We all know and love the big 3: the squat, the deadlift and the bench press.
Many of us have ventured beyond these to love chin-ups and pull-ups, military presses and front squats. And some of us have even ventured into the wonderful world of Olympic lifting: the clean and jerk and the snatch.
Of course, everyone finds time to knock out a few sets of barbell curls.
These are all great lifts.
They’re enjoyable and produce results. And they all have one thing in common: they are known as bilateral lifts.
The reason they are called ‘bilateral’ is because both sides of the body are contributing to the same movement patterns simultaneously. This is a good thing; after all, one couldn’t single-legged squat as much as they could standard squat. And obviously, a one arm dumbbell curl could never be as heavy as a person’s barbell curl. But what if that was the point?
We’re not here to tell you to stop doing your bilateral training. On the contrary, not doing bilateral training would be leaving results on the table. So wipe the sweat off your brow and soak the tears up; your squats and chin-ups are safe.
What we’re here to tell you is that you probably aren’t doing enough complementary unilateral work. ‘Unilateral’ work, as you probably have already guessed, is when each side of the body is working independently of the other and producing it’s own, unaided effort.
Why You Should Be Using Unilateral Exercises
There are several reasons why adding unilateral work is important, but for today, let's just focus on five:
1. Unilateral Work Can Help Protect Against Injury
We all have natural strength imbalances from one side to another. It’s completely normal for this to happen as the vast majority of humans have a dominant side.
Small strength imbalances are natural and likely not harmful. However, the more we train bilaterally, the dominant arm/leg can develop to contribute more and more effort to a given bilateral lift and create a larger and larger strength deficit. Bad news for those of us who want to have long, healthy and active training careers.
2. Unilateral Training Can Improve Mobility
Have you ever found in a bilateral lift that you have trouble completing the full range of motion?
Perhaps your heels elevate slightly when you perform barbell squats, or maybe you’re not getting your arms properly aligned with your ears at the top of a military press.
Training with unilateral movements allows us to increase our range of motion through deeper stretch at the ‘bottom’ of the movement (aka at the end of the eccentric portion of the lift).
3. Unilateral Training Helps to Target Muscles That Are Often Overlooked or Underworked
Take the external rotators of the humerus for example (teres minor/infraspinatus).
While they are activated as antagonists of movements like the bench press and military press, they aren’t directly worked in this regard and instead benefit greatly from specific, unilateral movements like banded external rotation exercises.
Likewise, if you want to build the biggest set of guns possible, standing barbell curls will only bring you so far; using dumbbells instead allows each arm to work independently at greater ranges of motion and unique angles to target all the elbow flexors that get your arms looking jacked.
*Fun factoid on the ‘biceps’- when you are working a curl motion, you are working several muscles known as ‘elbow flexors’. Yes, the biceps brachii are included in this, but you’re also activating the brachialis anticus, the brachioradialis, and the pronator teres among others. If you want to get jacked arms, you’ve got to work different angles to hit the various muscles of the elbow flexor group. More on this in a later article.
4. Unilateral Movements Make You A Better Athlete
Look at any sport and what you will see are a rapid collection of unilateral movements.
The most breathtaking moments in sports happen off of one leg, or using one arm. If you never train in this way, you can only get so far on the field or the court.
We all want to be better athletes, even if we're just weekend warriors.
5. Unilateral Exercises Are Damned Hard Work...That Pays Off
A set of Bulgarian split squats, loaded properly, will have your eyes popping out of your skull and your stomach turning.
(Incidentally ladies, that movement will also do more for the booty you're trying to build than endless sets of hip thrusters you saw on Instagram)
Making limbs work independently is difficult, plain and simple, but that hard work pays serious dividends.
Now that we know some of the benefits of unilateral training, lets get into three examples of unilateral exercises for both the upper and lower body.
Upper Body Unilateral Exercises
For the upper body, we have the prone 45 degree lateral raise, the one-arm overhead triceps extension, and the one-arm Zottman curl.
1. The 45-Degree Lateral Raise
To perform the 45 degree lateral raise, you’ll lay your chest/belly flat on a 45 degree incline bench with dumbbell in working hand.
The non-working hand will hold you to the bench by wrapping your arm around the front of it and the working arm will remain basically straight as you lift the dumbbell, palm down out to your side until it’s level with your ear (think bird flying with one wing).
2. One-Arm Triceps Extension
To perform the one arm overhead triceps extension, sit on a flat bench with a dumbbell in your working hand.
Press the dumbbell overhead and keep your arm tight to your head (move the arm to the head, not the other way around; no need to make your chiropractor a little richer today!).
Control the weight down slowly until the thumb-head of the dumbbell touches your upper back and extend it back to the top. Enjoy the challenge!
3. One-Arm Zottman Curl
The one-arm Zottman curl can be done on a Scott/preacher bench or on a high-incline bench.
The working arm will be draped over the bench, palm up at the bottom. You will curl the weight to the top, turn the dumbbell palm down, and then control the dumbbell to the bottom of the bench. Rinse. Repeat. Get jacked.
Lower Body Unilateral Exercises
For the lower body, we have step-ups, lunges, and unilateral hamstring curls.
1. Step Ups
The step-ups are just as they sound; you find a platform or box, put your foot flat on it’s surface, and with good posture stand up on that one leg.
Control yourself to the ground and avoid smacking the ground with your non-working foot. Again, the chiropractor is a nice person but someone we would prefer avoiding if possible. Hold a light pair of dumbbells for added challenge when you’re ready for it.
Lunges are an excellent way to stretch and strengthen the legs.
Step forward with your working leg. Keeping the front foot flat and the back foot on the tip-toe, move your body down and forward until you’re in a good stretched position. Then return to the top and switch legs.
Just like the step-ups, if you want an extra challenge, hold a pair of dumbbells.
3. Unilateral Hamstring Curls
Finally we have the unilateral hamstring curl. The hamstrings are an interesting muscle for many reasons (another article) and are trained a bit differently than most muscles in the body.
Because of this, this muscle group stands above most others to benefit from unilateral work. Lay or stand at your hamstring curl device (depending on the model your gym has) and simply do the movement using only one leg at a time, slowly lowering the weight under control.
If you’ve not done this before, start lighter than you would anticipate because the exhaustion point for the hamstrings is fairly sudden!
Start Adding Unilateral Exercises And Build A Better Body
Unilateral exercises are hard, no question, but they are a fantastic supplement to a sound training protocol filled with multi-joint movements and progressive overload.
Now that you’re equipped with a little more training knowledge, you can adjust your programming and some unilateral movements so that you continue to train safely, see progress and hit some more goals!
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