Unilateral training is an underemphasized component of most training programs and workout regimens. Today, we’re going to show you exactly why you should be incorporating more unilateral work into your weekly workouts, but first, let’s explain what unilateral training is...
What is Unilateral Training?
Simply put, unilateral training is training one side of your body at a time. Bilateral training is training both sides of your body at the same time.
Examples of unilateral training are:
- Single-arm overhead press
- 1-arm dumbbell row
- Bulgarian split squat
- 1-legged Romanian deadlift
Examples of bilateral training are
- Barbell squat
- Military press
- Bench press
- Barbell Row
- Barbell deadlift
Eight Great Benefits of Unilateral Training
As Effective As Bilateral Training
How many times have you heard you “have” to barbell squat and/or bench press in order to build muscle and strength?
Probably too many times to remember.
Well, it just so happens that you can build as much muscle and strength training unilaterally as you can bilaterally.
In fact, a study using trained athletes found that after 5 weeks of training, unilateral training led to similar improvements in strength, sprint speed, and change of direction speed compared to bilateral training.
Reduce Muscle Imbalances
We all have one side of our body that is stronger than the other. Hence why it’s called the “dominant” side.
This exists in resistance training, too, but you might not notice it until it’s too late.
You see, whenever we perform a bilateral exercise, such as a squat, overhead press, etc., one side (the stronger side) will take on just a bit more of the load. Over time, an imbalance will develop between the two sides of your body which can result in injury.
Unilateral training helps to improve the strength of your weaker side so there is not as much of a strength or size discrepancy between the two, which has the added benefit of reducing the probability of injury due to imbalances.
With the exception of powerlifting and Olympic lifting, just about every other athletic movement humans do is performed unilaterally. Running, throwing a ball, jumping to catch a fly ball, and changing directions are all performed using one side of the body.
Typical “bread and butter” exercises like the squat and deadlift are performed in the sagittal plane. When you perform all of your lifts in only one plane of movement, it can lead to an athlete becoming stiff and rigid. Plus, limiting yourself to one plane of motion also limits your range of motion and can lead to muscle imbalances.
In order to perform at their best, athletes need to be able to execute across all three planes of motion -- sagittal, transverse, and frontal. Unilateral training enables you to move freely in multiple planes, postures, and positions, all the while strengthening your muscles in those planes, which ultimately makes you a better athlete.
Helps Injury-Proof the Body
Injuries often result from overuse -- performing the same movement patterns over and over and over again. Eventually, these structures wear down from the constant beating they take always moving and working in the same manner.
Unilateral training offers athletes the ability to inject some novelty into their training and work their muscles and joints from different angles, which helps reduce excessive wear and tear (and thereby overuse) while strengthening the muscles to improve symmetry and eliminate weaknesses.
Whether it be nagging shoulders or cranky knees, many lifters experience pain and/or discomfort when performing the traditional barbell lifts. Unilateral training requires lighter loading (since you’re only training one limb at a time), yet allows you to really tax the muscle without subjecting your joints (or spine) to excessive loads.
Increased Core Activation
Increased core activation is another benefit that unilateral training has to offer. By training one side of the body at a time, we challenge stabilizing muscles in the core to keep us upright while pushing a heavy load with only one side of the body.
In fact, some research suggests that single arm shoulder presses may lead to greater muscle activation and core stabilization than its bilateral counterpart, highlighting the added value unilateral training can bring to athletes looking to improve performance, strength, and power.
Less Taxing on the Nervous System
Anyone who’s ever gone for a PR on squats or deadlifts knows just how “wiped out” you feel following a heavy workout. Unilateral training requires lighter loads to be used which helps not only spare your spine and joints unnecessary burden but also your nervous system as well while not sacrificing the quality of workout that your muscles get.
What this means is that you’ll have an easier time recovering from your workouts which will enable you to train more frequently, ultimately making better progress with your training program.
Work Around Injuries
Let’s say that you strained your left knee playing a game of pick up basketball. If you only performed bilateral exercises, this would mean that you could not train your lower body until your knee strain had healed.
However, unilateral training allows you to train the healthy side of your body while the other side rehabs.
The added benefit of this is that while you may only be working one side of the body, the injured side will still see improvements thanks to something called the Contralateral Training Effect.
The Contralateral Training Effect states that exercises performed to increase muscle size and strength on one side of the body can actually help the other (contralateral) side of the body as well. While the effect isn’t as effective as if you were actually able to train the injured side, it will help maintain strength in the rehabbing limb, enabling you to get back to peak performance that much sooner after your injury.
Unilateral training is often cast aside as “easy” or “fluff” training by ardent advocates of traditional barbell training who believe that the only way to build muscle is to perform the “big 3” lifts.
But, unilateral training can be just as effective as bilateral training and it may also help you avoid injury and muscle imbalances in the process. Besides, who said, we have to train exclusively using just bilateral or unilateral exercises?
The best training programs are those that include a variety of exercises to help target the muscles from all angles and include both unilateral and bilateral movements.
- Speirs, DE, Bennett, M, Finn, CV & Turner, A 2016, 'Unilateral vs. bilateral squat training for strength, sprints and agility in academy rugby players' Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol 30, no. 2, pp. 386-392., 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001096
- Behm, D. G., Leonard, A. M., Young, W. B., Bonsey, W. A. C., & MacKinnon, S. N. (2005). Trunk muscle electromyographic activity with unstable and unilateral exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(1), 193–201. https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4287(2005)19<193:TMEAWU>2.0.CO;2
- Carroll, T. J., Herbert, R. D., Munn, J., Lee, M., & Gandevia, S. C. (2006). Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 101(5), 1514–1522. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00531.2006