Lifters and gym-goers often focus on one main thing when embarking on a new training program – getting stronger and building muscle. There's obviously nothing wrong with this. Anyone strength training has certain goals they want to accomplish, but heavy lifting to build strength and muscle shouldn't be your only priority. Optimizing your training performance should be a top priority, along with decreasing the risk of injury. One way to optimize your performance and get better strength and muscle-building results are by implementing unilateral movements in your training program.
Unilateral movements are exactly what they sound like, they are exercises that involve using a single limb or one side of your body. This method of training is often overlooked and underrated, and although bilateral training has its advantages, you don't want to leave unilateral training behind! There are so many amazing benefits that come with unilateral training, and we don't want you to miss out on any! So, we're going to give you all the details on why this style of training is effective, and how to start implementing it into your strength training routine.
Why unilateral training is important
When it comes to unilateral vs bilateral training, most prioritize bilateral exercises. Bilateral movements, opposed to unilateral, involve working out both sides of your body at the same time. Lifters prefer this style of training because it allows you to lift heavier which in turn promotes better muscle growth and maximizes strength-building. Performing unilateral exercises forces you to only use one side of your body, and if you've ever done single-arm or single-leg exercises then you already know that you aren't able to lift as heavy as you would if you were using both sides. Although that's the case, unilateral exercises are actually great for building muscle on top of another whole range of benefits!
So, what are the benefits of unilateral training? Here are four benefits that will show you exactly why this form of training is important...
Helps correct muscle imbalances
Most people naturally use one side of their body more often than the other which results in having a dominant side and a weaker side. Think about it... Your first step up the stairs is with your right or left leg, you write with either your right arm or left arm. Whichever you use more often is going to be more dominant. Imbalances in the body are bound to happen, but asymmetry isn't ideal, and you should strive to train to fix them to make sure that the muscle tissue is as evenly strong and mobile as possible. Neglecting to fix them can cause the stronger side to overcompensate when you're performing heavy bilateral exercises like deadlifts, back squats, and bench presses. This means that the weaker side is going to result in less strength and muscle growth and it's hard to catch up without isolating it to train it. Another reason why unilateral training is important to fix imbalances is because it can result in different muscles being recruited to help complete an exercise when the weaker side isn't doing the work it should be. For example, a bench press primarily works the chest and triceps and uses the shoulders and back as secondary muscles. If one side of your body is lagging during the end of the movement, then the secondary muscles (in this case, the shoulders or back) will be recruited to help complete the rep. It may not sound so bad, but this can actually lead to unintentionally overusing a particular muscle group which can result in an unwanted overuse injury!
As you can see, muscle imbalances are not something you want and one of the reasons why you should make an effort to build unilateral strength. Incorporating unilateral exercises into your routine will allow you to train away asymmetries that are holding you back from better gains and increasing your risk of injury.
Builds functional strength
Day-to-day activities rarely require your entire body. For example, walking, running, carrying groceries, kicking a ball around, etc, all involve using one side of your body. So, when you focus on building unilateral strength, you're also building functional strength at the same time, which will translate into your everyday life!
Improves balance and core strength
Your core supports your entire body, so having a strong core is important for everyday life, but also to help you lift heavier. According to a study in the European Journal of Applied physiology, unilateral exercises are better at activating the muscles of the core than bilateral exercises.  Single-leg exercises recruit hip stabilizers and the core to help improve balance, while single-arm exercises engage the core to prevent the trunk from rotating during push and pull exercises.
When you develop core muscles and build more strength, along the way, you'll be developing better balance and stability, protecting your spine, and building better functional strength.
Assists in rehabilitation
Aside from helping reduce the risk of injury, unilateral training is also more effective for rehabilitation than bilateral training. How? It's all thanks to something called cross-education! Cross education of the muscles is a neural event that involves indirect stimulation of the non-working side of the body while working the opposite side via unilateral exercises. Training one side of the body helps to stimulate the other side which helps improve strength in the injured area. For example, doing a single-leg extension with your left leg will stimulate the right quadricep, but not the hamstrings! It sounds like magic, but it's seriously true. So, if you're rehabilitating from an injury and are taking a different, lighter approach in your training then consider doing unilateral training to help you maintain as much strength and muscle as possible.
How to incorporate it into your workout routine
Throwing in a few upper body and lower body unilateral exercises into your workout without much thought isn't the best way to reap all the wonderful benefits mentioned above. Remember, random training, whether it’s bilateral or unilateral, won't give you the best results!
To help ensure that you're incorporating unilateral exercises into your training as effectively as possible then consider following the following tips:
- Start your sets with the weaker side: One of the main reasons for unilateral training is to fix muscle imbalances. So, you want your weaker side to catch up to the stronger one. To ensure that you're bringing the weaker side up to meet the stronger side, work that side to fatigue first! Then do the same number of reps on the stronger side. This will allow you to strengthen both sides equally that way the weaker side is no longer playing catch up.
