Unilateral training is an often underutilized mode of training. For those of you who don’t know, unilateral training is exercise involving the use of one limb at a time. Many of you have probably engaged in this form of training at some point (perhaps unknowingly) if you have ever performed something like an alternating dumbbell curl or dumbbell row.
What you may not know is that unilateral training has several benefits that can help you get more out of your training. That’s why in this article I want to discuss 3 key benefits of unilateral training, including some of my favourite unilateral movements.
1. Unilateral Training Improves Bilateral Strength
I have found over the years that unilateral exercises are great as a form of assistance exercises for the main lifts (squat, bench, deadlift). I think this is because they do a great job of addressing the weak points in the body. That’s because with unilateral exercises each side of the body must fend for itself, so if you have a weaker side (which we all do) you will find out quickly with this style of training. However, the beauty of unilateral training is that it also allows you to address this weakness directly by focusing on the lagging side. This in turn will make you stronger on your bilateral (i.e. two arm) movements. For example, let’s say you have determined that your left arm is slightly weaker than your right arm when it comes to any kind of horizontal pressing movement (e.g. bench press). In order to rectify this imbalance I would recommend you do some single arm, dumbbell bench presses, focusing a little extra attention on the left arm (whether it be an increase in the load or reps). This extra work for the left arm will eventually result in it to catching up in strength and size to your stronger right arm (or at least greatly diminish the imbalance). This will also result in you becoming stronger in the bench press. In other words, you become more symmetrical and stronger. A win-win scenario if you ask me!
2. Unilateral Training Allows You To Work Around Injuries
Another great benefit of unilateral training is that it can allow you to work around injuries. For example, let’s say that you injured your left shoulder bench pressing (it happens). Instead of completely forgoing any training for the chest for the next couple weeks, you could always substitute the flat barbell bench press for a single arm, dumbbell bench press using only your right arm. By doing this you can actually take advantage of the contralateral training effect. This effect states that exercises performed to increase muscle and/or strength on one side of the body can actually confer a benefit to the contralateral (opposite) side of the body as well. Although the effect is small, it will still allow you to keep some strength in the injured limb, allowing you to bounce back much quicker.
3. Unilateral Training Improves Balance and Coordination
Single limb training requires more stability and can activate deep core muscles to help keep your body stable and balanced as you execute the movements. As such, you will utilize different stabilization muscles that are typically not targeted during bilateral movements. This results in a more balanced development of your body. Additionally, you will also notice an improvement in your coordination. This in turn will help you improve your athletic performance. In other words, unilateral training is a necessity for anyone seeking to develop a well rounded, balanced physique.
Now that I have gone over some of the major benefits of unilateral training, I want to share with you a few unilateral exercises that I have found to particularly useful:
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
I’ve used this movement quite successfully in improving my barbell bench press and evening out the strength imbalance between my two arms. I find that this exercise also does a better job of targeting the chest at the bottom portion of the lift. My recommendation is to do these after your main pressing movement for 1-2 sets of at least 10-15 reps.
Single Arm Dumbbell Row (aka Kroc Row)
Similar to the single arm dumbbell bench press but working in the opposite direction, the single arm dumbbell row is an excellent movement that can greatly assist you in improving your deadlift. The key with these is to do them for very high reps (20+). Once again I would limit myself to 1-2 sets after you have completed your main back movement.
Bulgarian Split Squat or Barbell Split Squat
If you have ever complained that doing squats never hit your glutes quite hard enough, I highly recommend you give one of these split squat variations a try. I actually favor the barbell variety myself, but some people swear by the Bulgarian version as it allows you to get deeper with the one foot elevated. In either case, you will note that these will hit your glutes like no other exercise. As such, they are an excellent assistance movement to any squat variation. Once again, my recommendation would be 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps after your main squat exercise.
Unilateral training is a far too often forgotten mode of exercise. Unfortunately, many men are simply unaware of the benefits of single limb training. From improving your bilateral strength, to helping you work around injuries, if you haven’t included unilateral training into your routine I highly recommend you do so. You’ll only end up stronger, more balanced, and better coordinated.
Here’s to staying fit!