Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Benefits of a Unilateral Training Approach - Darren Vartikian

 - In this extract from The Biomechanically Correct Training System, former IFBB Mr. Australia Darren Vartikian controversially warns against training in the way you're probably quite used to - bilaterally. 

No matter what the goal, the end result of any form of resistance training exercise should be about creating and maintaining a healthy state of mind and body. 

The body is designed so that its natural warning system of malfunction will activate - as pain, swelling and discomfort - if inappropriate resistance exercise is executed.

Ignoring the warning system's signals will ultimately lead to varying degrees of short- and long-term structural damage.

Traditionally, resistance-training exercise is executed in a bilateral fashion using the prime moving muscles on either side of the body. The barbell bench press, barbell deadlift and barbell biceps curl are just a few examples of common bilateral exercises.

There is no doubt that bilateral training is a very fast way of achieving muscle size, power and strength. Unfortunately, the desired results can also cause collateral damage - structural injuries to muscles, joints, connective tissue and nerve fibers. 

There is also the financial burden to rectify related injuries (medical and therapeutic practitioner costs) and the psychological frustration due to physical pain or exercise restriction, which can be long term.

Potential Risks of Bilateral Training

One way to describe the potential risks of bilateral training is to compare it to someone using a shotgun for target practice. Many pellets or bearings encased in the bullets would be dispersed during the shooter's attempts to hit the bulls-eye, causing unintended damage to the rest of the target in the process. Damage to the body (where short- or long- term) - in the form of soft tissue tears and strains, bone degeneration or general aches and pains caused as a result of bilateral training - results from one of two things:

1) Repetitive strain to the muscles, joints and connective tissues,
2) An imbalance of muscle development or strength and conditioning, ultimately related to inappropriate and inefficient movement patterns.

So while there is no disputing that bilateral training enables an individual to lift a greater amount of weight, resulting in quick gains in size, power and strength, unfortunately, this can also have negative consequences:

1) Exercising muscles bilaterally increases the compensatory effect, hampering one's awareness and eliminating the ability to correctly analyze strength, weakness and the injury potential of corresponding muscles on either side of the body.

2) It can lead to the formations of dangerous lifting habits, such as using accelerated momentum (through bouncing, swinging or thrusting of a weight) to try to overcome mechanical disadvantage. Moving a weight using accelerated momentum bypasses two of the body's natural protective mechanisms - muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs - increasing the risk of injury.

3) It increases the potential for hyper-stimulation of the nervous system, increasing the risk of exhaustion or burnout to the body as a whole and necessitating the need for more rest. Consequently, progress is slowed.

4) Lifting greater weight increases training intensity, energy expenditure and the length of rest periods, making movement between sets and exercises slow. This leads to longer time spent working out.

5) The need for a safety net (in the form of a rack or spotter) is synonymous with bilateral training. Lifting heavy weights necessitates having someone close by in case help is required. This means either having to rely on a training partner or constantly having to ask someone for help (which may annoy the person asked).

Enter: Unilateral Training

All bilateral muscles of the body function independently. In many instances, they do so during everyday activities such as walking, running, swimming, writing, eating and so on - all while using one limb at a time. Recognizing, therefore, what is already a natural process of independent function, the BMC Training System is built on the view that all resistance training should be executed in a unilateral fashion - one side and one muscle at a time. Unilateral resistance training allows a prime moving muscle to function in its most natural path of movement, accurately coordinating body parts to capitalize on leverage and balance so that replication of precise biomechanics can be attained for maximum results and safety during an exercise.

This type of training is highly advantageous during instances when a prime moving muscle may execute more than one action or function, allowing the corresponding muscle on the other side of the body to work independently and efficiently, without competition or compromise.

Benefits of Unilateral Training

Everyone - be they male or female, young or old, elite athlete or resistance training novice - can reap the benefits that unilateral resistance training has to offer:

1) Unilateral resistance training is an ideal way to introduce the elderly to resistance exercise, as it comes without the stigma of intimidation often associated with traditional bilateral resistance training - such as a fear that lifting a heavy weight may harm or injure.

2) It is also useful in rehabilitation after injury, providing essential, direct and specific control of muscle movement.

