11/10/2008

The BRAIN TRAIN: Unilateral Workout

There are several good reasons to work one side of your body at a time, this month the focus in on training your brain - actually your neuromuscular system - through unilateral exercises.

Here's an interesting fact: numerous scientific studies have shown that working one side of the body can actually improve your strength on the opposite side. How is this possible? Because the major component of what we call "strength" doesn't happen in the muscles, it happens in the brain and nerve pathways and receptors that connect your brain to your muscles. We actually become stronger by improving the way that the brain "recruits" muscle fibers to do work such as lifting weights and the way the muscles respond to the call. Think of your body as a symphony. The brain is the conductor, the nerve pathways are his hands and batons, the musicians are the receptors in the muscles, and their instruments are the individual muscle fibers. Train them to work together and you'll make beautiful music.

What are some of the benefits of unilateral exercises? Most of you probably use them to balance your muscles. You feel you've got a weaker side, or maybe one side is slightly smaller than the other. That's only the beginning. Unilateral exercises can help improve core strength, and improve your overall strength by improving "neuromuscular efficiency." It's all in the way that you approach it.

Let's take a simple exercise like a single arm triceps push down with the cables. You'll often see someone doing this exercise leaning into the machine and putting their whole body into moving the handle from point a to point b. Instead, stand back, draw your abdominals and glutes in, bend the knees slightly, and maintain perfect posture throughout the movement. (Remember, glutes are core muscles). Now you've got those core muscles working to stabilize you - and not just in one direction. You'll feel the sideways pull as your obliques resist the weight imbalance. When doing single side exercises, lower the weight so that you can maintain perfect form and posture.

It is easy to start a unilateral program, you can even do it on ExpressLine. For added challenge, you can decrease the stability of unilateral exercises by standing on one leg, or use balls or balance boards. As you do these, you'll begin to understand how this is a learning process for your body, like loading a computer program into memory. Some of my clients and I began playing with unilateral exercises standing on one leg on a bosu ball - you may not want to think about that. They were incredibly hard at first, yet within a week or two, our brains had adjusted and they were surprisingly easy.

Will unilateral exercises make you smarter? Maybe not, but they're a smart addition to your program. Click here for a sample workout to get you started.

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