Why Unilateral Training May Be Your Missing Link

by Dec 5, 2016Strength and Conditioning

Why on earth would you lift less on a unilateral exercise when you could lift more on a bilateral exercise?! Well, there’s a few reasons…

But first, what does unilateral even mean? We’re talking about single limb movement patterns like walking lunges, single arm presses/pulls and suitcase carries. Bilateral exercises are movements with both limbs involved, e.g. barbell squat, dumbbell incline press, overhead press etc..

I’m a firm believer that at least at some point in your training programme you should be doing some unilateral work. I’d actually go as far to say that you could be doing some unilateral work every training session as part of your movement preparation with crawls, lunges and carries.

So here’s 5 reasons why you could be lifting less and getting more:

Highlight imbalances. Chances are if you’re a human being your not going to be perfectly balanced from right to left. Unilateral exercises are a brilliant way to highlight if you’ve got one side stronger than the other. What you can also find is how one side moves compared to the other. For example if you feel sore the day after bench press but its your right pec and left shoulder that feel sore. Using a one arm dumbbell press allows you to see and feel how each side is moving as well as assess any muscular imbalances. The same goes for lower body. Lets say you feel sore in your right but not left glute the day after squatting. After performing some Bulgarian split squats you find your left knee is all over the place. Drop the weight spend time on each side.

Cross body stabilisation. The forces that you’ll experience with single side exercises can introduce a greater core component into training by increasing the demand for cross body stabilisation. If you’re in need of some extra core training, swap out your accessories for single side variations for a few weeks and see what kind of difference it makes.

Joint stability. For those with instability at certain joints, unilateral exercises could be a great addition to your training in recruiting more of the smaller stabilising muscles around the joint you perhaps would not use in a bilateral exercise. This is because firstly you have to use less weight and therefore reduce the chance of muscular imbalances baring their teeth. Secondly, the forces at the joint are slightly different. Think about how many ways a dumbbell can sway when compared to a barbell when its held directly above your chest. A great example is the bottom up KB press for shoulder stability.

Injury minimisation for Sport. If you are into any sport which involves repetitive movements, unilateral training could help improve movement quality and in turn performance. Further, if you are experiencing mobility issues, these movements can be a good substitute while you work on larger movements. Think about how many times your knee would bend during a rugby match. What is going to happen if every time you bend your left knee it drops into valgus (in towards your other knee) over 80 minutes? Likely, you’ll run into problems at some point even if its not right now. Get strong unilaterally and you could well be reducing injury risk.

Grit. Plain and simple…unilateral exercises are HARD. This isn’t a walk in the park, so get ready to dig in deep and grit your teeth. Bulgarian split squats are my personal favourite for this. There’s no escape and they are fantastic for both quad and glute development.

Just like any other training method, unilateral training shouldn’t be seen as a ‘cure all’ magic pill. Understand the benefits and apply as necessary, even if its simply in your warmup drills.

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