When you load weights onto a barbell or grab two dumbbells, are they the same weight?
Silly question, right? Of course they are. It'd be absurd to work out with two different weights, right?
While that idea has certainly been the norm in the past, many coaches and athletes have come to realize that "off-balance" or "uneven" weight training can have some serious benefit.
Many of us work out with equal or "balanced" weight because it's symmetrical, stable and pleasing to the eye. It's simply what he have always done and have always been told to do. After all, wouldn't training with unbalanced weight make your body asymmetrical and throw you out of whack?
The truth is we are already uneven. The heart is on one side more than the other, one lung is bigger than the other, one kidney is higher than the other, we have a liver on one side, and we have a favorite hand or leg we like to use in sports and life.
More importantly, power is rarely produced or absorbed equally across the body in sport. You're almost always going to have one leg or one arm that's doing more of the work. Think of an offensive tackle in pass protection. Is he really going to use both sides of his body equally to hold off the defender? No, the action is too chaotic. Or think of a soccer player making a cut around the defender. Are both legs going to do equal work on that cut? No, the leg that's on the opposite side of the direction you're headed is going to do the majority of the pushing.
Working with off-balanced weights or loads that offer variable resistance will prepare you for the chaos of real life and real sports. Put another way, it can be the difference between weight room strength and real-world strength. Lifting heavy, awkward objects all day is much harder (and much more realistic) than lifting a perfectly balanced barbell. While balanced weight training is certainly necessary for increasing max strength, adding some off-balanced or uneven weight training to your routine can be a terrific complement.
When to Use Off-Balanced Weight Training
Off-balanced weight training should only be used after the athlete has proven they can execute the movement cleanly and consistently with even weight.
Adding an uneven load to a movement you can't perform correctly will only make things uglier and take you further from your goals.
What is a "clean" movement?
You can get to the desired range of motion. You control the weight and your body throughout the set. You have been doing the movement for 4 to 6 weeks. Only then should you think about making the load uneven.
If you are focused on building maximal strength, unbalanced training can be used as an accessory movement to your main lift to help build up weak areas.
For example, an Unbalanced Dumbbell Walking Lunge can be used to increase leg stability. Here's how it might fit into a maximal strength program:
- A1. Barbell Back Squat
- A2. Ankle Mobility
- B1. Unbalanced Dumbbell Walking Lunge
- B2. Dumbbell Bench
Off-balanced training can also be used during a phase where you're preparing for the demands of your specific sport. For example, if you're training to create and receive two different forces at the same time with the upper body:
- A1. Barbell Hang Clean
- A2. Dowel T-Spine Mobility
- B1. Band/Cable Unbalance Press
- B2. Dumbbell 1 Arm Row
How Off-Balance Should You Go?
When selecting your weights for off-balance weight training, start by making sure the heavier side has 5 to 10 pounds less than normal for unsupported movements (meaning not laying on the ground or on a bench). Then subtract another 5 to 10 pounds for the other side.
For example, if your Walking Dumbbell Lunge is normally performed with 40-pound dumbbells in each hand, I'd start with a 30-pound dumbbell in one hand and a 20 or 25-pound dumbbell in the other hand. Then, and this is crucial, you want to make sure you perform an equal number of reps with the dumbbells swapped. So if you start with the heavier dumbbell in your right hand and the lighter dumbbell in your left hand, you need to ensure you're performing an equal number f reps with the heavier dumbbell in your left hand and the lighter dumbbell in your right hand (either by switching the position between each set, or switching at the precise middle point of each set).
Keep in mind that with off-balance training, your base of support (core musculature, stabilizing muscles, etc.) will be challenged much more than with traditional even loading.
For supported movement where you're lying on the ground or a bench, such as a Dumbbell Bench Press, I would keep the weight the same as your usual load in one hand but drop the other weight in the other hand by about 10 pounds.
For example, if you normally have 40-pound dumbbells in both hands, an off-balance option could be a 40-pound dumbbell in one hand and a 30-pound dumbbell in the other.
Everyone will handle off-balanced training differently, and some people may struggle more than others. So remember, these are just guidelines for your starting point. Some people may need to go lighter.
When deciding whether you should increase the total load in your off-balanced training, refer back to the checklist of "is the movement clean? Is it controlled? Is there a full range of motion?" If yes to all these questions, try going up 5 pounds at a time on both sides.
Off-Balanced Moves to Try
The variations of exercises you could choose from are vast, but these are the one I use most often with my athletes.
3-5 Sets, 4-8 Reps on each side
3-4 Sets, 5-10 Reps on each side
3-4 Sets, 5-8 Reps on each side
3-4 Sets, 40 Yards on each side
Sports are not balanced. Being able to adjust to those dynamic forces in training will better prepare you for your sport and daily life.
Photo Credit: oatawa/iStock
- Bilateral or Unilateral Exercises: Which Are Better?
- 7 Farmer's Walk Variations for Improved Core Strength
- Why Single-Arm and Single-Leg Training is Better for Athletes