Strength Training

Unilateral Training: What Is It, Benefits and Examples

Unilateral Exercises

There are many ways of achieving an all over body workout and for most, the reasons for doing so are usually to improve their cardiovascular strength, increase muscle mass for a better body aesthetic or for rehabilitation following on from an injury.  This article will delve into a specific form of training known as unilateral training. If you would like information on the difference between compound and isolation exercises this article may be a better fit for you 

Unilateral training is to exercise one body appendage (the leg or arm) at a time.  Such examples of unilateral exercises include single arm shoulder press, a split squat or running.  By training one side of the body at a time leads to better isolation of those muscles.

In many cases, any version of a bilateral exercise, for example the barbell squat, will have a unilateral alternative.  Undertaking both versions of an exercise is an incredibly effective way to achieve muscle strength and gains (bi-lateral exercises) and improvements to stability.

WHAT ARE UNILATERAL EXERCISES GOOD FOR

Unilateral exercises are very good for improving any muscle imbalances whether that is to strength or mass.  This is because they target a muscle group which is independent from its opposite side.  For example, if you find that one arm is stronger than the other, by incorporating unilateral training, you can isolate the weaker arm forcing it to work harder.

Not only will working one side of the body at a time help to improve muscle imbalance, they can also help to prevent injury.  It’s very common to have a more dominant side when it comes to muscle strength, but this isn’t always apparent to someone working out.

For example, a powerlifter who undertakes regular heavy barbell squatting could inadvertently be loading more weight onto one leg than the other.  The load is insignificant enough that the lifter won’t notice but, over time, one leg is becoming stronger leading to an imbalance. What’s more, you could be overtraining one leg or arm over the other without really noticing.   This could lead to a potential injury.  Very often, it’s only when a person undertakes unilateral exercises that these imbalances become obvious.

By placing weight loads onto one limb at a time can help to correct muscle imbalance and prevent more dominant muscles from taking over leading to better symmetry in terms of size and strength.

When undertaking unilateral exercises, whether upper or lower body, the weight load will cause an imbalance.  This means that the core muscles will have to work hard to maintain stability throughout the exercise.   This makes unilateral training excellent for working the stabilisation muscles.  By achieving a strong core this will encourage a better posture and good back health.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF UNILATERAL TRAINING

There are a number of benefits to be had from implementing unilateral workouts into your training alongside bilateral.  We’ve listed a few below.

  1. Improvement to stability and balance.
  2. Better isolation of target muscles.
  3. Good carryover to sports such as football.
  4. Help to prevent injury.
  5. Help to improve muscle imbalances.

EXAMPLE OF UNILATERAL EXERCISES

As we mentioned above, pretty much all variations of a bilateral movement will have a unilateral equivalent.  By undertaking some of the below exercises will help you to identify and improve weaker muscles.  It’s important to remember that you won’t be able to lift an extreme amount of weight with unilateral movement but that’s not the point of these exercises.

UNILATERAL EXERCISES FOR THE UPPER BODY

  1. SINGLE ARM LATERAL RAISE

This is a great exercise to target the delts and can be done at home using a dumbbell or at the gym on a cable machine.  How to do it:

  • Holding a dumbbell in one hand, stand upright with knees slightly bent.
  • Keep your arms down by your sides with hands in a neutral position. If it helps with balance you could rest your free hand on your hip.
  • Begin by slowly raising the hand holding the dumbbell, make sure to keep your arm straight with the elbow only slightly bent.
  • Once the dumbbell is around shoulder height hold for a couple of seconds before slowly returning to the starting position.
  1. SINGLE ARM FRONT RAISE

The single arm front raise will isolate and work the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulders).  As with the lateral raise, this can be done with either a dumbbell or kettlebell or on a cable machine in your gym. You can also do this one seated or standing.  How to do it:

