If you have been doing strength training for a while you might have noticed that you always shift to one side when squatting. Or maybe the bar is always uneven when pressing? This could be due to muscular imbalances – in other words, one side of the body being weaker than the other.
To ensure your body remains even and equally strong on both sides it makes sense to train one limb at time: that means single leg / single arm exercises or “unilateral training”.
Unilateral exercises are recognised as an important part of any strength and training routine. Here are some of the benefits of including single-limb exercises in your programme:
While doing bilateral training your dominant or stronger side is always going to take over your weak side, which in long term could lead to injury. To compensate, always start with your weak side, training it to fatigue, before then repeating the same number of reps on your dominant side. Your stronger side won’t fatigue but you won’t lose any strength neither and in time both sides will even out.
Injury rehab and prevention
Following an injury the injured side becomes weaker than the non-injured side. Unilateral training will help to restore the balance and will decrease your future injury potential.
Reduce your bilateral deficit
It seems logical to assume that the total strength of both legs or arms should be the sum of the individual limbs. However several studies have shown that the total strength of both of your limbs used together is actually less than the strength of each limb worked separately and added together. This is called ‘bilateral deficit’. Working each limb individually through unilateral exercise can reduce this.
Improve core strength and stability
When performing unilateral training it is common to find yourself out of balance. Deep stabilising core muscles need to be recruited to pull you back to centre. Developing these core muscles will help protect your spine and build up functional strength (strength you need to perform your daily activities).
Recruit more muscles
Another bonus brought about by performing unilateral exercises is you don’t just work core muscles, but other muscles too. For example, unilateral leg exercises require that the adductors and abductors (the inner and outer thigh muscles) work in a synchronized manner in order to maintain balance. Those extra stabilisation muscles that are simply not recruited during bilateral training.
Build strength with less stress on the spine
It make sense that unilateral exercises place half of the pressure on the spine than the same version of the bilateral lift. Over time this will cause fewer back problems and injuries.
Build up functional strength
Walking, running, kicking a ball in soccer or tennis, carrying a bag from the supermarket… all of these activities are unilateral exercises. So building up unilateral strength will have a positive knock on effect in our daily activities and sport performance.
Hopefully by now you should be convinced about the need for including unilateral exercises in your programme, but… which exercises and… when? Should you be doing only unilateral? Or should you combine both?
As there is evidence for the effectiveness of both types of training, maybe the best solution is to first think about your individual needs. If you play a sport which is predominantly unilateral (tennis, say) you could prioritise single limb exercises. While if you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter there are benefits to includings more bilateral. If you are just training for general fitness and you notice clear differences in between your sides, definitely include unilateral exercises. I personally recommend to everyone new to exercise that they spend some time doing unilateral training in order to prevent future imbalances, correct deficits and improve muscular recruitment.
When introducing unilateral training it is important to keep a balance between quad dominant (ie thighs) and posterior chain exercises (such as a dead lift) and pulling and pushing patterns. Here is my personal selection of exercises:
Quad dominant/hip flexor
Dumbbells Bulgarian splits
- Hold a pair of dumbbells by your side and start by standing about two to three feet in front of a bench with your back facing it and your feet shoulder width apart.
- Move one foot back so that your toe is resting on the flat bench. Maintain a straight back and as you inhale, slowly lower your leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Lead with the chest and hips, and contract the quadriceps (the thigh muscles).
- Stand up and come back to the starting position as you exhale.
- Switch legs and repeat the movement.
- Stand with your torso upright holding two dumbbells by your sides.
- Step forward with one leg and lower your upper body down, keeping the torso upright and maintaining balance. Inhale as you go down. Do not allow your knee to go forward beyond your toes as you come down, as this will stress the knee joint. Make sure that you keep your front shin perpendicular to the ground.
- Using the heel of your foot, push up and go back to the starting position as you exhale.
- Repeat the movement for the recommended amount of repetitions and change legs.
Hip hinge/posterior chain
Single leg dead lift
- Hold dumbbells in both sides. Stand on one leg.
- Keeping that knee slightly bent, perform a stiff-leg deadlift by bending at the hip, extending your free leg behind you for balance.
- Continue lowering the dumbbells until you are parallel to the ground, and then return to the upright position.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and change legs
Single leg glute bridge
- Lay on the floor with your feet flat and knees bent.
- Raise one leg off of the ground, with your foot pointing to the ceiling. This will be your starting position.
- Execute the movement by driving through the heel, extending your hip upward and raising your glutes off of the ground.
- Extend as far as possible, pause and then return to the starting position.
Pushing and pulling movement
Single arm shoulder press
- Start with one dumbbell at shoulder level with palm of your hand facing forward.
- As you exhale, push the dumbbell up until your arm is fully extended, slowly come down back to the starting position as you inhale.
- Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions and then switch arms.
- This movement can be performed seated or standing. Seated is recommended for people with lower back problems
Single arm bench press
- Lie down on a flat bench with a dumbbell and hold it in front of you at shoulder width.Once at shoulder width, rotate your wrist forward so that the palm of your hand is facing away from you.
- Bring down the weight slowly to your side as you breathe in. Keep full control of the dumbbell at all times.
- As you breathe out, push the dumbbells up using your pectoral muscles.
- Lock your arms in the contracted position, squeeze your chest, hold for a second and then start coming down slowly.
- Switch arms and repeat the movement
Single arm row
- On a flat bench place one leg on top of the bench’s end, bend your torso forward from the waist until your upper body is parallel to the floor, and place same-side hand on the other end of the bench for support.
- Pick up the dumbbell on the floor with your other hand and hold the weight while keeping your lower back straight. The palm of the hand should be facing your torso.
- Pull the resistance straight up to the side of your chest, keeping your upper arm close to your side and keeping the torso stationary.
- Breathe out as you perform this step. Concentrate on squeezing the back muscles once you reach the full contracted position. Also, make sure that the force is performed with the back muscles and not the arms.
- Finally, the upper torso should remain stationary and only the arms should move
In the next episode of Lift Smart and Train Hard: no gym… no problem! Body weight and HIIT routines you can perform at home, at the hotel or at the beach during your holidays.
About the Author
Angela Rey is our Studio Coordinator and a Personal Trainer here in the Club. She started her fitness journey as a Club volunteer, before becoming a member of the Gym team and then progressing to fulfil her current role as Studio Coordinator and Personal Trainer. She is firm believer in hard work and consistency to reach your fitness goals and has an insatiable thirst for learning. She has a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as well as variety of fitness qualifications. On a normal week you will find her teaching everything from HIIT to kettlebells and cycling classes among other things. And when it comes to her own training, she’s often in the weights room, performing circuits or working on her mobility and flexibility. Angela is available for one-to-one PT sessions at YMCA Club. To learn more email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.