Login | April 21, 2019

Shake it up with unilateral strength training

Pete’s World

Published: June 4, 2018

I’ve previously talked about shaking up your resistance workouts by manipulating load, volume, sets, reps and frequency, but I haven’t yet discussed the idea of changing the movement aspect with which you apply to your lifting program. The movement aspect? That’s right, and the change in movement aspect I’m taking about here involves diverging away from all those bilateral resistance exercises you’re so used to doing, and replacing some of them with a selection of unilateral exercises.

Bilateral…unilateral…what’s up with all this training terminology? Here’s what I’m talking about. A bilateral exercise involves using both limbs in unison to perform the lift such that the weight is shared equally between both limbs. The back squat, the bench press, and the seated shoulder press are bilateral exercises. 

On the other hand, a unilateral exercise involves just one limb being used to perform the lift. The pistol squat, the single dumbbell chest press, and the standing single dumbbell shoulder press are unilateral exercises.

Now most resistance programs contain a heavy dose of bilateral exercises, this because many sports, competitions, and strength tests focus on bilateral movement patterns. And that’s okay - to a point. You see, after a long stint of nothing but bilateral lifting, your neuromuscular system develops these deeply etched neural pathways that help to make those lifting tasks easier. In physiology speak, that means your body’s adapted to the exercise stresses imposed upon it. This inflection point can lead to a plateau, a place where strength gains are tougher and tougher to come by.

Plateaus can be a signal to hit the body with a new stimulus - like a change in movement aspect. And as I said, one way to change that is to incorporate more unilateral exercises into your exercise routine.

I like using unilateral exercises for a variety of reasons, but here’s my three favorites. First, a unilateral exercise can put one in a more unstable lifting situation because of the unevenness of the exercise. This is important because that requires the recruitment of “un-targeted” muscles to help with stabilization.

Second, unilateral exercises simulate those functional muscle recruitment patterns we utilize in some of life’s most basic activities. Two of the most common unilateral movement patterns we incorporate in everyday life occur when walking and running, where one leg is used independently of the other.

And third, current research is revealing that unilateral exercises are more effective at strengthening core muscles than bilateral exercises. That’s likely because two important processes are occurring within the core musculature during unilateral exercising: more muscle fibers are recruited because of that stabilization process I mentioned, and neuromuscular activation is enhanced (brain to muscle neural connections are improved).

Okay, so those are what I’d consider several of the bigger benefits of unilateral resistance training. But there’s another side to this bilateral vs unilateral discussion. Consider the deficits you can incur from a steady diet of bilateral training. Yup, bilateral training can hide any asymmetries you might have between muscle groups.

One of the best examples of such an asymmetry can usually be observed between right and left biceps muscle groups. It’s not at all unusual for an individual to have one arm’s biceps muscles stronger than the other arm’s.

So if you did nothing but barbell curls, that more dominant arm would always carry more of the load to compensate for the weaker arm…which means the muscle imbalance could continue unnoticed ad infinitum. Only by working the biceps muscles unilaterally would you be able to discover the asymmetry and then address the imbalance.

And such asymmetries are quite common between many of the upper body’s muscle groups, as well as amongst most ALL of the leg’s muscle groups.

With all that being said, here’s a great way to address those muscular asymmetries, as well as reap the benefits of unilateral training. Just make one very simple but very substantial six exercise change-over in your resistance routine: Squat to Single-Leg Squat; Barbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift to Single Dumbbell Single Leg Stiff-Leg Deadlift; Bench Press to One-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press; Seated Low-Cable Row to One-Arm Standing Cable Row; Barbell Shoulder Press to One-Arm Lateral Dumbbell Raise; and Cable Trunk Rotation to Staggered-Stance Single-Arm Trunk Rotation.

It’s really that easy. Incorporating a key selection of unilateral exercises will help you to surmount those strength plateaus and muscular asymmetries.