You’ve probably seen someone doing unilateral training; you might not have noticed it as a distinct form of training, although it has specific benefits if you include it in your routine. It helps with coordination, balance, left-right body strength differences and injury recovery. So, let’s have a look at unilateral training and the full range of benefits it brings.
What is Unilateral Training?
Unilateral training is training using one side of your body. Think about any form of exercise… running, swimming or strength training at the gym – often, people work out with both sides of their body at the same time, even if they are concentrating on specific muscle groups. Unilateral training turns this logic on its head, using only one side of the body to train in a unique and highly beneficial way.
The Science Behind Unilateral Training
If we look at historical drawings of strength training in Ancient Greece, or early photographs of strongmen, it’s clear that functional, unilateral training has been around for a long time. The growing popularity of both professional and recreational exercise has led to a vast amount of testing, theory and new ways of exercise. One of the first physiologists to examine unilateral training was Roger Enoka in a book called The Neuromechanics of Human Movement. He examined something called bilateral deficit, whereby a limb will show greater strength when working alone than when working together with another limb. Since then, unilateral training has been seen as a way to promote and unlock that extra strength.
Benefits of Unilateral Training
One of the reasons unilateral training is so popular is because it has so many benefits, and most of them will enhance your workout, regardless of your specific goals:
Improved Strength and Stability
Unilateral training is great for strength training because unilateral movements make you work harder, forcing your body to activate a greater number of muscle fibres to achieve the same movement. Because the movements are often unbalanced, unilateral training also builds vital stability skills.
For example, a split squat is great training for a bilateral squat. It encourages greater activation of the abductors and forces you to stabilise your pelvis, giving your core a unique challenge.
Muscle Imbalance Correction
Our bodies tend to have a dominant side; if you’re right-handed, chances are that’ll be your right side. There’s also a good chance that the dominant side of the body is stronger, and this is known as an imbalance. You can easily identify this by doing a one-sided version of an exercise… pistol squats instead of regular squats, for example. You might find that one side is stronger than the other, which means you’ve found an imbalance. This can obviously be addressed with unilateral, targeted training of the weaker side. This can improve your performance through improved balance and posture, leading to better form in everything you do from free-weight exercises to sports. This can also lead to injury prevention, particularly in sports that require coordination – for example, a runner with better posture is far less likely to pick up injuries over time.
Increased Functional Fitness
Life comes at you fast, and in our daily lives we don’t always have the opportunity to get perfect balance and form when we do physical things. That’s why unilateral forms of training are often described as functional, because the balance and coordination gains are things that will really benefit us in our daily lives.
For example, an exercise like Turkish get-ups offer a full-body unilateral workout that will improve balance and coordination. How? It involves taking a kettlebell from the ground to above your head, starting laying down and progressing through a series of whole-body movements until standing. It uses almost all your muscles, challenges your balance and works your co-ordination at the same time.
Enhanced Muscle Symmetry and Aesthetics
Unilateral exercises are also popular amongst people who train for aesthetics, such as bodybuilders. It’s completely normal for a person to build muscle at different rates on different sides of the body, which means that a left bicep might be larger than a right bicep. Diligent bodybuilders might carefully evaluate their body symmetry and devise a plan where they work on a muscle group on one side of the body more than the other.
Reduced Risk of Injury
One common situation where muscle imbalance can lead to injury is when muscle groups are responsible for shock absorption, such as with the tibialis anterior which runs down the front of the lower part of your leg. If this muscle isn’t working in harmony with the other muscles in the leg and foot due to muscle imbalance, this can lead to poor posture when running and excessive shock absorption by joints, in turn leading to injury. If you’re running with one side weaker than the other, unilateral training may help you avoid injury.
Improved Core Stability
Unilateral training is also very good for improving core stability because exercises that require more effort on one side tend to engage more muscles, particularly the core muscles that are used to maintain balance and alignment.
Unilateral vs Bilateral Training
Bilateral training involves using both sides of the body for the same movement, usually combined. For example, in a bench press, you use both arms on one bar to push a single barbell above your chest. However, in a dumbbell unilateral chest press, you’ll do a similar movement but with one side only.
A traditional bilateral bench press is great for overall strength, although a unilateral dumbbell chest press will make your core work much harder and help address imbalances. Generally, it’s useful to combine these exercises into your routine.
Types of Unilateral Exercises
Unilateral training doesn’t have to be complicated, but generally it comes in two flavours; lower-body and upper-body training.
Unilateral leg exercises
Unilateral leg exercises involve working one leg at a time to help with any lower-body imbalances. A good example is the single leg Romanian deadlift where you stand on one leg, keeping your back straight, and bend forward while sticking your opposing leg out behind you. This can either be done with bodyweight, or holding dumbbells.
Unilateral arm exercises
Unilateral arm exercises involve working one arm only at a time and they help you with upper-body imbalances. The most common example of this is probably the one-arm dumbbell row which you’ve likely seen many people do in the gym before. To do this, you should kneel to the side of a flat bench and use the arm you don’t want to train to steady your torso by bracing against the bench. From here, you should bend at the waist until your torso is facing towards the floor but not parallel, and you can pick up a dumbbell and row it upwards. This will give your bicep and latissimus dorsi muscle on that side a great unilateral workout.
How to Incorporate Unilateral Exercises Into a Workout Routine
Unilateral exercises aren’t something that needs to be kept separate, and you can either combine similar bilateral and unilateral exercises on the same day, or alternate days depending on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you’re training for aesthetics then you might want to replace your routine for a particular muscle with a unilateral exercise in order to maximise the effort you put into one particular side of your body. However, if you’re training for more functional reasons, you might find you want to do unilateral versions of the same exercises on the same day as their bilateral equivalents. For example, if you’re strength training and working on your bench press, you could start your workout with a bilateral bench press to train the most important movements, then perform unilateral movements to help get the benefit of a bilateral and unilateral workout on the same day.
Why is it Important to Incorporate Unilateral Training into a Workout Routine?
Unilateral training can help unlock your workout by training in a unique way. It has many benefits including strength gains, improved symmetry, better balance and injury prevention. It helps you gain strength by training your limbs individually, rather than allowing the dominant side to do all of the work; if you’re chasing aesthetics, you can get as close as possible to equal dimensions on each side; you’ll get better balance through training your body with uneven movements; and you’ll prevent injury by ensuring your muscles work together appropriately to act as good shock absorbers.
How to Balance Strength with Unilateral Training
Often with strength training, you’re planning around your recovery. This might mean splitting your upper-body and lower-body workouts to different days, or prioritising a particular large movement like the squat for an entire session. Unilateral training is often complementary, which means that if you’re training upper-body on a given day, there’s nothing to stop you adding in some unilateral exercise on that day to help improve any left-right strength imbalances.
We hope we’ve convinced you to include unilateral training in your routine. As we’ve said, it can help with strength imbalances, avoiding injury and it can even help with symmetry if you’re training for aesthetics. It’s not too difficult to include in your routine either, as many bilateral exercises you’re familiar with have unilateral equivalents. Whether you’re looking for a good addition to your training, or perhaps just a way to get through a plateau, we hope you’ll give unilateral training a try.