If you want to improve your range of abilities, resistance to injury, and overall physique you'll need to include two weight training modalities that most people leave out of their programs.
See, there are three big categories of strength exercises that should be included in your workouts. You're probably already doing the first – compound exercises. But what you likely aren't doing are single-leg exercises and cross-body exercises – the "missing" modalities.
It's categories two and three that are the most misunderstood and overlooked. We'll get into the first one just to cover our bases, and then jump into those other two that you should definitely start considering.
What You're Already Doing: Compound Exercises
These are multi-joint movements that involve several muscle groups. They consist primarily of traditional strength and bodybuilding lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, chin-ups, and rows.
Throughout the week, your strength training workouts should include at least one the following exercises:
- Lower-body, hip-oriented movement, such as a deadlift or Romanian deadlift
- Lower-body knee-oriented movement, such as a squat or leg press
- Upper-body vertical or diagonal pushing exercise, such as a shoulder press or incline press
- Upper-body vertical or diagonal pulling movement, such as a chin-up/pull-up or lat pulldown
- Upper-body horizontal pushing movement, such as a bench press or push-up
- Upper-body horizontal pulling exercise, such as a bent-over row or seated row
Since this is the most traditional type of strength training, there's no need to explain the value of why you should be using compound exercises. What I will say is that although using compound exercises to get stronger is well established for helping improve your overall functional capacity, they do have their limitations.
You may not want to hear it, but compound exercises fall short. And this isn't based on opinion. It's based on research and the principle of specificity.
Missing Essential 1 – Single-Leg Exercises
The debate many coaches have about single-leg versus double-leg exercise is like arguing about whether you should eat only carrots or only broccoli. In reality, each vegetable offers a unique flavor and provides a certain set of nutrients, so just include them both in your diet.
Throughout the week, your strength training workouts should include at least one the following:
- A single-leg hip oriented exercise, such as a single-leg Romanian deadlift or a Romanian deadlift lunge.
- A single leg knee-oriented exercise, such as an upright-torso lunge or knee tap squat.
Don't think of single-leg and double-leg exercises as interchangeable. You'll still want to do lower body lifts with both legs. Why? Because compound lower-body movements place you in a wider base of support, force you to use both your legs and your hips together, and coordinate many muscles in order to move big loads, which is very metabolically taxing.
In contrast, unilateral leg-training exercises force you into a narrow base of support, which works your legs and hips in a slightly different manner – a manner that's often closer to how your legs work during sports since many athletic actions (think running and cutting) are single-leg dominant.
Of course, they also force you to focus on controlling and using one side at a time, which is great for strengthening your weaker, less coordinated side.
Single-leg performance during sidestep cutting may be a better indicator of how an athlete will move in sport activities, and therefore may be a better predictor of injury risk than bilateral drop jump testing (1). Although this example applies better to the sporting realm, the following studies can also be applied directly to your workout planning.
One study suggested using single-leg performance to detect deficits in unilateral force development, while another study showed that a 15% or greater variance in closed-kinetic chain strength (or movement control in single-limb performance) between the right and left leg is a good indicator of increased injury risk (2,3). Meaning, if one leg is significantly stronger or more controlled than the other, you're at a greater risk of injury.
Also, because weakness and fatigue in single-leg landings increase the risk of injury, it may be beneficial to regularly incorporate single-leg training exercise variations in your program to improve single-leg control, strength, and strength endurance (4).
Missing Essential 2 – Cross-Body Exercises
Cross-body strength exercises use movements that involve single-arm loading or offset loading, like using two unevenly-loaded dumbbells, which either create rotation or force you to resist rotation from various stances.
The anatomical characteristics of the human body cause it to function in a crisscross manner. The arm-and-shoulder mechanism on one side links diagonally through the torso mechanism to the hip-and-leg mechanism on the opposite side. Think about what you're doing while walking, running, punching, throwing, and batting. Such cross-body linkages are foundational to human functioning and a big part of athletic movement.
So your week of strength training should include at least one the following:
- A cross-body pushing exercise, such as a one-arm push-up, single-arm cable press, angled barbell (landmine) press or rotational shoulder press.
- A cross-body pulling exercise, such as a single-arm free-standing dumbbell row, single-arm cable row, or cable/rope tug-of-war row.
- A rotational core exercise, such as weight-plate chops, low-to-high cable chops, or high-to-low cable chops.
Although traditional compound exercises – barbell squat, barbell bench press, etc. – can help strengthen the entire body, they're not ideally suited for improving the same type of force generation and neuromuscular coordination patterns of cross-body actions.
This reality is highlighted in research comparing the single-arm standing cable press, which is a cross-body exercise, versus the traditional bench press (5). The study found that performance in the single-arm standing cable press is limited not by maximal muscle activation of the chest and shoulder muscles, but by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of the torso muscles.
In other words, the limiting factor when pushing an offset load with a single arm from a standing position – the position and manner from which field, court, and combat athletes commonly push during competition – is the stiffness of the torso muscles that maintain body position and enable coordination of the hips and shoulders while stabilizing the forces created by the extremities (arms and legs).
In short, different load placement and body position during an exercise changes the force generation and neuromuscular coordination demands of the exercise. Cross-body exercises involve a different type load placement and body position than compound exercises.
Don't look at any of these three types of exercises as mutually exclusive. Think of them as complimentary because each type will offer unique benefits the other types may lack. A mixed approach to your programming that includes each type of exercise will get you much better training results than what you'd get by only one type.
Think about your strength training just like you think about your nutrition. Nutrition experts always encourage people to eat a "colorful diet" with a variety of vegetables and fruits because they all have a different ratio of vitamins and minerals. Avoiding one or the other will leave your diet deficient.
The same can be said for strength training. All three resistance training modalities offer a unique benefit the other misses. A training plan that exclusively focuses on one particular type leaves some potential benefits untapped.
So it makes sense that a strength training plan that combines all types of resistance exercises makes your workouts more comprehensive and enables you to achieve superior results, just like eating both fruits and vegetables will make your diet more nourishing.
The amount of time you spend on each type per workout and throughout a training week should be manipulated in the program based on which physical qualities are most desired. Design your program so that you're spending the most amount of your training time and energy performing the exercise type that most closely reflects your goals.
Related: The Missing Movement
- Kristianslund, E, and Krosshaug, T. Comparison of drop jumps and sport-specific sidestep cutting: Implications for anterior cruciate ligament injury risk screening. American Journal of Sports Medicine41(3): 684-688, 2013.
- Myer, GD, Martin, L Jr., Ford, KR, Paterno, MV, Schmitt, LC, Heidt, RS Jr, Colosimo, A, and Hewett, TE. No association of time from surgery with functional deficits in athletes after anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: Evidence for objective returnto-sport criteria. American Journal of Sports Medicine40(10): 2256-2263, 2012.
- Rohman E, Steubs, JT, and Tompkins, M. Changes in involved and uninvolved limb function during rehabilitation after anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: Implications for Limb Symmetry Index measures. American Journal of Sports Medicine 43(6): 1391-1398, 2015.
- Brazen, DM, Todd, MK, Ambegaonkar, JP, Wunderlich, R, and Peterson, C. The effect of fatigue on landing biomechanics in single-leg drop landings. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 20(4): 286-292, 2010.
- Santana, J.C., F.J. Vera-Garcia, and S.M. McGill. 2007. A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21 (4):1271-77.