Anyone who has been bitten by the fitness bug has most likely spent a significant amount of time searching for the “perfect workout routine.” Unfortunately, the ‘Holy Grail’ of workouts doesn’t necessarily exist; however, there are certainly ways to maximize the effects a workout will have on your body. One of my favorite ways to fully reap the benefits of a workout is to incorporate plenty of unilateral exercises throughout my training programs.
What Is Unilateral Training & Its Benefits?
Anytime a single leg or single arm is being worked, it is considered unilateral training. (As opposed to Bilateral Training, which would be any exercise done with two feet or two arms) There are several benefits to performing exercises with this method:
- Multiple Muscles Activated (especially Core!)
- Balance Component
- Metabolic Benefits
- Train Bilateral Deficits
- Less Structural
Greater Muscle Activation
Regardless of whether you break your workouts up by Full Body or Body Part Splits, a general rule of thumb to keep in mind is: the more muscles you activate while performing a movement, the better metabolic effect you’ll experience. Unilateral training does exactly this- you’ll have a primary working muscle group, however, you’ll have accessory muscles firing throughout the entire set.
For example: a Low Split Stance Single Arm Cable Row, is technically primarily a row movement, working your back musculature. In addition to your back though, by holding an isometric low split stance, you’re firing your glutes, quads and hamstrings as well. By not rotating your entire torso and not falling over, you’re also engaging your core. Even if you’re doing a “Chest and Back” split, having a little lower body activation won’t be the end of the world- it’ll supplement your lower body work that much more.
Regardless of whether you’re doing an upper body or lower body unilateral move, the core musculature is always engaged when you’re using a single limb- which is another huge reason why I gravitate towards single arm/single leg movements. For example, when an individual is in a Front Foot Elevated Split Squat position, their ability to not fall over and keep perfect posture throughout the movement, is a prime example of the core muscles firing to maintain erect posture. The same applies to a Swiss Ball Single Arm DB Bench Press– the ability to ensure the body stays in a neutral position, as opposed to rotating with the weight being pressed, is a perfect example of “anti-rotational” ab work (more to come on that in the future). The majority of gym goers have weak core strength. Period. In my experience, one of the best ways to sneak in extra ab work is to indirectly train the core by training unilaterally.
Balance is one of the most overlooked aspects of training, and unfortunately has the most real life translation. Working on balance is usually neglected because it’s boring and people often assume their balance to be much better than it actually is. By performing exercises on one leg though, you are forcing yourself into balance work.
Especially as you get older, your balance naturally deteriorates- according to the World Health Organization, falling leads to an estimated 37 million falls occur per year that require medical attention; and of those, there are 646,000 deaths PER YEAR due to falling. (This astounding statistic is second only to road traffic injuries in leading causes of unintentional injury or death.) Regardless of your age, you must continue to work on your balance; and one of the best ways to do this is by getting on one foot and performing a strength movement! Consistent single leg work, will undoubtedly yield significant improvements in your overall balance with everyday life.
If being on a single leg and performing a strength move is too difficult initially, use modalities such as the TRX to assist the movement. Again, perform single leg assisted moves consistently (2-3x per week) for 4-6 weeks, and begin to use less of the assistance as your balance improves. Over time, you’ll be able to perform body weight and eventually weighted unilateral moves.
Have you ever completed a set of heavy Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats and find yourself gasping for air after both sides are completed? This is the perfect example of the metabolic benefit of unilateral training. As previously stated, anytime you’re on one foot or using one arm, your core musculature is firing to resist falling over- so based on muscle activation just being in a single arm/single leg position already leads to a greater metabolic output. In addition, because you’re training both sides of your body individually, your time under tension is double what it would normally be. Greater time under tension means more calories are burned and these calories will continue burning long after you walk out of the gym.
If you’re looking to improve your aerobic capacity and/or burn fat, perform both arms or legs in immediate succession. Conversely, if you’re working towards a max-strength goal, give yourself a substantial break in between arms or legs (1-3 minutes)- you’ll still reap the metabolic benefits of unilateral training, it’ll just be more in line with your individual goals.
