Unilateral training involves any type of exercise that isolates and uses the muscles on just one side of the body at a time. They are typically single-leg or single-arm movements that you repeat in succession on one side, before switching to the other arm or leg and training the other side.
So why is this style of training so good for us?
Unilateral training helps avoid overtraining your dominant side
Most of us will naturally have one side of the body that is stronger than the other. However, this imbalance can cause two issues for us.
One: The dominant side overcompensates for the weaker side, which can widen the gap in strength between the two sides. If you’ve ever done heavy weightlifting and found you’re more sore on one side than the other, it means the dominant side did most of the work. This can prevent our weaker side from catching up.
Two: Instead of the dominant side working harder, we may end up recruiting different muscles on our weaker side that we don’t want to use. For example, in a heavy chest press, the target muscles are our chest and triceps. If one side is weaker than the other, we might end up using our shoulders or back to finish the set as we start to fatigue, rather than those muscles we’re seeking to train.
Unilateral training helps isolate and correct muscle imbalances
As above, if one side of your body is stronger than the other, this side will always be dominant when performing bilateral exercises (using both limbs). For example, if your right bicep is stronger than your left, the barbell will mostly be carried by your right side, causing your left bicep to be underutilized. If you change from using the bar (bilateral exercise) to using dumbbells or plates (unilateral exercise) then both sides of the body are working independently.
Unilateral training will improve balance and engage your core
Want a strong core? Do single-limb exercises! A 2012 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found unilateral exercises activate the muscles of the superficial core more effectively than bilateral exercises.
Single-leg exercises recruit the deep stabilizers of the hip and core to improve our balance. Similarly, when we perform unilateral movements of the upper body, the core must be engaged to prevent the trunk from rotating unnecessarily during push or pull exercises.
Unilateral training will assist in rehabilitation
Unilateral training is more effective for rehabilitation than bilateral training because when you train one side of the body, you also stimulate the opposite side. This is called cross-education of the muscles (Green and Gabriel, 2018): we indirectly stimulate the non-working side of the body to improve strength in the injured area. This occurs because the neural pathways that are used for the primary unilateral exercise also stimulate the same muscles on the other side of the body. So when you target your right quadriceps with a unilateral exercise, you will also gain strength in the left quad.
SHOULD YOU BE DOING MORE UNILATERAL EXERCISES?
You can test your own muscular balance and find out if you should add more unilateral training to your regime with these three simple exercises:
Single Leg Squat: this tests your glute, hip and quad strength
To check for imbalance do this exercise on both sides:
- Look at the knee angle of your grounded leg
- When you squat down, your knee should ideally face straight ahead, with your thigh in a straight line
- If your knee is deviating away from the mid-line or you cannot reach the same squat depth (knee angle), your muscles are weaker on this side.
To correct imbalances and build strength in the weaker side you can strengthen your hips, glutes and quads with squats, jump squats, lunges, and single leg squats standing on a stair.
Single Leg Bridge: this tests hip strength
To check for imbalance, do this exercise on both sides:
- Look along the level of your hips to check they are at the same height
- If your hip consistently dips lower on each side, this may be an overall weakness that you’ll want to improve on both sides
- If one side dips noticeably lower than the other, then you want to focus on isolating that side.
To correct imbalances and build strength in the weaker side you can use bridges, planks, and leg lifts to strengthen this area.
Single Leg Deadlift: this tests strength in your hip and upper leg
To check for imbalance try a single leg deadlift on each leg:
- If you can’t maintain balance, you are lacking strength in your hip and upper leg
To correct imbalances and build strength in the weaker side: practice squats, lunges and bridges, as well as single leg exercises to improve balance.
Focusing on lateral movements is also a great way to build agility and advance athletic performance. Discover three of the best lateral training moves and learn how to boost your cardio fitness and improve balance at the same time.
These exercises aren’t the only way to get the benefits of unilateral training. Many LES MILLS™ workouts include some form of unilateral training, whether it’s the warrior 3 pose in BODYBALANCE/BODYFLOW™, the single-arm burpee in LES MILLS GRIT™, or any of the standing strength exercises that feature in CXWORX™. There are unilateral exercises in the athletic strength training in a BODYATTACK™ workout and BODYCOMBAT™ is typically jam-packed with unilateral movements too.