Updated: May 16, 2020
I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently regarding the explicit ways I implement offset loading into my training (… finally…). So, I figured why not lump the common questions together and throw them in an article. I published a separate offset article a few months back that was aimed to provide a comprehensive, general overview. In this, I want to focus more on the how to or "X's and O's" of offset loading. I’ve also been thinking about taking the questions directly to IG live, so if this is something you’d like me to do, please let me know. But in the meantime, hopefully I can provide some clarity and insight here.
What is Offset Loading:
Offset loading is a strength training method whereby the barbell or dumbbells/kettlebells are intentionally unbalanced between sides (i.e. barbell with a 25 lbs. plate on one side and a 10 lbs. plate on the other). Offset loading can also be achieved by using band tension, or by altering the surface from which the athlete works from. In addition, or at least in my application, offset loading will utilize and incorporate a significant amount of unilateral, oscillatory, and (fascial) sling pattern variations.
Sample: OFFSET COMP
The principle reason for applying this offset method, in my belief, is to emphasize the fascial slings, which span the torso anteriorly and posteriorly in diagonal fashion, and also encircle the upper-and-lower extremities independently. In addition, offset loading is a prudent way to address non-functional asymmetrical imbalances primarily by forcing underdeveloped or atrophied musculature more intensely than the more developed musculature/structures. I believe that the unbalanced load challenges the smaller, stabilizing musculature more directly; which can often be disengaged during conventional bilateral movement patterns because stronger muscles take up the bulk of the work.
The main responsibility of the fascial slings is to absorb, transmit and redirect forces efficiently and effectively throughout the body. Force transmission is the absolute fundamental root of human movement, and in athletics is often the chief difference separating good athletes from great ones. Additionally, fascia is a major contributor in preserving resting and dynamic postures, preserving spinal deformation, and anchoring optimal joint mechanics and function. But perhaps most notably, the slings provide us with powerful elastic energy stores and propulsion that play a major role in athletic expression.
My (unsubstantiated) theory behind the offset method specifically ‘targeting’ the fascial slings is that by having an unbalanced external load applied, the body will be forced to overcome the stressor by engaging musculature and fascial bands in a more diagonally oriented vector to maintain a parallel relationship between barbell and floor (and thus an upright postural position). I would also argue that the unbalanced external load creates more of a multiplanar stressor that subsequently increases the demand on resisting external torque (which is also quintessential to sport).
If we perceive the human anatomy through the lens of biotensegrity as opposed to purely conventional Newtonian physics, we can better understand the demands placed on human movement and locomotion, most notably in sport. As described by Graham Scarr in his book Biotensegrity- "the stability of tensegrity structures (i.e. fascia) is less reliant on strength of individual components, but more so on the balance and distribution of mechanical stresses throughout the entire structure". With this understanding, we should seek to include external force application that can adequately and sufficiently prepare the athlete for competition.
With all of that said, make no mistake about it, nothing can supplant or outperform standard, conventional, heavy loading (i.e. squats, deadlifts/pulls, presses, cleans, etc.). The purpose of offset loading is to be in addition to these conventional methods, not replace them. This is where we can take athletes who have developed sufficient, conventional strength, and simply add a layer to it. Collectively speaking, I’ve noticed particular benefits with offset loading for are athletes coming off of injury, those who present significant non-functional asymmetries, or are highly trained and can tolerate the stress/challenge.
A Quick Disclaimer:
It should be understood and appreciated by the reader that this is a vastly different stimulus, at least at first. Offset loading is not a prudent option for all athletes across the board. Therefore, this should not be approached without appreciable attention to detail. Please note that this is NOT a modality that is well suited for novice athletes, or young athletes who are still growing. For these athletes, they will receive the benefit they need by simply using conventional bilateral and unilateral loading applications. Additionally, athletes with contraindicating injury histories (i.e. significant spinal surgery, major joint damage, head injury) or athletes who have yet to develop a true proficiency with the conventional, bilateral lifts probably do not have much reason to use offset loading.