3) Unilateral resistance training defies any perception that resistance training is a time consuming, boring chore that will only cause acute or chronic injury.

The most valuable benefit compared with traditional bilateral resistance exercise is awareness. Awareness includes knowledge about the strength or weakness, and overall function, of a prime moving muscle. This insight allows precise analysis, empowering an individual with information about related issues and areas of the body, and expediting assessment and comparison.

Unilateral training transfers complete ownership of resistance weight used during an exercise exclusively into a prime moving muscle, heightening the need for greater focus, which in turn decreases the contribution from accelerated momentum.

The reason why some injuries can occur in striving to develop balanced muscles is accelerated momentum. This generally occurs as a result of muscle exhaustion, imbalance in muscle strength, poor mental focus, or just plain ego. A classic example of accelerated momentum is as follows: an individual executing a barbell curl with too much weight begins to generate movement through the hips, back and shoulders to raise the weight, instead of the intended prime moving biceps muscles.

Unilateral training keeps the prime moving muscle 'honest': it eliminates the lifting of unrealistic amounts of weight and places limbs, joints and muscles in the best possible leverage position so that optimal strength during an exercise can be attained.

In addition, a muscle may carry out multiple actions, necessitating movement in varied directions and angles. Unilateral training accommodates this perfectly, accurately coordinating body parts free of restriction for optimal function and injury reduction.

That same versatility enables a prime moving muscle to be isolated during an exercise so as to precisely target a contraction of aspects that relate to the upper, lower  outer, and inner fibers; this increases the potential for complete development of a muscle's size and strength.


Symmetry, in the context of resistance training, means that the muscles either side of the center of the body are similar in appearance (size and shape) and function.

They are effectively mirror images of each other, thus improving overall balance and structural integrity of the body. Barring genetic factors, unilateral training enables superior muscle development.

Saving Time

Time is a precious commodity most cannot afford to waste, making unilateral training the ideal form of resistance training for those with a busy lifestyle. A unique aspect of unilateral training is the allotted time of a workout. At face value, unilateral training might seem time consuming; in fact, the opposite is true. The isolating nature of this type of training means reduced resistance weight that, in turn, decreases the exhaustion of the body as a whole. This enables faster recovery and shorter rest periods between sets and exercises, resulting in a reduced workout time.

Injury Prevention

Prevention of injuries is a critical and integral feature of unilateral training. This goal is achieved by distributing resistance weight and muscle-generated force through a natural movement pattern, which protects muscle, joints and connective tissue.

Another element of injury prevention and balanced muscle development are motor units. A single motor neuron that connects to skeletal muscle fibers is referred to as a motor unit; it is the communication link between the brain and skeletal muscle, enabling muscular contraction. Skeletal muscles are made up of multiple motor units, making varied movement patterns a necessity, so that the total contraction and stimulation of a prime moving muscle occurs. This guarantees proper development.

Unilateral training is the appropriate method to achieve this objective.

No Need for Spotters

Relying on another person to assist during a workout can be very frustrating. A time to meet has to be coordinated, and the other person needs to turn up on time. An even greater concern for many is asking for assistance from someone they don't know; there may be concern, for instance, about the individual's level of experience with resistance training, mental stability, and personal hygiene habits.

Exercising one limb at a time affords the opportunity, circumstances permitting, of using the opposing limb (or other limbs not being used to assist during an exercise); this eliminates the burdensome need to rely on others.

So remember, just because everyone else is doing it does not mean it is right.


David Lowe is currently performing the heaviest unrecorded deadlift, performed outside competitions rules, or any rules, by holding the severed cable of a thousand-pound hotel elevator containing his wife and an undetonated bomb, while a killer in a sackcloth mask looks on, and a hit man holds a loaded gun to his head.
David is no superhero, he has no special abilities other than mere human strength and the will to save his wife. He’s been holding the elevator for one minute and thirty-six seconds, bloodying his hands, tearing muscle fibers and cracking bones.
But push him to his limit and he'll dig deep, find more. Because when everything is on the line, it's not about muscle anymore—it’s about heart...and never, ever, giving up on what you love.

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