Unilateral Strength Training For Sprinters

Posted by Cody Bidlow on

Unilateral Training For Sprinters

When it comes to strength training for sprinters, bilateral exercises are useful. Squats, deadlifts, etc. can be very effective at increasing strength and helping to support our ability to sprint. The problem is that after a while, the results we will get from bilateral training will stagnate. I believe this happens for a few reasons:

  • Bilateral training will bias toward your dominant leg.
  • Bilateral strength training is more general than unilateral training as far as joint movements and positions.
  • Bilateral exercises require more spinal loading to achieve the same muscle activation.
  • Bilateral training will overtrain certain muscle groups, while undertraining other muscle groups.

unilateral strength training

I started thinking more about unilateral training lately after doing a kinetic chain analysis looking at where I am lacking so I can better prepare for next year’s track season. To do this, I looked at some of the following:

  • Continuous pogo hop test.
  • Continuous single leg pogo hop test.
  • Reactive strength index using a single leg drop jump.
  • Force and velocity metrics using the Vmaxpro.
  • Technical analysis using high speed video.

After looking at these tests, I noticed a couple things. 

First, my ankles appeared weak compared to my hip and knee joints. This was apparent by never hitting anything in the 4.0 range of RSI on the pogo hops, as well as when looking at film and seeing my ankles collapse during sprinting.

Second, and more important to this discussion, I noticed that I was far weaker in my right leg as it related to reactive strength index, rate of force development, and overall force & power metrics. For example, my right leg was approximately 15% worse in the single leg reactive strength index when compared to my left leg.

This stuck out as a major red flag to me, and is something that needs to be addressed if I am serious about running faster next season.

From here, I decided to set out on finding good single leg and split leg exercises that I can use in my program to help improve these asymmetries in hopes of ultimately improving my sprinting performance. Time will tell, but I think I am on the right path.

Picking The Right Unilateral Exercises

In order to be effective with my training, I start brainstorming on what could be good options for unilateral exercises. I looked at the movements and positions I want to improve at, as well as the training equipment I have access to.

In general, there are a few categories in which I am grouping exercises for single leg training:

  • Strength Development Exercises
  • Reactive Strength Exercises
  • Plyometric Exercises
  • Special Exercises

Unilateral Strength Development Exercises

For strength development, unilateral exercises should be chosen that can be loaded fairly heavy, that are relatively stable, and which target the muscles we need to develop in sprinting. This can include split squats, single leg squats on a belt squat or smith machine, single leg deadlifts, push step ups, and heavy walking sled pulls.

Unilateral Reactive Strength Exercises

Since reactive strength is the type of strength we really need for sprinting, the strength development exercises we use will need to be progressed toward reactive strength at some point. For this, exercises that might be of use may include low box step ups, reactive drop squats on the Pit Shark, reactive drop squats in a smith machine, and rear leg elevated drop squats with a hex bar.

Single Leg Plyometric Exercises

Plyometrics are good for further developing force outputs with time constraints that are relevant to sprinting. For this, exercises can include single leg drop jumps from a relatively low height, drop jumps with a horizontal component, single leg bounds, alternate leg bounds, and bent leg bounds.

Unilateral Special Exercises

The last category of exercises here are special exercises, which either target a specific type of movement or muscle group. Within this group I am looking at isometrics such as the single leg seated calf raise, split leg isometrics in an acceleration position, and single leg isometric holds in an upright sprinting position. Other special exercises can include single leg back extensions, single leg hip thrusts, single leg straight leg isometrics, and similar exercises.

In the past I have tended to stay away from unilateral exercises, probably out of a lack of creativity rather than any good reason. Usually I want to avoid exercises I cannot load very well, unstable exercises, or exercises where I feel I cannot produce much power.

Progressing Unilateral Training Over Time

Once the exercises are selected, we need to then think about how best we can progress these exercises over time to get the most out of them. This can be done in blocks of training, but I think a blend of concurrent and block training should be used.

Block training is where a specific quality is targeted for some period of time, after which another quality is targeted. This is great in theory, but often what happens is the qualities trained early in the season decline by the time we get toward the end of the progression.
Concurrent training, also termed vertical integration, combines different types of training simultaneously to try and improve all qualities at the same time.

I think the best route to go with training is to perform concurrent training, but within blocks that place more emphasis on some qualities. For example you may perform a 6 week block of strength development training, but this is paired with some sprinting and plyometrics to maintain reactive strength and high velocity sprinting abilities. Once strength is developed to a certain extent, most of the strength work may shift to reactive strength, with some general strength work left in the program at a maintenance dose.

Unilateral Training In The Off Season

During the off season, we can focus more on developing strength since we do not need to be in competition shape at this time. Heavier movements using loads from 60-80 percent can be used, with repetition ranges of 2 to 6 per set.

If you have a Vmaxpro or another bar speed tracker, you can target average velocities of 0.5 to 0.7 meters per second in your strength development work. This helps ensure you’re moving enough load to stimulate strength, without going too heavy that you end up too fatigued or risk moving too slowly in your strength training.

Acceleration and speed training over short distances will pair well with this work, as well as resisted sprinting with a weighted vest, a sprint sled, or with hill sprints. Tempo endurance training can also be performed during this time on days you aren’t sprinting or lifting.

The off season is also a great time to introduce work in areas of the body that are lacking strength. For example, I neglected my hamstrings this year and I think it affected me negatively. Introducing hamstring exercises in the off season gives me the opportunity to train them during a time where I can be more flexible with my sprinting. If my hamstrings are sore from working them in the gym, I can change my sprinting schedule to account for that. In season, this wouldn’t be very feasible.

Plyometric training in the off season can be focused more on extensive plyometrics, such as repeated hopping on one leg or bounding over distances which are challenging but at which you can still maintain your technique.

Unilateral Training In The Pre Season

After spending some time bringing up your general strength, maximal strength, and strength in your weaker areas of the body, things can change slightly as you enter the pre season.

Some of the strength work we perform should shift more toward reactive strength, such as going from a slower split squat to a reactive drop squat. Reactive exercises are where you drop fast and pop back up as fast as possible, spending as little time as you can from the eccentric to the concentric.

The idea is that, once we have good enough maximum strength abilities, we need to shift these abilities toward producing force as quickly as possible. Often when I am analyzing a lifting session, I’ll look for the lifts where I was able to produce high bar velocities and high forces within the first 100 milliseconds of the concentric phase.

The closer we are to the season, the more important it will be to emphasis high rate of force development. Because of this, our lifting selection should shift toward faster movements with abrupt reversals. We can still include slower strength movements in order to maintain strength, but these should be included at small doses and do not need to be included in every lifting workout.


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