Who Needs Offset Training:
Broadly speaking, I honestly feel this is something that is prudent for any athlete, so long as all of the aforementioned boxes have been checked. I don’t think it’s a question of ‘athlete A’ needs offset loading, but ‘athlete B’ doesn’t. Rather, it’s how much do they need based on what we observe in our assessment and where are they in the training/sport season. As with anything else, it always depends, and every athlete is highly unique. But beyond that, let me outline a few common examples of mine:
Speaking more to the general athletic population, some of the indicators I use to evaluate how frequently to include offset loading with my athletes is multivariant. The most obvious assessment is manually testing the slings directly. But beyond that, the next item I’ll look at is simply how they perform on conventional single-leg movements (i.e. hinges, glute bridges). Additionally, conventional unilateral loading patterns (i.e. step-ups, lunges, overhead pressing), and/or how they perform on basic motor control core patterns such as deadbugs, birddogs, Turkish get-ups all provide good insight to the strength of the fascial slings.
What I’m looking for specifically is their ability (or lack thereof) to maintain appropriate position throughout complex movement patterns under load. A few things to note while evaluating are ability to maintain rigidity, bracing or stiffness throughout movement patterns, and perceived difficulty stabilizing certain positions that require reasonable core strength/tension. In my view, athletes who have difficulty with these items are typically deficient in core strength.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is also the athlete who can bench 350 and squat 500 but has never been subjected to anything outside of a squat rack. This is actually an important point, because we typically look at the athletes who excel with traditional strength measures as ones who wouldn’t need to do some novice shit like a deadbug. I promise you, and I can’t emphasize this enough, a fair majority of these powerhouse athletes will sweat bullets holding an isometric birddog pattern, or even just perform a proper plank or push-up. We can’t overlook these cases, a lot of the time these are the athletes who will benefit most from methods like offset loading.
Here’s the thing. Offset loading may be something you just sample in warm-ups from time to time or build a whole mesocycle off of it. For some athletes, it may be a recurring training focus because they seem to benefit from it, or for others, it may be just a single microdose once or twice throughout the training calendar.
Offset loading can be as versatile throughout programming for any of your athletes as you need it to be. Unfortunately, I can only speak to this anecdotally, but I can state confidently that this approach has helped tremendously with my athletes who’ve had significant injuries. Everything from hip displacement, mild scoliosis, SLAP and rotator cuff tears, ACL tears and a myriad of “low back issues” have all been cleaned up substantially by way of offset loading. I know the “asymmetries are bullshit” people are probably screaming at me through their screen right now, but I just disagree with the belief that asymmetry is not a factor in performance. Again, I do believe it’s extremely important to discern between what is functional vs. non-functional, as some asymmetry is vital to athletic success. But there also comes a clear tipping point where risk for severe injury is substantially increased, performance decrements can occur, and chronic pain can set in.
And for the love of god, don’t hit me with the pictures of Usain Bolt having different leg lengths, or Max Scherzer’s shoulders as a counterpoint to this. If you really use the most elite athletes in the history of humans comparatively to ascertain your stance on any training topic pertaining to 99.9% of others, YOU are doing your athletes a tremendous disservice. I mean just look at all of the heaping piles of shit we see on social media with professional athlete’s training… how absolutely ludicrous some of that is. But if you retort a point on asymmetries with “well Usain Bolt has asymmetrical imbalance so it can’t inhibit performance!” then you can’t turn around and bastardize Alvin Kamara juggling on a bosu ball looking like he’s training for a cirque du soleil routine.
