When we train or think of the gym in general we tend to let our mind wander to the big lifts. Barbell squats, deadlift, and of course the trusty bench press may be some of the first things that come to mind. These are the lifts that get the most attention and for good reason. They tend to be the lifts that give us the most bang for our buck.

While these lifts are fantastic and should be a staple in anyone’s program (barring contraindications) it is easy to over-do them. That’s when unilateral training comes in. 

What is unilateral training? 

All unilateral training is referring to is training one side of the body. Classic examples of unilateral training exercises are lunges, 1-arm dumbbell press, 1-arm dumbbell rows, and step-ups. You’re working one side at a higher degree than the opposite side. 

Benefits of unilateral training 

Counteract structural imbalances

  • When we train bilaterally (both sides) all the time we tend to let our dominant side take over. This happens subconsciously due to a number of reasons like poor technique, poor coordination, different limb lengths (although it has to be a significant difference from one side to the other for this to pop up), lack of skill in a movement, and previous injury history. So, when we let our dominant side take the brunt of the trauma we place on it when we’re strength training we’ll see overuse injuries crop up. 
  • In addition, when our weak side gives during a lift we’ll see energy leaks in the kinetic chain arise which ultimately lead to a failed lift. We don’t want to come into the gym and fail on a lift for something that is correctable. 

Rehabilitation

  • Unilateral training has been used in the rehabilitation space for decades. Let me give you an example. Say you separated your shoulder during a really gnarly skiing accident. Something you can do to bring up the injured side is train the opposite side with an exercise like a dumbbell 1-arm bench press. This phenomenon is called cross-education. When one of our limbs is weakened the other can still be trained. This additional training on the healthy side crosses over to the injured side and helps to start to repair tissue as well as excite the neuromuscular system. Keep in mind that you must train the same muscles on the working side as the injured side to see this effect take place. 

Adds A Layer Of Difficulty

  • Unilateral exercises tend to be more difficult than that of its bilateral counterparts. The reason behind this is our bodies are forced to balance one side with limited help from the opposite side. This is great from a proprioceptive (feeling where you are in space) feedback standpoint because it forces the individual to control the movement. 
  • The added variable of controlling the movement places a greater demand on our core (muscles of the trunk) to stabilize ourselves as we move. This makes our utilization of unilateral movement a great option when trying to create systemic gains. 

List of unilateral movements

Unilateral Lower Body Movements Unilateral Upper Body Movements 
  • Lateral Lunge 
  • Split Squat 
  • Rear Foot Elevated (Bulgarian) Split Squat 
  • Forward Lunge 
  • Reverse Lunge 
  • Walking Lunge 
  • 1-Leg Calf Raise 
  • 1-Leg Glute Bridge
  • 1-Leg Hamstring Curl 
  • 1-Arm DB Bench Press 
  • 1-Arm DB Chest Fly 
  • 1-Arm DB Row 
  • 1-Arm Bent Over DB Row 
  • Tall Kneeling/Half Kneeling DB Overhead Press 
  • 1-Arm DB Skull Crushers 
  • 1-Arm Tate Press 
  • 1-Arm DB Bicep Curl 
  • 1-Arm Lateral Raise 

These are some of the thousands of different exercises you can implement into your training whether you go to a full stocked gym or you’re training at home. Imple

ment and master these basic exercises and you’ll be on your way to having a well-rounded physique and training program. 

Happy training!