Trains Bilateral Deficits
A “bilateral deficit” is the notion that one side of your body is stronger than the other. Generally speaking, most individuals have a stronger arm and a stronger leg (usually your dominant arm is obviously stronger, but your dominant side leg is typically weaker). Regardless of which side is stronger, if your training includes exclusively bilateral exercises (Back Squats, Conventional Deadlifts, BB Bench Presses) these bilateral deficits are often hidden and neglected; which can very well lead to injuries down the road (especially in athletes, but even in general population clients as well). Unilateral training ultimately is the best method to combat bilateral deficits in the weaker limbs. You can identify and strengthen weaker sides of the body by performing exercises one side at a time. Muscle imbalances start to even out when you spend time working on each side individually…Side note- always do the same weight for the same rep range for both sides- even if it’s moderately easier on your dominant side.
One of the benefits of BB Back Squats is the structural loading through the spine. In order to keep proper posture throughout the range of motion, the deep core muscles need to be activated, otherwise, the individual will collapse forward. However, due to the compression and subsequent pain experienced by some in their Lumbar (L4-L5 usually) during a BB Back Squat, this bilateral exercise may not be right for everyone. Unfortunately when you’ve got this kind of joint pain, individuals typically just write off the exercise and hop on some sort of leg extension machine. If you think squats, deadlifts or presses are not for you due to the negative joint pain you experience, I implore you to try them unilaterally before you stop doing them completely.
By performing these moves unilaterally, the weight is naturally lighter because of it being on one arm or one leg. Therefore, since the weight is less, your joints are undergoing far less impact and compression. Secondly, you’re able to pay closer attention to your foot positioning, hand positioning and knee tracking while performing your movements. Adjustments of each of those positions may lead to pain free movement. (For example, some with bad shoulders think they cannot bench press, because the Barbell impinges their shoulders- which is probably very true. But, rather than write off the horizontal press as a whole, you should try a Single Arm Neutral Grip DB Bench Press where there is the potential for far less shoulder pain). The benefits you’d get out of unilateral training are leaps and bounds more than isolating yourself to machine work exclusively.
Examples of Unilateral Exercises
Front Foot Elevated Split Lunge
Single Arm Single Leg KB RDL
Swiss Ball Single Arm DB Chest Press
Low Split Stance Single Arm Cable Row
Half Kneeling Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Split Stance Palloff Press
Split Stance MB T-Spine Slam
Formula to Incorporate Unilateral Work
Despite all the benefits of unilateral exercises, I feel that you shouldn’t avoid bilateral exercises completely (as long as they don’t cause you negative joint pain). In a perfect world, a workout would start with big compound moves (BB Squat, Conventional Deadlift, BB Bench Press, BB Row, Chin Up etc.) then as the workout progresses, the unilateral work begins to be incorporated. The main thought process behind this is: you want to be your freshest when you’re lifting your heaviest weight. Theoretically, you should always be moving more total weight when you’re using two legs or two arms. Therefore, bilateral moves should certainly come first. This will ensure that you get the most out of your compound move and keep you injury free. When you start performing heavier compound moves in a fatigued state, you’re asking for injuries in your lower back, knees or shoulders (ask anyone who has done CrossFit at some point). Once the small muscles surrounding those areas are not firing, you’re subjecting yourself to a much higher risk of injury.
By performing the unilateral work later in a workout, you’re also highlighting some of its key benefits. Because you’ll already be slightly fatigued from performing your compound moves, performing extended time under tension work is going to be extremely challenging aerobically (aka you’re going to be sucking wind by the 2nd, 3rd or 4th set). The balance component also sky rockets in difficulty- you’ll find it’s one thing to work on your balance completely fresh, but it’s a whole different ballgame to have good balance while fatigued- it may be frustrating at first, but fight through any lack of balance initially. I PROMISE, balance improves quickly as long as you are consistent. You will reap the rewards with invaluable “everyday life” balance improvements.
Pick a move from the list above and implement it in one of your workouts this week. You’ll be amazed at how much different it’ll feel pressing a single dumbbell instead of two. Or squatting on one leg as opposed to two. As always, I seek exercises that are “bang for your buck” and unilateral work epitomizes this. Within one exercise I can potentially get muscles firing in my lower body, upper body and core; along with a balance component as well! All these awesome benefits happen, while most importantly keeping my joints pain free and healthy. In a fast-moving society, time is precious, so why not maximize the minutes you spend in the gym by doing exercises that kill several birds with one stone? Give it a shot and remember, start slow and progress appropriately!
Yours in Fitness and Health,
Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass.