Don’t you love “that” person who stands in your way of the dumbbells while doing unilateral curls and making faces only his mother would love? What if I told you that he’s on to something, minus the faces and grunting?
Bilateral exercises (not biceps curls) should form the foundation of your training program because this is where you’ll get most your gains from.
However, unilateral training often gets neglected in the quest to get bigger, stronger and better looking because it’s just not as sexy (or cool) as a big squat, deadlift or overhead press.
However, unilateral training will help you get stronger and provide the following benefits.
1. Reduce muscle imbalances– Due to activities of daily living almost everybody has a dominant and non-dominant side. For instance, carrying more groceries on one side over the other over time may get one arm stronger.
Have you ever seen a person struggle to lock out one side over the other during a barbell bench press? I rest my case. Improving your “weaker” side will reduce your injury risk and help increase overall lifting numbers.
2. Improved muscle recruitment – Unilateral training makes you work harder and recruit more muscle fibers to perform the exact same movement. For example, a split squat instead of a bilateral squat.
Taking one leg out of the equation forces your hip abductors (outer hips) and core to stabilize your pelvis while the working leg performs a split squat. Working more muscle with less weight will help correct strength imbalances between sides also.
Do you know what that means for you? More calorie burning baby.
3. Improves your balance– When training unilaterally, you automatically throw your body off balance, forcing your core muscles to engage to keep yourself upright. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing.
Now that I’ve convinced you that unilateral training is the bomb, consider incorporating the following exercises into your routine.
1. Single arm landmine press
The single arm landmine press is a mix between a vertical and horizontal movement which makes this great for individuals who lack the shoulder mobility for overhead pressing and for those looking to improve their press numbers.
The beginning of this exercise (initial push of the shoulders) is the hardest part of the movement. This will assist you with pushing the bar off your chest during the bench press or pushing the barbell overhead from a dead stop.
The extra core work doesn’t go astray either and this press can be done from a variety of body positions, further enchaining the core training benefits.
Form considerations- Make sure the barbell is close to the front of your shoulder and actively squeeze the barbell. This provides Irradiation, allowing you to produce more force and lift more weight.
Pairing this with a hip flexor stretch works well and provides an active rest between sides and sets. For example
1A. Half kneeling landmine press (right hand)
1B. Half kneeling hip flexor stretch (right knee down) – 30 seconds
1C. Half kneeling landmine press (left hand)
1D. Half kneeling hip flexor stretch (left knee down) – 30 seconds
2. Single arm cable row
This move looks so simple that it’s often overlooked. Gym goers usually head over to the dumbbells or barbells for their back work. However, rowing on the cable machine mimics the pulling motion you do daily when reaching for the good stuff. For example, food from the fridge.
Furthermore, this movement works the neglected muscles in between the shoulder blades that are important for good posture and shoulder function.
When pulling the weight towards you, keep your shoulder down and chest up and during the negative part of the movement let your arm come all the way forward until you feel a stretch under your armpit.
Pairing this with a core exercise like the Pallof Press will give you extra work your abs will appreciate. For example
1A. Single arm cable row 15 reps
1B. Pallof press 8 reps
3. Suitcase carries
Not only will carries change your life in 3 weeks, according to Dan John, they can strengthen grip imbalances between hands which can be a limiting factor when pulling heavy from the floor or opening the pickle jar.
When you’re doing carries (you do right?), pair them with a movement that doesn’t demand a lot of grip strength, so you can get more out of it. For example:
1A. Goblet squat/press variation.
1B. Suitcase carry- (25-50% of your bodyweight) 30 steps one hand then 30 steps with the opposite hand.
Form considerations– cues “shoulders down and back” or “chest up” work well here. Checking your form in a mirror will help if you having trouble knowing if you’re overcompensating or not.
4. Single arm floor press
The reduced range of motion of the floor press makes this great triceps builder (when the elbows are close to your side) and will assist you in getting stronger with the lockout part of any press variation.
The single arm variation will turn on your core and shoulder stabilizers due to the offset load that can get neglected during bilateral bench/overhead pressing.
It’s a shoulder saver because it eliminates the lower half of the press where nasty things like shoulder impingements can happen.
Form considerations- Grip the dumbbell tight or strangle the handle and keep the elbow close to your side but not touching. Touch the entire upper arm to the ground at the start of each rep.
Pairing this with a side plank or a suitcase carry gives your shoulders and core the extra work they deserve. For example
1A. Floor press 8-12 reps
1B. Side plank variation 30 sec/ Suitcase carry – (25-50% of your bodyweight) 30 steps one hand then 30 steps in the opposite hand.
5. Elevated Split squat
I’m not a huge fan of lunges so split squats get the nod instead. You (and 1) need single leg exercises because walking, running or walking up and down stairs all involve some sort of single leg balance.
So, doesn’t it make sense to train this ability in the gym? I thought you would see it my way.
Form considerations- Perform a bodyweight elevated split squat and notice where your big toe is and then place weight plate in front of it. This will give you a reference point and shorten your set up time between sets. This is courtesy of the one and only Jordan Syatt.
Supersetting this movement with any upper body exercise will enhance your fat burning efforts because the heart has to work extra hard to push the blood from your lower body back up into the upper body. For example
1A. Elevated split squat 8-12 reps
1B. Elevated push-up 8-12 reps
Don’t forget about unilateral training when it comes to getting bigger, stronger and more awesome. Including these exercises into your routine will improve your lifting numbers, overall balance and will help keep you off the lifting DL.
You can throw in some single arm curls, if you must. 🙂
If you need any help with your training, please contact me here.