there. I’m getting to it.
So the bottom line is that unilateral training isn’t the devil trying to make your arms small and Bulgarian split squats aren’t squat poison, but if your goal is maximum strength then these tools need to take a back seat to serious barbell work that will allow you to challenge your force production to a greater (and safer) degree in the long term. If your goal is simply to stay active and healthy, lunges and dumbbell presses will probably work just fine, but I wouldn’t dismiss the barbell work entirely.
There is a time and a place for most things. Don’t select exercises blindly. Always program and train with intent.