Single-limb movements for rugby-focused strength
Most of the great strength exercises have several things in common. They allow you to lift a lot of weight relatively safely, they train movements and not individual muscles, and they are bilateral, meaning they involve two limbs at a time. Squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses are good examples.
While all of these commonalities are mostly advantageous, that last one could also sometimes be seen as a disadvantage.
Two-limbed exercises allow you to generate maximum force, but they are not always the most rugby-specific way to train. If you stop and think about the sport of rugby, you’ll soon notice that, a lot of the time, you are using just one arm and/or one leg at a time; sprinting and handing off other players being obvious examples.
The training law of specificity dictates that, if you want to develop a particular skill or element of fitness, your training needs to reflect your needs. In other words, as rugby often involves single limb movements, so too should your training. Just because you can squat or bench press huge weights, does not necessarily mean that, when you use one leg and/or arm at a time, you’ll be able to produce half the amount of force.
When you perform unilateral or single limb exercises, you have to work harder to balance and stabilize the load. And while you won’t be able to use as much weight, the strength you develop will, potentially at least, transfer better to rugby.
Does this mean that you should quit all bilateral training and only do unilateral training? Hell no! However, there is definitely a place in your workouts for single limb exercises. Unilateral exercises are a supplement to and not a replacement for bilateral exercises.
That being said, it would be remiss to leave single limb exercises out of your training. As well as being more rugby specific, unilateral exercises can help enhance core strength, joint mobility, fix left-to-right strength imbalances, and also improve your ability to keep your center of mass over your base of support – the other type of balance needed in rugby. Unilateral exercises can help reduce your risk of injury, and boost your performance. What’s not to like?
Unilateral exercises can be programmed in several different ways including:
- Before bilateral exercises to increase nervous system activation e.g. single leg Romanian deadlifts before regular deadlifts
- After bilateral exercises as assistance training e.g. single arm dumbbell bench press after regular bench press
- On a separate single limb training day
As part of conditioning circuits
- During deload weeks to provide a break from heavy bilateral training
- When recovering from injury – training the non-injured limb can help preserve strength in the injured limb
- During the off-season or early pre-season to provide active recovery and redress any balance and left-to-right strength discrepancies
To get the most from unilateral exercise, make sure that you train your weaker side first, matching your performance with your strong side, keep your torso vertical, and your shoulders and hips square, and brace your core to stabilize your spine.
Here are TEN of the best single limb exercises for ruggers.
1. Single leg Romanian deadlifts
A strong posterior chain is crucial in rugby. Consisting of your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, these muscles are involved in almost every aspect of rugby, from pushing in the scum, to sprinting, lifting or jumping in the lineout, and tackling. It's one reason we're such big fans of the Jefferson Curl. The single limb Romanian deadlift also helps improve ankle, knee, and hip stability, reducing your risk of injury. You can perform this exercise with a weight in one or both hands, using kettlebells, dumbbells, or a barbell.
Check out how to do single leg Romanian deadlifts here:
2. Bulgarian split squat
What this exercise had to do with Bulgaria is unclear, but regardless of where it came from, it’s a superb quad exercise that will help build unilateral strength, lower body mobility, and balance. It’s a great exercise if you have a sore back or knees, as you can get a good workout with relatively light weights.
See this exercise in action here:
3. Single arm suitcase deadlift
This deadlift variation requires and develops core strength as well as working your legs and lower back. Do a few sets before regular deadlifts to fire up your deep core muscles for a stronger, more stable, regular deadlift. It’s also a killer grip and forearm developer, providing you don’t use straps – the guy in the video clearly isn’t a rugger!
Check out this video to see how to do the single arm suitcase deadlift:
4. Single arm bench press
A big bench press is cool, but it’s very rare that, in rugby, you’ll push equally with both arms while lying on your back! Instead, you are more likely to push with one arm, while stabilizing your body with your legs and core muscles. The single arm bench press is a shoulder-friendly chest, shoulder, and triceps exercise that should carry over well to rugby.
View single arm bench presses here:
5. Single arm cable row/lat pulldown
If you do single arm presses, you need to do single arm pulls to keep things balanced. Attach a single D-handle to your seated row or lat pulldown machine, and get to work! Increase the difficulty of single arm pulling exercises by lifting the weight with two hands, and lowering it slowly with one. This is a great option for stronger ruggers who can max out the weights on rows and pulldowns.
See these single arm exercises in action here:
6. Javelin press
This unusual exercise might raise a few eyebrows in the gym, but you’ll love the increase in functional shoulder and core strength is produces. If you find balancing an Olympic barbell hard, start out with a shorter fitness-type bar, EZ bar, or use a dumbbell. The longer the bar, the more unwieldy the load, and the harder the exercise will be.
Learn how to do the javelin press here:
7. Single arm barbell curl
A lot of so-called functional strength coaches are very quick to dismiss any direct biceps training as pointless, or only good for improving arm size rather than strength. That’s a very short-sighted view! Grabbing and pulling your opponents off the ball, for example, requires lots of biceps strength. This biceps exercise is not only great for building serious arm strength, it’ll also develop your grip, shoulder, and core stability. Start with an empty barbell – this one is tough!
See this unusual exercise in action here:
8. Single arm farmer’s walk
Farmer’s walks are great for developing grip strength. Using moderate weights and long distances, they’re also a good conditioning exercise. However, when you only use one weight, things start to get much more interesting. You’ll have to work extra hard to keep your torso upright, and that requires lots of lateral core strength. Use a fat grip dumbbell or kettlebell to maximize your grip. You should be able to carry at least 50% of your bodyweight in one hand.
View single arm farmer’s walks here:
9. Single arm kettlebell swing
Kettlebell swings are a good alternative to the more complex Olympic lifts. Easy to learn, but no less effective, kettlebell swings will develop your posterior chain and, when performed explosively with heavy weights, are a good power exercise. Do them single-handed to add an anti-rotation element.
Learn how to do the single arm kettlebell swing here:
10. Single arm push-up
The single arm push-up is a legitimate strength exercise. Not only do they look super-cool (Rocky does them, after all), they also develop impressive levels of chest, shoulder, triceps, and core strength. Even if you can do a lot of regular push-ups, you might not be able to do even one rep of single arm push-ups. Practice these at home before trying them in public!
Learn how to do single-arm push-ups in this video:
If you are not currently doing any single limb exercises, it’s time you started. Your ego might take a hit because, invariably, single limb exercises are harder than their bilateral alternatives so you’ll have to use less weight, but, with time and persistence, your strength will soon increase, as will your performance on the pitch. Boost your unilateral exercise performance and concentration by using Twitch Faster before your workouts and NO2 Max afterwards - both available in the Ruck Harder stack.