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Unilateral Training

Many times, when we go into a gym, we think of size and strength before anything else. Even the people that say they are not worried about getting big, somewhere would still like to have bigger muscles somewhere on their bodies. When we focus on building bigger muscles a lot of the times other points of emphasis start to get diminished, such as balance. Balance along with strength leads to better overall performance and function. Also from an aesthetic standpoint, muscular balance is important as well.

So, when looking at bigger muscles, strength, and balance, what works?


A certain demographic of gym goers stick with unilateral training, but what is it?


It is more common than you think in gyms, but also can be over emphasized. Unilateral training is when an individual trains a superior or inferior limb (arm or leg) as opposed to using both limbs for a movement. An example would be using a barbell for bicep curls instead of dumbbells. When using a barbell, both arms are engaged simultaneously during the reps and in some cases one arm can slightly assist the other during a rep. This at times can lead to muscular imbalances if the form is not correct, especially if too much weight is being used. When using a dumbbell each limb is responsible for its own workload and leads to more muscle fibers being activated (in theory).


Many fitness professionals suggest that for each body part trained, a unilateral movement should be included. So, if a person loves to bench press, a person should also implement dumbbell flies. For legs, a lot of people enjoy doing lunges as a unilateral movement to compliment the much bigger movements such as squats or leg presses.

But can unilateral movements be used incorrectly?


This is more so a matter of opinion than fact, but one has to look at the purpose in which a person performs a unilateral movement. Let us take a look at an example of when a unilateral movement might be taken a little too far when training the superior (upper) part of the body.


We talked about using barbells as opposed to dumbbells. Let us take a look at a military shoulder press and dumbbell shoulder press. Both of course work the delts (shoulders). Dumbbells would provide the unilateral motion for this because each arm would be responsible for the weight it is pressing. But what some people may think to do is do one arm at a time with their presses in each set. So the person would do a set of 12 reps with the right arm, and then a set of 12 reps with the left arm. Maybe because they want to use a different weight because they notice one side is underdeveloped compared to the other.


Is this bad? No.


What it is bad though is if the person tries to lift too much weight, it does put an unbalanced amount of strain and pressure throughout the neck and back and cause injury. Even when thinking about dumbbell curls, some folks will train one arm at a time, many times using different weight. This results in a lean to one side for too long throughout the set and can cause back issues. Now many folks have had to resort to doing this form of unilateral training for rehabilitation situations, but usually the weight is light and only used to provide a small amount of resistance in motion to get the muscle strong again. Sometimes we tend to think too logical when it comes to training.


The suggestion would be when doing any form of unilateral training, to stay effective keep the weight the same all the way around and keep the body as in balance as possible throughout the set. Sometimes if we focus too hard on being balanced by doing things in a goofy manner, we can end up becoming the very thing we are trying to avoid: unbalanced. Remember, it is very hard to train anything on your body when you are hurt and not able to do anything.


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