Use Contralateral Training for Greater Proprioception | Move Like Spider-Man Part One

By on July 22, 2019

Undertsanding how the two sides of the body work together and independently can improve your proprioception, helping you to move more like Spider-Man. At the same time, it can help you to see faster gains in strength and size. Read on to learn more…

The bilateral deficit tells us that we are capable of producing slightly more strength from a single arm or leg when using it alone, than we can when using both sides together. The generally accepted reason for this is that it comes down to neural drive: focusing our attention on two limbs effectively reduces the amount of effort that goes to each.

This means that, all other things being equal, you should be able to generate more power from each arm during concentration curls than you can during barbell curls.

Bicep Curls Batman Training

This also has the added bonus of ensuring that both sides do equal work, thereby addressing strength imbalances and improving symmetry – ironically!

The downside of this of course, is that unilateral (single limbed) exercises take twice as long as bilateral exercises. The answer is therefore to use alternating exercises instead.

And there’s another benefit to training this way too. That is, when we train either limb, it actually has some knock on effect in the untrained limb. That is to say, that if you perform curls with your left arm only, you’ll actually get stronger in your right arm too. Specifically, your right arm will enjoy roughly 50% of the strength gains seen in the left.

This is known as the “contralateral strength training effect” or “cross education.” And it means that if you train using alternating sides, you may effectively increase the volume for each limb. At least in some ways. It also provides an interesting option to reduce loss of strong the due to injury.

One arm press oblique strength

The precise cause of the contralateral effect is not fully understood, but we can safely assume that it involves strengthening of the central nervous system. This is a ‘centralized’ aspect of your strength, rather than a localized aspect (like muscle). Moreover, it’s likely that the neural maps for the left and right arm are linked – brain areas that are used together frequently will often wire together and merge. As neuroscientists say: “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Thus, increasing activity in the neural map for the left arm is also likely to “light up” the right area as well, and this may help you to improve the strength of those neural pathways.

And guess what? Training your left leg can even strengthen your right arm and vice versa!

But it gets more interesting still.

Contralateral Movement

What if, instead of using your left and right limbs in an alternating manner, you had them doing entirely different things? This is what is sometimes referred to as contralateral training, and it’s actually a fantastic way to improve your athleticism and your proprioception in particular.

As mentioned, the left and right limbs are linked in the brain due to the number of tasks we perform that involve coordinated movement between the two sides. And from an efficiency standpoint, it of course makes total sense for the body to “cheat” by controlling the limbs in tandem using largely reflexive strength and deeply in-grained movement patterns. If one limb mirrors or opposes the other, then you only need to send one set of instructions. Opposition is the word we use to refer to movements like walking or crawls where the limbs move in an alternating fashion.

And so, moving limbs completely out of sync is actually quite hard to coordinate without practice. If you ever tried patting your head with one hand and rubbing your tummy with the other, you’ll know what I mean.

This simply requires more conscious effort on your part, as you essentially split your awareness into four rather than into two (or one). The potential performance benefits of being able to concentrate on all four limbs and move them freely in space though is huge.

This also tends to involve moving the limbs into unusual positions that lengthen the lever arm and remove some of the support structure provided by the torso. In short, this challenges your strength in unique and extremely difficult ways, helping make you more prepared for a range of situations.

You might also have heard that the right side of the brain controls the left limbs and vice versa. The nerve connections run in an X shape across the core, connecting these two sides. And that’s also why we swing the opposite arm when we walk.

This is why contralateral movements that “cross the midline” are potentially so good for us. These improve coordination and muscle control, while potentially thickening the bundle of nerves that join the left and right hemispheres of the brain – known as the corpus callosum collectively. It’s like ambidexterity training with weights!

Anatomically, the left shoulder is also linked to the right hip and vice versa. We see this when we run, walk, or throw a ball – just think about what the opposite limb is doing!

When we train with cross body exercises that move across this midline, we also strengthen the core in this manner. This type of training will introduce offset loads and thereby force us to use our obliques to resist torque and stabilize ourselves (as I mentioned in my Nightwing training post).

Spider-Man Crawls

A lot of this stabilization occurs unconsciously in a reflexive manner. Lift something heavy on one side and the muscles on the other side will brace automatically. By developing this further, you can increase your balance, and stability – becoming impossible to knock over.

So, there are plenty of different ways to use contralateral training. Here are some suggestions:

  • Spider-man crawls (or bear crawls etc.), sometimes referred to as cross crawls. Crawl low to the ground to train that contralateral movement, and build on your reflexive strength and core power. This is a fantastic way to train your coordination and movement, but it also works as a brilliant pec, shoulder, tricep, and ab workout in its own right. Staying low to the ground creates an isometric hold, while the locomotive aspect makes it a lot of fun and certainly a change from the norm.

One arm one leg push up

  • One-arm/one-leg push up – This is one of the best tests of your core strength and works wonders for building up the core and your overall stability.
  • Farmer’s walks, especially using the suitcase carry. Here you carry a kettlebell or dumbbell on just one side while walking.
  • Performing different movements with each hand. For example, you could hang from a pull up bar and curl with the other hand, or perform an overhead kettlebell press with one hand while doing a one handed tricep dip with the other. The Turkish getup is an example of a movement that naturally uses all four limbs in different ways.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Hi – love this post & am very keen to see / hear if there’s more research on contralatral activation

    I’m connected to the T2 fusion trainer – which is primarily a contralateral training device, where you have a ‘live’ connection to the housing to self ellicit resistance, which is then multiplied by the friction hub housing, & adjusted purely by timing & your engagement with it

    Wondering if we could send you one for review?
    Would love to know what you’d think of it, especially in light of this post ?

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