Unleash Your Lower Body Potential: The Power of Contralateral Training
Have you ever heard of contralateral variations when it comes to split squats and lunges? Basically, it means that the weight is different on each side of your body as you’re performing the exercises. For example, if you were doing split squat, you could be holding a 15 lb dumbbell in the left hand and standing in a staggered stance with the right foot forward.
I am a huge fan of the contralateral variation. This actually increases activation in the gluteus medius muscle, which is located on back side of the hip. While this muscle gets most of its attention from fitness influencers that want to promote their “booty-building” program, but the real value is how it keeps the knees stable, thus reducing the risk of injuries like a torn ACL.
Adding contralateral variations of the split squat and lunge can help you improve your knee stability, strengthen and grow size in the gluteus medius.
Increased Gluteus Medius Activation
One of the main functions of the gluteus medius is to help with knee stability. This becomes exponentially important if you happen to play a sport where a lot of jumping and cutting is required, such as football, basketball, or soccer. If the gluteus medius is weak, it lacks the capacity to keep the knee stable, thus allowing it to cave in and possibly tear an ACL. The contralateral variation of the lunge, step up, or split squat is one way to strengthen the gluteus medius.
How do we know if a contralateral variation of a lunge or split squat increases activation in the gluteus medius? The EMG (short for “electromyography”) measures the electrical activity of muscles during exercise. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2016 found that contralateral split squats with a dumbbell held on the opposite side of the working leg resulted in significantly greater EMG activity in the gluteus medius compared to traditional split squats with the dumbbell held on the same side as the working leg.
A 2018 study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that contralateral lunges with a resistance band wrapped around the opposite shoulder resulted in significantly greater hip abduction torque compared to traditional lunges with the resistance band wrapped around the same shoulder as the working leg. Hip abduction torque is the force generated by the gluteus medius muscle to pull the leg away from the midline of the body.
Do you know how contralateral split squats affect muscle thickness? Muscle thickness is a measure of the size and volume of muscles. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had a study in 2017 indicating that contralateral split squats with a dumbbell held on the opposite side of the working leg resulted in significantly greater muscle thickness in the gluteus medius compared to traditional split squats with the weight held on the same side as the working leg.
Time Under Tension
In case you didn’t know, “time under tension” basically means how long the muscle in question is working. Research indicates that the longer the time under tension, the more strength and hypertrophy is possible, but the tricky thing is that there is such a thing as too much time under tension, so performing every rep in super slow motion doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re guaranteed to build huge muscle size or strength.
Eccentric loading refers to a type of exercise where the muscles are lengthened under tension, in which the emphasis is more on descending slowly instead of lifting it up, usually using heavier weight than when doing regular “up and down” reps. A 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggested that contralateral lunges (weight held on the opposite side of the working leg) resulted in significantly greater eccentric loading of the gluteus medius compared to traditional lunges with the barbell held on the same side as the working leg.
How does the tempo of your repetitions affect gluteus medius activity during contralateral split squats and lunges? The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had a study in 2016 saying that slowing down the movement during contralateral split squats resulted in significantly greater time under tension of the gluteus medius compared to conventional split squats (that is, with the dumbbell held on the same side as the working leg).
Researchers believe that increasing the range of motion during contralateral split squats and lunges can also increase time under tension in the gluteus medius, which may be able to produce more size and strength gains. There was a study in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2019 that said contralateral split squats with a deeper range of motion resulted in significantly greater time under tension of the gluteus medius compared to traditional split squats and a shallower range of motion. It’s possible that lengthening the range of motion further, such as performing deficit split squats, this could produce better strength and size gains.
Greater Gluteus Medius Strength
As mentioned earlier, lacking strength in the gluteus medius can put athletes (professional, amateur, or recreational) at risk of serious knee injuries, such as a torn ACL. Weak gluteus medius muscles may allow the knees to cave in when an athlete lands from a jump or when they are cutting from side to side. When this happens, it puts a lot of the strain on the ACL, and if the force is great enough, that’s what can cause a torn ACL.
As mentioned earlier, extending the range of motion as you perform contralateral split squats or lunges is a great way to strength the gluteus medius. The 2019 study the Journal of Sports Sciences showed that a deeper range of motion resulted in significantly greater activation of the gluteus medius compared to traditional split squats with a shallower range of motion. This suggests that a greater range of motion can recruit more muscle fibers in the gluteus medius and lead to more strength gains.
Contralateral lunges are a great way to improve muscle length and flexibility. A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2014 found that a dynamic warm-up that included contralateral lunges with a deeper range of motion increased hip abduction range of motion and improved flexibility of the gluteus medius muscle. Improved muscle length and flexibility can lead to greater range of motion during exercise and potentially greater strength gains over time.
As a person gets older, especially folks who have worked a highly physically demanding job for most of their lives, living with pain might make life difficult for that individual. A 2013 study found that a six-week program of contralateral lunges with a deeper range of motion improved hip muscle strength and reduced pain and disability in patients with patellofemoral pain syndrome. It is believed that strengthening the gluteus medius through increased range of motion can help prevent injuries and reduce pain associated with certain conditions.
While, at first glance, it might look odd to see a person carrying uneven weights as they are performing a split squat or lunge, now you should know that there are many great benefits to the contralateral variation. Not only can the contralateral split squat and lunge reduce your lower body pain, but it may even be able to reduce the chances of being injured in the first place!