When it comes to resistance training, most movements fall into two categories - unilateral or bilateral exercises. Unilateral training involves performing an exercise on one side of the body & or using one limb or leg. Most are accustomed to performing bilateral exercises, but many are unaware of the amazing advantages of unilateral training.
Why Is It Important?
Many training programs typically involve an abundance of bilateral movements, with a lack of attention on unilateral movements. Understanding the benefits & advantages of unilateral movements can help one program accordingly to push through training plateaus, enhance physique & performance, & correct muscular imbalances & asymmetries.
What Are The Advantages Of Unilateral Training?
Improve Balance, Core Stability, & Coordination - During lower body unilateral movements, the need for one leg to support a movement is required. This enhances balance by improving core stability, coordination, & proprioception. The same goes for upper body unilateral movements as the core must work hard to keep the torso from unnecessary rotation during a push or pull.
Correct Muscular Imbalances - People are riddled with muscular imbalances due to the nature of our lives. A large majority of us favor one side of our body, even if we aren’t aware of it. For example, during a bilateral barbell back squat, many may unknowingly rely on a stronger limb to help compensate for a weaker limb to finish a tough rep. Or, many may unknowingly use the same leg every time that they stand from a seated position. Over time this creates & perpetuates existing muscular imbalances. Unilateral training is a great way to correct imbalances by forcing you to train both sides in isolation. When you train unilaterally, you can no longer rely on your stronger side to make up for your lack of strength on your weaker side.
Enhance Athletic Performance - Sports are played on one leg! Any sport that involves running will require most actions to be performed on one leg. A basketball player performing a layup & a soccer player making a sudden cut to change directions are all movements that require one leg. If our goal is to make training specific for athletes to enhance performance, it makes great sense to train unilaterally to meet the demands the athlete will be asked to execute on the field or court.
Cross-Education Effect - Via the phenomenon known as cross-education, unilateral exercises actually strengthen the side of the body being used & the “unused” side! This means that by training one limb you can yield strength gains in the contralateral (opposite) limb. A recent meta analysis is the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that cross education in unilateral exercises produces, on average, 11.9% increase in contralateral strength (1).
Examples Of Unilateral Exercises
Squat - RFESS Split Squat, Single Leg Goblet Box Squat
Hinge - Single Leg RDL
Lunge - Forward Lunge, Backwards Lunge
Push - Single Arm DB Press, Single Arm DB OVHD Press
Pull - Single Arm Band Pull, Single Arm Lat Pull Down
Carry - Suitcase Carry
Plyometrics - Single Leg Slalom Hops, Sprinter Jumps, Single Leg Box Jump
Plyometrics are useful for both youth & adult populations - not just athletes! When performed correctly, plyometrics build power, which is correlated to increase strength, improved body composition, & longevity.