- Considering doing unilateral exercises before bilateral ones: Everyone says to start with your heavy sets first, which are usually bilateral compound lifts. This is good advice, but there's nothing wrong with doing it the other way around. If you really want to focus more on fixing muscle imbalances, then consider starting with unilateral exercises! It will help to activate the muscles that are normally not working to their full potential during heavy bilateral lifts. You may run the risk of fatiguing your muscles before your big lift, but there's a high chance that you'll be able to lift more because the muscles are firing better in unison.
- Pause before switching sets: Train each side as an individual set by pausing for a short rest period in between each group of reps. It might be easier with a lighter weight, but if you're lifting a challenging weight then take a little break before switching to the other side. Doing this will help ensure that your form doesn't break down before the end of your set. Take a 15 second rest period between sides, but if you're going heavy and feel fatigued then rest for a period of up to a minute.
- Don't start heavy: Since you're only using one side of the body, you probably won't be able to lift as heavy as you normally would. This means you should avoid starting heavy! You may be able to squat 100+, but lunges and split squats may be a different story... So, start light. Going too heavy too soon will make it harder for you to balance which can result in an injury.
Best unilateral exercises
Now that you know how to implement unilateral training into your routine, let's talk exercises! Lunges, split squats, and Bulgarian split squats aren't the only unilateral exercises in the world. Are they great? Of course, but they are actually still using both legs. One leg may dominate a little more than the other, but it doesn't place full focus on one particular side. Still include those three in your exercise library, but prioritize these to fully reap the training benefits:
- Single-leg deadlift – Grab a dumbbell with an overhand grip in your right hand and let it hang at arm’s length in front of your thigh. Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor behind you. This is the starting position. Keeping your lower back arched naturally, hinge at your hips, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let your left leg stretch out behind you with your toes pointed down to the floor the entire time. The weight should travel straight down toward the floor in your right hand. Hold your left arm out to the side for balance. Return to the starting position without letting the toes of your left foot touch the floor.
- Pistol squats (single-leg squats) – Stand with feet placed around shoulder-width apart. Extend one leg in front of you, and stand upright with your chest and head high, and shoulders pulled back and down. Engage your core, and with a slight bend on your knee, begin to hinge forward at the hips to lower into a squat maintaining your back straight and torso upright. Try to go as deep into a squat as possible, the aim is to move through the full range of motion, but you should work your way up to that. Keep your muscles tight and engaged as push through your heels to stand back up to the starting position.
- Step-ups – Stand 6 inches in front of a bench, or raised platform. Step onto the bench with your right leg, while making sure your foot is flat against the bench. Lean forward slightly and push yourself upwards through the heel of your right foot, so your left leg can come up to the bench. Step down maintaining the right leg under control.
- Single-leg glute bridge: Lie on the floor or a mat. Place one leg straight and bend the other leg with foot flat on the floor or mat. Place dumbbell on your stomach (low). Raise your body by extending the hip of your bent leg, keeping your extended leg and hip straight. Return to the original position by lowering your body with an extended leg and hip straight.
- Single-arm shoulder press – Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold position. Now lift your left arm, so that it is making a 90 degree angle with your elbows. Engage your core, and maintain upright as you move your left arm up; stretch, press, hold and then back to the 90 degree angle.
- Single-arm chest press – Lie flat on a bench holding a dumbbell with your left hand. Engage your core as you turn your left arm out with the dumbbell, similarly to a chest press position. Push the dumbbell above you keeping it in line with your chest and a slight bend in the elbow. Slowely lower back to the starting position.
- Single-arm dumbbell row – Kneel over side of bench by placing knee and hand of supporting arm on bench. Position foot of opposite leg slightly back to the side. Grasp dumbbell from floor. Pull the dumbbell up to the side until it makes contact with ribs or until the upper arm is just beyond horizontal. Return until arm is extended, and the shoulder is stretched downward. Repeat for the amount of reps appropraite for you and continue with the opposite arm.
- Leaning lateral raises – Standing next to a squat rack (or somewhere that supports your weight), hold a dumbbell in hand farthest away from the rack, your arm at your side, and your palm facing towards you. Grab the rack with your free hand for support. Raise the dumbbell up to the side at shoulder height. Pause, then lower the weight to return to the starting position.
Now you have all the tools to help you get started with unilateral training in a way that will help you fix muscle imbalances, build better functional strength, and overall strength! And if you need further help or just want someone to plan your workouts, check out the Fit With Iulia app! Get goal-focused workouts planned for you every week by Iulia herself! On top of macro tracking, progressive overload tracking, Summer challenges, and so much more.
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