Training Tips from CrossFit Games Athletes – How to Break Strength Plateaus With Unilateral Power

One of the best ways to overcome a plateau in traditional bilateral movements like the squat, strict press, or bench press is to incorporate more unilateral training. When you use both arms or legs, it is easy for your body to naturally compensate for your weaker side. But by training each side individually, you can not only get more from your lifts, but gain a higher quality of movement by evening out imbalances and reduce your risk of injury.

Unilateral movements also allow you to strengthen your body throughout a bigger range of motion.

Think of a strict press with a barbell, where you can only move in one plane, vs. a single-arm dumbbell Arnold Press, where you can rotate your arm throughout the entire range of motion as you press up. This rotation allows you to access a whole new range of strength, which you can then apply to any type of press you perform.

Lastly, I believe unilateral training often gets overlooked as a very powerful training tool for strength work and body composition training. When we training unilaterally we often will end up doing double the work as it will be a requirement to train both sides of the body in equal repetitions. This often means more time under tension throughout the training session since R + L as separate exercises adds up to more than doing them together in bilateral movements. Think 8 Split Squats/leg = 16 vs 8 bilateral squats.

Functional Bodybuilding is a balanced approach to getting you stronger across all of the movement patterns you need for functional strength such as horizontal and vertical push and pulls, bending, squatting, core, etc. When you incorporate unilateral training into your strength work for several weeks and then come back to that pesky press, you’ll be amazed at how much better it can feel. 

Here are five of my favorite unilateral moves for a range of movement patterns. Give them a try as extra strength work on their own, or incorporate them into your session after your big compound lifts of the day.

1. Knee Flexion – RNT KB Rack Split Squats

Reactive Neuromuscular Training is a powerful training concept that can help both beginners and advanced athletes connect mind to muscle in a variety of movement patterns. Whether you are trying to learn the split squat for the first time, or you are recovering from a tough intensity training cycle and just need a week or two of fundamentals to get your body feeling right again, the RNT Split Squat will help get your knee tracking better, hips functioning in coordination with your quads, and smooth out your squatting.

This exercise should be performed at first with a phasic tempo. This means you lower and raise yourself at the same cadence. A tempo I like to prescribe is 2121. 

  • 2 seconds down
  • 1 second pause bottom
  • 2 seconds up
  • 1 second pause top

2. Hip Hinging – Cross Body Dumbbell RDL

Unilateral training doesn’t just mean lifting with one arm or one leg. It can also mean loading the body with just one side while performing a bilateral hinge. In this exercise, the emphasis is on hinging AND rotating in order to bring the dumbbell across the body to the outside of the opposite foot. Loading is typically light as this can expose the lateral lower back that is often weak. 

For tempo and repetitions, I like 6/arm @ 4111 tempo. The pauses at the bottom of the position will force you to really own that low back strength!

3. Upper Body Pulling, Horizontal Plane – Single Arm Single Leg Ring Row Hold

Ring rows are most often given as a scaling option for those that don’t have pull-ups yet. This variation is for every level of athlete and can challenge the most advanced in the room too. By performing this exercise in a contralateral pattern (opposite foot down to working arm) you will be challenged to engage a ton of posterior chain and anti-rotational muscles. Not only will you get a powerful scapular isometric hold, but you will also get your glutes and core turned on!

A great place to put this into training would be to superset with a challenging lower body squat movement. Try pairing it with #1 from above as a 3-4 set superset. Aim for 20-30sec/side.

4. Upper Body Pushing, Vertical Plane – Half Kneeling Filly Press

When I started to perform half-kneeling pressing exercises 4 years ago, I began to experience shoulder health and strength that I had never felt before – even as an experienced athlete with five trips to the CrossFit Games under my belt at that point. Connecting unilateral vertical pressing with a somewhat unstable foundation like a kneeling position forced me to learn how to truly brace and press from my glutes and through my trunk – for the first time. In addition, the single arm pressing action balanced my shoulders more.

Five straight years of push presses and jerks had helped me build a lot of capacity, but I had a weak left shoulder that my right side was compensating for daily. Movements like this helped me get the shoulders I always wanted: positionally strong and with outstanding endurance.

The KB and the Dumbbell in this exercise don’t have to be the same load. Ensure a full rotation of the dumbbell on the pressing arm. Keep your elbow tucked down by your ribs on the KB rack side!

Reps and tempo suggestion; 6-8reps/arm @ 3111 tempo

5. Lateral Hip and Core – Theraband Side Plank Clamshells

One of my favorite Functional Bodybuilding sayings is “Simple is Strong.” This is exemplified by this relatively simple drill that packs a powerful punch. The hip abductors and the oblique muscles of the abdominal wall come together to power this movement. The combined strength and power of those two muscle groups meeting together can play an important role for athletes in keeping them safe and less vulnerable to lower back tweaks. I love this as a finisher or warm-up movement on days when hinging (deadlifts, power cleans, swings) are on the menu. 

Aim for completing 3 sets of 12-15 reps/side and pause for a brief moment at the top of each rep!

Give these moves a try, and visit Revival Strength for Functional Bodybuilding programs and free weekly workouts by email.

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