  • If standing, remain upright with feet shoulder width apart.
  • Hold a dumbbell in one hand and keep both arms down by your sides.
  • Begin to raise the arm holding the dumbbell out in front of you. Keep your elbow slightly bent throughout the movement.
  • Continue to raise until your arm is parallel to the floor. Hold for a few seconds before returning back down to your side.Single Arm Front Dumbbell Raise
  1. SINGLE ARM DUMBBELL BENT OVER ROW

The single arm dumbbell bent over row will work the lats, mid and upper traps and posterior delts.  It’s easily done at home using a dumbbell and a platform such as a bench or chair. How to do it:

  • Face the platform that you’ll be using and hinge forwards at the hips with your knees slightly bent and rest your free hand on the platform.
  • Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders and that your back is straight with your head inline with your back.
  • Reach down and grab the dumbbell.
  • Row upwards by slowly bringing the dumbbell up towards your chest and make sure not to rotate your lower back. Squeeze your lats at the top of the movement.
  • Lower the dumbbell back towards the floor, you should feel a strength along the top of your upper back.
  1. ONE ARM DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS

The one arm dumbbell bench press will target the chest, triceps and front delts along with the core muscles.  How to do it:

  • Sitting on a flat bench, hold a dumbbell in one hand.
  • Lie back on the bench and raise the arm holding the dumbbell straight up towards the ceiling. You should feel quite a bit of core engagement.
  • Slowly bent the elbow bringing the dumbbell down and out, pause when your reach parallel.
  • Press back up to the starting position.

UNILATERAL EXERCISES FOR THE LOWER BODY

  1. SPLIT SQUAT

This is a quad dominant exercise that can be done at the gym or home.  All you need is a pair of dumbbells and a flat surface such as bench or chair.  How to do it:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand in front of your chosen platform and face away from it.
  • Take one foot and take it up behind you and rest it on the platform.
  • You’ll want to make sure your front leg is out far enough so that you can comfortably squat down without the knee going over your toes.
  • Once in position, bend the knee of the foot which rests on the surface.
  • Squat down and get as low as is comfortable.
  • Slowly rise back up to the starting position. Once you’ve completed your reps, repeat again using the other leg.
  1. SINGLE LEG BENCH SQUAT

The single leg bench squat is an excellent exercise for improving stability and core strength but also target the quads and hamstrings. You won’t need any dumbbells for this one, just a flat surface such as a squat box or chair.   How to do it:

  • Stand upfront in front of the squat box / chair.
  • Raise your arms out in front of you so that they are parallel to the floor.
  • Raise one foot out in front of you, keeping your knee straight. Your feet should just a couple of inches away from the floor.
  • Holding this position, slowly push your hip backs so that you begin to squat down.
  • Once you have reached the squat box / chair, hold for a couple of seconds before rising to the starting position.

IS UNILATERAL TRAINING BETTER THAN BILATERAL TRAINING

Unilateral exercises could be considered more beneficial when compared to bilateral, but this would depend on the objectives of the person undertaking them.  Unilateral movements will aid with improved stability and balance and will help to isolate weaker muscles for a more balanced physique.

DO UNILATERAL EXERCISES BUILD MORE MUSCLE

Unilateral exercises will encourage muscle growth but not to the same degree as bilateral exercises.  When undertaking movements that require use of both arms or legs simultaneously (bilateral), more weight can be lifted.  This in turn will lead to bigger strength and muscle gains and more bodyfat being burned.

However, many people choose to start off with unilateral training.  This is because by focusing on building equal strength and symmetry to arms and legs this can help with being able to lift more weight when doing bilateral movements.

Furthermore, the improvements made to stability with unilateral training can help with better form when doing exercises such as the deadlift or squat, both of which require good core strength.

CONCLUSION

Unilateral strength exercises are important to help address any weak points and improve muscle imbalances.  They are not specifically for muscle or strength gains but by doing them, they will offer excellent carry over to bilateral movements such as the barbell squat.

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