Every athlete we will ever see will have muscular imbalances. Most of which, will not only be stellar athletes despite asymmetries, but will rely on and need these imbalances. This is especially true in the obvious sports such as baseball/softball, tennis, volleyball, and so on. What I look at with my athletes is the difference between functional and non-functional asymmetries. I define non-functional asymmetries as those that are grossly misaligned (i.e. having a difference in hip height greater than 8 mm). Quick caveat for full disclosure, I normally have access to chiropractic reports along with other imaging with my athletes, so I have a premiere advantage in being able to see gross imbalances. But for your sake (assuming you don’t have this opportunity), gross imbalance can be surmised as simply “imbalances that are clearly obvious when performing a static assessment”. Additionally, if decrements in performance have occurred, or chronic pain is present due to misalignment, this would also constitute non-functional asymmetry, thus prompting more frequency of offset loading.
Where to Start:
I’ll tell you right out the gate that offset loading is a bit awkward at first. I think the most important thing is that you slowly ingratiate this concept into your training, don’t dive head first. My advice would be to start with dumbbells/kettlebells, as well as include some of the offset band variations I’ve discussed previously. Here are some good candidates for offset loading using dumbbells/kettlebells:
-Lunge or step-up variations
-RDL’s or hinges
-Rear foot elevated/front foot elevated split squats
-Chest press or overhead press
Using dumbbells/kettlebells prior to offset loading with a barbell allows the athlete to get a feel for the offset loading pattern, but still gives them independent limb control. Meaning, when you apply this concept with a barbell, the limbs are fixed against the off balanced load, which is substantially more demanding, namely in the core region. Nevertheless, this will have similar effects as a barbell and will also help to groove the athlete to be more equipped for offset loading with a barbell.
NOTE: I strongly encourage you start with a small margin of difference between dumbbells/ kettlebells, and then of course again when you get the athlete under the barbell. Due to the lack of popularity or common usage of offset loading, it’s impossible for me to give specific outlines on how much weight to use and the rate to progress with full confidence. That being said, here are some guidelines to adhere to:
Implementing Offset Loading in Training:
As noted above, this is not something that will be a mainstay in programming. Think of this no differently than the way specific tempo training is programmed- we phase it in for a few weeks, on a couple of our exercises, then phase it out for several weeks. This is how I believe offset training should be ingratiated as well. For the sake of this write-up, I’m going to provide an overview of how I have been programming and utilizing offset training personally. My advice to you, particularly if you’re a coach, is to just follow along with the general concepts and philosophies of application. Take what resonates with you and let it spurn your thought for how you can best optimize this strategy with your athletes.
Let’s take a look at a hypothetical athlete, assuming that the athlete has a reasonably dense training history (>3 years) and has already developed a sufficient base for bilateral strength. Let’s say that this hypothetical athlete is in a true offseason phase and has a 9-week training block coming up. I utilize a time block set up for my training, and when I apply offset loading it’s predominantly found in the second and third blocks of training. This means that in the first block, we are performing the conventional lifts, with traditional bilateral load and following the periodization scheme (outlined to the left). Below is a sample training mesocycle for clarity:
Notice the themes here… no offset loading in the first week of the mesocycle (which will also be the case in the subsequent mesocycles), followed by consecutive weeks of offset loading with slightly increased load. My thought is by incorporating the movements with standard loading first, it will help prime them for performing them with offset loading in the weeks to come. Additionally, take note of the margin for offset detailed under the load column, I will always program these as ranges to work from so that the athlete doesn’t feel compelled to perform something they aren’t comfortable with.
As always- safety first, don’t just dive right into this, and always remember the exercises fit the athlete, not the other way around. But generally speaking, I will include 2-3 exercises that are offset in any given session. They will almost inherently be foundational movements that athletes have developed significant bilateral strength on over the years and will also typically be applied with a specific tempo cadence as well. A big part of the offset loading is developing the motor control pathways to tolerate a broader spectrum of movement application. I’ve found that by applying an eccentric or isometric tempo to offset loading is a beautiful marriage. So, whether it’s a few core movements in your warm-up, specific injury rehab, or strength layering with advanced athletes, offset loading has its place. It’s incumbent on you as the coach to figure out how much and how frequently you decide to include this with your athletes.