Single-Leg vs Double-Leg Training. What is better for hockey players?

I recently had a consultation with a parent and they asked what our strategy was with unilateral vs bilateral training for hockey players. Having never been asked this, it prompted me to write this blog post.

Single vs Double Leg – The Basics & Implementation

“Instagram celebrities” have recently popularized “Unilateral training”, but the truth is, single-limb or unilateral training has been traced back to the early 1940’s in Russia where Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky introduced the Shock Method, known today as Plyometrics.

As hockey has developed and so have it’s the training methods. The days of smoking cigarettes in the dressing room are a thing of the past. The days of programming max reps on the leg press for a hockey player have also evolved into a much more research, and science driven process.

Within the strength and conditioning world and in specific, hockey world, I’ve read numerous contradicting articles debating wether single-leg is better than double-leg training. Common debates are, hockey is primarily played on one leg, so we should train on one leg. Conversely, in order to develop maximum strength and power as an athlete, you need to train double-leg.

I believe it is somewhere in the middle, where both methods have a time and place. With single-leg training you can develop a greater strength response, and with double-leg training you have the ability to produce more force and power. And before you call me an idiot for that last statement, you can still load unilaterally the same as bilateral if we are talking strength development. For example, I started using single leg concepts from Cal Dietz (head strength coach university of Minnesota) this past summer with our hockey players and had them split squatting over 500lbs per leg for 2-4 reps (Add video link). In that particular method we were able to create a much better strength and hormonal response than if we chose to use a bilateral movement such as, a back squat. We saw increases of 50-100lb in the back squat with these athletes who only did single-leg split squatting. There is more direct stress into the working limb than if both limbs were in use and less chance of developing poor compensation patterns.

On the other hand, there is no question that bilateral training will allow you to produce maximum power and force. For example, try jumping off of 2 two legs, then try jumping off one leg. 100% of the time you will jump higher and with more force with two legs.

It’s also important to keep in mind which athlete we are talking about. How old are they? What is their genetic make up? Structurally can they get into proper double-leg movement patterns? Do they already have a base of strength? And so on.

Step One:

When we first meet a client, step one is to put them through a movement screen where we look at foundational movement patterns. Within five minutes we will have a good idea if this particular person is going to start with unilateral or bilateral programming. If we are still unsure after the screen we refer them to one of the sport therapists we work with who will give us a detailed report on the athlete (shout-out to Coalition Performance Care).

Whether we are working with an athlete in-season or off-season, the goal is to attack weaknesses in the body and reduce risk of injury, so that the whole unit is more efficient. From my experience I find focusing to unilateral training early in the training process is a good starting point. Unilateral training allows you to avoid poor compensation patterns, target more of the stabilizers and develop intra-muscle coordination. All of these things are essential when developing a foundation before switching into more intensive methods. For hockey players I particularly like split stance movements in this phase such as, traditional split squats, rear foot elevated split squats and lunging variations, due to the added benefit of lengthening of the hip muscles that tend to get tight and overused in the sport.

Step Two: General Prep & Strength

Once the assessment is complete and a decision is made on which programming route I’m going to use, I typically start with a 3-6 week GPP (general prep phase) program that will include exercises designed to help correct imbalances and movement patterns. After this first phase, I will reassess the athlete, and if the weakness and imbalances have improved, we’ll move into the next phase, which in most cases will be strength development.

Depending on the athlete there will be an emphasis on unilateral or bilateral movements. This doesn’t mean I abandon the other movement pattern, it just means the emphasis is one or the other. It’s important to continue giving the body exposure to both patterns to reduce the risk or compensation. In more recent cases I have started to favour a single leg emphasized program in the strength phase. I believe I can develop strength the same if not more using single leg exercises and if done properly the risk factor is much less. There is also non-scientific feedback from the athletes saying they feel stronger, more explosive and generally feel better on the ice. To me, that feedback is as important as anything.

Step Three: Power

After roughly six weeks focusing on strength, our programming will shift to power development, we like to use the term Functional Power. The goal of this phase is to transfer the newly developed strength into usable power in the most efficient manor. This is where I will start emphasizing bilateral exercises as the focus of the program. Why? We want to produce maximum force and power. Again, this doesn’t mean single leg exercises are abandoned, it means the focus is on double leg. For example, at the start of the training session when the athlete is the most fresh, I might focus on an explosive bilateral Trap Bar DL (insert video) where the focus is on power output and later in the session there could be single leg split squat variation where the focus is on keeping the stabilizers strong and pliable.

Step Four: Peaking for Competition

As programming gets closer to the end, the focus is on making sure the athlete feels strong, explosive and confident. I like using a combo of both methods in this phase to ensure nothing is left behind and the athlete has a solid base of athletic movements under his or her belt.

In general I believe this isn’t a black and white answer. I like using a combination of both single leg and double leg exercises with certain ones being the focus depending on the goal and phase we are in. Hockey is a dynamic sport that requires single leg strength, maximum power outputs and functional movements. Neglecting to train all aspects will leave the athlete at a higher risk of injury and inconsistent performance. AND! Always experiment, be cognizant of how your body feels on/off the ice. If something is working, continue to do whatever that is. Actual time spent in the trenches is ultra valuable.


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