Bilateral vs. Unilateral Squats: Which is better?
In every sport, strength training plays such an important role in athlete performance. Stronger athletes get better results.
Strength and conditioning has been around since 1969. Back then, strength wasn’t taken very seriously. In the same way that data in sports wasn’t taken seriously until the early 2000s, when the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 season demonstrated the impact of data on team performance and picking undervalued players.
How did strength and conditioning become so popular?
In 1969, the University of Nebraska hired Boyd Epley as their first-ever strength and conditioning coach. Other teams didn’t have a similar position on-staff, so when Boyd introduced weight training Nebraska started to get some impressive results. Five national championships were won thanks to Boyd’s revolutionary weights training program.
Pretty soon, professional and semi-pro athletic clubs and teams across numerous sports started to introduce weights training and strength and conditioning coaching across the world. Coaches and athletes everywhere understand the benefits of strength. Stronger players perform better.
However, at the moment there’s a debate going on amongst professional coaches and strength and conditioning experts: What type of strength matters most?
In this article, we are going to take a look at one of the hottest debates in strength and conditioning right now: Bilateral vs. Unilateral Squats: which is better for athletes?
#1: Bilateral Squats
One of the golden rules of coaching — especially with high-performance, high-value players — is Do Not Hurt The Athlete!
No weight room exercises are without risk. And those who say bilateral training comes without risk are lying to themselves, and the players they’re coaching. Yes, there are several upsides to bilateral training. But there are numerous downsides too. It’s a great way to improve strength outputs, and for those strength increases to transfer onto the field. However, coaches need to be aware of the very clear downsides too.
One of the reasons too many athletes throw themselves into bilateral training is they feel invincible, especially early in their career. Unfortunately, one way or another, this can cause serious problems. Back injuries are amongst the most common.
Unless the training program accounts for these problems, there are several downsides to bilateral training:
- Failing to adequately adjust for abdominal bracing (intra-abdominal pressure)
- Putting too much emphasis on weights being lifted rather than the depth of movement
- When an athletes range of motion (ROM) is affected by the weights being lifted, the movements involved should be knees over toes, rather than chest down
- When there are sticking points, too often an athlete will overarch the back or shift the hips away, often resulting in muscular damage.
#2: Unilateral Squats
Unilateral squats are seen as more “sports like”, and a more effective way to build transferable performance. And that’s what really counts, right? Strength should be transferable to on-field performance, otherwise there’s no good reason for players to increase strength in the first place.
This isn’t to say you should only practice unilateral squats. However, when it comes to that all important transferable strength, using the unilateral squat approach is critical as a low-cost way to mimic the hip angles of sprinting.
Research shows that you can achieve the same gains as bilateral squats, without needing to load an athlete up with so many weights. Not only does this achieve the same gains, it reduces the risk to athletes from potential injuries in the weight room, and crucially, on the field.
At the same time, let’s not forget the main reason athletes need to spend so much time in weight rooms. Improving the amount of FORCE they can apply in competitive games. Gains in the weight room should lead to improvements on the field.
Hence the benefits of bilateral squats. Athletes have more balance, which means more force can go into movements as they’re not worrying about staying on their feet. When standing in a unilateral position, balance is a consideration. If you’re putting energy into maintaining balance, you aren’t going to be able to commit sufficient muscle mass to achieving max strength.
Athletes can put more strength into enhanced voluntary muscle contractions in a bilateral squat position than a unilateral one, making it easier to achieve max strength outputs from training.
Which is better for athletes: Bilateral vs. Unilateral Squats?
Now more than ever, we live in a divided world. A world of strong opinions, but little nuance. People feel the need to hate one thing in order to love whatever they prefer. Republicans versus Democrats, Apple versus Android, masks and vaccines versus the anti-vaxxer movement.
And yet, as coaches, we are all simply trying to get the most from training sessions for the players we are managing, supporting, and coaching. So, instead of picking one over the other, it’s worth considering that both unilateral and bilateral squats should play a role in strength and conditioning training.
Athlete safety has to be taken into consideration too. Coaches should aim to combine the two, gaining the maximum benefits from unilateral and bilateral squats.
- With bilateral squats, aim to push an athlete to the maximum capacity at the minimum effective volume
- Treat unilateral training on an equal level to bilateral squats, rather than an afterthought in the overall program
- If there’s any risks to player when practicing bilateral squats, remove those risks
- Combine unilateral and bilateral squats on an equal basis, with the aim of getting the most from players. You don’t need to go with only one option.
Research on Nebraska: Shurley JP and Todd JS. “The Strength of Nebraska.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26 (12): 3177–3188.
Research on the benefits of Unilateral Squats: Speirs DE, Bennett MA, Finn CV, and Turner AP. “Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(2):386–392.