Unilateral exercises are essential for strength.
When I started lifting weights, strength wasn’t even on my radar. I wanted to put on slabs of muscle to help me with the women and to make me harder to push around. Just like millions of other guys.
But little did I know then building strength was the key to both. It only took eight or so years as a personal trainer to realize this. What can I say, I’m a fast learner. Now strength training is the backbone of all my clients programs because it will get them where they want to go faster.
Human beings are strongest when lifting with two hands or with both feet on the ground like a squat or a bench press. Here we have better stability and the ability to lift more weight. And this is great for fat loss, muscle and building strength.
But without unilateral moves , it may lead to aches, pains, and injury niggles.
We all have a dominant side and when doing bi-lateral lifts (two hands and two feet) one side may take over for the other. This may lead to muscle imbalances and shoddy lifting technique.
But why should you care?
Because pain sucks and you want to look good right.
Doing unilateral exercises (one arm or one foot) leads to better balanced strength between our left and right sides and these other important benefits.
Benefits Of Unilateral Exercises
Besides helping you to look awesome, here are five important advantages of doing unilateral exercises.
Reduced Muscle Imbalances
Due to activities of daily living and bilateral lifting, most people have a dominant and non-dominant side. For example, kicking or throwing a ball. Lifting with one limb at a time helps the non-dominant side catch up.
While lifting unilaterally, you automatically throw your body off-balance, forcing your core muscles to engage to keep yourself upright. Staying upright is handy.
Life Is Played on One Leg
Most sports and activities involve a lot of single leg action. Whether it is sprinting, throwing, jumping, or taking the stairs, it is rare for both feet to be on the ground at the same time during these movements.
Reduce lifting Injuries
Strengthening your “weaker” side will reduce your injury risk by improving your technique. (1)
Improved Muscle Recruitment
Unilateral exercises make you work harder and recruit more muscle to perform the same movement. For example, a split squat instead of a goblet squat. Because you’re reducing your base of support by taking one leg out. This forces your hips and core to stabilize your pelvis while the working leg performs a split squat.
6 Essential Unilateral Exercises
There’s a ton of great unilateral exercises and it’s hard to narrow it down to six. But these six exercises are easy, accessible and you don’t have to contort your body into a pretzel to do them. They will give you the best bang for your buck to help you look, flex, move, and feel better.
Single Leg Hip Extension Hamstring Curl
Hamstring strains don’t happen when the knee is flexing (bring your heel to your butt), they happen when they extend eccentrically (stretching/lowering). It’s been shown that eccentric knee flexor exercises like this one reduce the risk of hamstring strains because of improvements in eccentric knee flexor strength.(2)
This exercise trains your hamstrings as a knee flexor and a hip extender, strengthening your hamstrings in two ways to bulletproof your hammies. If you’ve ever strained a hamstring, this is a must do exercise to stop it from happening again.
Elevated Split Squat
You need single leg exercises like split squats because walking, running, or cutting to change direction because they all involve single leg balance and strength. So, it makes sense to train it. The increased range of motion (as opposed to other lunge variations) puts more emphasis on your quad and hip strength, which is a must have for running faster, if that is your thing.
Yes, they do suck but think of this as bad tasting medicine that helps you get well. The increased ROM improves your hip mobility and it reduces your chances of back pain.
Suitcase carries will strengthen your grip imbalances between hands which is a limiting factor when pulling heavy from the floor or opening the pickle jar for your grilled hamburgers. Not only does this and its variations strengthen your grip, but they also improve your conditioning and mental toughness.
Are they hard? Yes, but these have a huge carryover to your activities of daily living and have huge health benefits.
Single Arm Floor Press
The reduced range of motion of the floor press makes this a great triceps builder and will help you in getting stronger with the lockout part of any pressing exercise. The single arm variation will turn on your core and shoulder stabilizers due to the offset load that gets neglected during bilateral pressing.
Plus, it’s a shoulder saver because it eliminates the lower half of the press where nasty things like shoulder impingements can happen. And you’re on the floor, so resting is easier after you’re done.
Single Arm Cable/Resistance Band Row
This move is so simple that it’s often overlooked because gym goers usually head over to the dumbbells or barbells for their back work. But rowing on the cable machine (or band) mimics the pulling motion you do daily when reaching for the good stuff. For example, food from the fridge. Plus, this exercise works the neglected muscles in between the shoulder blades that are important for good posture and shoulder health.
Single Arm Landmine Press
This exercise is a combination between a vertical (shoulder press) and horizontal (push-up) movement which makes this great for people who lack shoulder mobility for overhead pressing and for strengthening pressing imbalances from a standing position.
Adding the reach at the end of the exercise is great for the serratus anterior (boxer muscle underneath the chest) which is vital muscle for shoulder health and mobility. If you don’t believe me, you can read about it here.
Unilateral exercises are in all my clients and my own programs for good reasons. They reduce strength imbalances, build muscle, burn fat, and cut your chances of getting hurt. They’re the total package so you can be the total package.
If you want program that includes balanced strength to reduce strength imbalances and to add more flex appeal, click here
1. Lee JW, et al. Eccentric hamstring strength deficit and poor hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio are risk factors for hamstring strain injury in football: A prospective study of 146 professional players. J Sci Med Sport. 2018 Aug;21(8):789-793. Epub 2017 Dec 5.
2. Matthew N Bourne et al. An Evidence-Based Framework for Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Hamstring Injury. Sports Med. 2018 Feb;48(2):251-267. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0796-x.