The most underrated strength & “corrective” exercises – Unilateral Training
Have you been searching for an exercise to help shore up weak links?
Were you told that you have an asymmetry that needs to be addressed?
Or are you just looking for an exercise that you can train hard, build muscle, and get stronger with?
Well look no further, unilateral training is probably the answer!
If you’re like most people reading this blog, you enjoy training. You probably specifically enjoy training hard, feeling good, and making progress in the gym that transfers to your entire life.
That’s one of the main premises behind Citizen Athletics programming – building up people to be resilient, adaptable, and functional.
In doing so, we often find ourselves deferring to unilateral training options to help with maximizing strength, power, endurance, and just ensuring we hit everything appropriately.
Today we want to highlight some of the things we love about unilateral training.
To start off, for those who don’t totally know the difference, let’s just clarify.
Unilateral means one sided and unilateral training typically means focused training on one limb at a time.
This could be something like a standing 1 arm strict press, working one shoulder primarily at a time, or this could be a split squat where you are doing a semi unilateral movement where both limbs are contributing, but one is being focused on.
In contrast, bilateral lifts, like the big three (squat, bench, deadlift) are meant to use both limbs equally.
Now let’s get into why we love them!
Works more of the body at once
If you perform the traditional barbell bench press, you’ll have both hands on the bar and be able to focus on your chest, triceps, and shoulders.
In contrast, if you perform a one arm DB bench press, you’ll be challenging these same muscles*, but also working your trunk and hip muscles more as you have to resist rotation from the one sided force.
This is a great option for most people who are looking to work more of their body at one time, build more trunk strength, or are on limited time schedules to train.
*If your trunk isn’t able to control the weight well, you could underload some of the pressing muscles, but this is something that typically is only relevant for those who are highly competitive in these different bilateral lifts like powerlifters or weightlifters.
Less technically demanding
This one obviously depends on what movements we are comparing, but as a general, unilateral movements are less technical than bilateral movements.
When we perform most bilateral movements, there are various constraints in the task that limit us from moving in certain ways.
For instance, if you’re performing a barbell bent over row, you can’t rotate your hands as you go down or up and have to stick to fixed hand rotation.
In contrast, since unilateral movements don’t have this issue, we can often maneuver to a higher degree different adjustments to make these movements more comfortable, utilizing the greater degrees of freedom, and train them without as much technical demand.
Obviously this depends on what someone considers athletic. If you’re a powerlifter, then the most athletic thing you can do is bilateral squats, bench and deads.
For the vast majority of people though, athleticism is going to be things like sprinting, cutting, or throwing.
Generally these kinds of movements occur on one leg/arm, or preferencing one arm/leg to a higher degree.
They’re so great for this that we actually included them in our recommended ways to stay athletic.
Less back limited
If you’re like most people, your goal with training is some derivative of feeling good, moving well, and some increase in aesthetics.
That goal really puts more of an emphasis on limbs, hips, and shoulders, and less on your lower back muscles.
However, most of the bilateral training we do is limited by what your back can handle – especially if you’re performing a lot of bilateral training.
Let’s say you’re squatting and doing bent over rows one day, deadlifts the next, front squatting and pull ups the last, these all use your lower back muscles and could over load how much they can tolerate – limiting how much you can load your other muscles like lats, quads, and hamstrings.
In contrast, if you perform a lot of unilateral movements, this doesn’t typically emerge as an issue and instead people are more limited from either general physical preparedness (getting tired) or from their target muscles being worked.
This is going to be variable from person to person and experience level with these different movements, but it’s a valuable consideration.
Targets side to side asymmetries naturally
For those who come from a heavy background in strength training, the bulk of resistance training traditionally is often in bilateral lifts – squats, deadlifts, bench press, bent over rows, etc.
When we do those, it’s common to have either a drastic, or subtle, shift to one side, essentially loading one side to a greater degree.
This could build asymmetries, or actually feed a current asymmetry to be more distinct.
We will be the first to admit that our current body of research doesn’t support that having an asymmetry is a big deal, or inherently makes you more at risk for pain or most injuries. It is possible that having a big asymmetry, or regularly loading one side to a greater degree, is a factor in someone’s pain experience, or it could also be something that is a risk factor for some injuries.
As well, if someone has injured one of their limbs, they may naturally avoid loading that side in bilateral lifts.
We see this in those who have had ACL injuries, those who have had rotator cuff or labrum injuries, and many other ones that affect one side of the body.
If our goal is to train our body maximally, it can be beneficial to shore up these deficits and improve the strength discrepancy side to side.
Unilateral lifts can be a phenomenal way to do that.
Someone who had injured their ACL years ago may avoid loading one side during a back squat, but during a split squat doesn’t have as much of an option to compensate away from each side individually.
They just hit a lot of stuff we often neglect with bilateral training
The majority of bilateral training occurs in what’s called the sagittal plane – up and down, forward and back. There is relatively little demand on resisting or creating motion related to rotation or side bending due to the symmetrical nature of the loading.
Given this, muscles like our obliques, glute medius, etc. don’t necessarily get trained to a high degree. Muscles like our quads which thrive off sagittal based motion get worked very effectively, and can become very strong and developed from squats and deadlifts. In contrast, since a muscle like your glute medius doesn’t have a primary function that is sagittal in nature, it will be under trained with primarily sagittal movements. Don’t take it the wrong way, they still get worked, but not fully.
Whereas when we do unilateral movements, these different muscles and motions do get trained – at least to a greater degree. When we are on one foot, using one arm, or any other derivative of such, we have to resist our shoulders and pelvis moving and rotating around the axis points. This helps to check off these other things that would possibly otherwise get neglected.
Suffice to say, we like unilateral training.
This isn’t an article trying to tell you not to do bilateral training – we love squats, deadlifts, presses and all the other options. However, there are many ways to get strong, muscular, and these other options can be valuable to include at times.