You may not consider your typical everyday activities as a type of exercise, but every time you stoop and lower to tie your shoelaces, push a shopping cart down the aisles of the grocery store, or rise from the couch, you are engaging in bilateral movements.
Bilateral training is an exercise method that involves working both limbs or sides of the body simultaneously to generate more power and strength in the movement. And chances are, bilateral exercises are already incorporated into your regular workout routine.
“Many popular exercises, like squats, deadlifts, and push-ups, are examples of bilateral exercises,” explains Matt Scarfo, a certified personal trainer and resident expert in training and nutrition at Lift Vault. When both limbs or sides of the body are activated, you can find stability and grounding to fully immerse yourself in the movement and generate power. “For instance, squatting or doing a burpee bilaterally is easy, whereas a unilateral burpee requires you to develop balance and stagger your stance so that one leg or arm is worked independently,” he adds.
Are you ready to learn about bilateral training and how it can help you build strength, exert more force in bilateral movements, and reduce the risk of injury and strain? Here is your comprehensive guide to bilateral training.
What is Bilateral Training?
Bilateral training and exercise involve simultaneously utilizing both limbs or sides of the body to contract and strengthen muscles. “This creates force and subsequently moves a given load,” explains Leada Malek, a board-certified sports physical therapist, and personal trainer. While bilateral exercises can target any part of the body, many focus on the lower body to work the larger muscle groups.
“For example, bilateral arm training would involve using both arms to complete the movement, rather than just one,” says Malek. Similarly, squats, snatches, and deadlifts also engage both limbs simultaneously. This is what distinguishes bilateral training from unilateral training, where you use only one limb or side of the body to perform the movement and work each limb or side independently. For example, an overhead shoulder press using only your right arm would be a unilateral movement, while a barbell chest press would be a bilateral training exercise.
Bilateral training requires less stabilization compared to unilateral training, as unilateral exercises focus on isolated and individualized work on each side of the body. Because they require less balance and asymmetrical muscle control, bilateral exercises are particularly beneficial for beginners who need more support, stability, and simplicity. However, bilateral training can also benefit advanced athletes by adding the challenge of increased resistance or training volume.
The Benefits of Bilateral Training
“Bilateral training can enhance strength, hypertrophy, and power, and it can also maintain strength in both upper and lower limbs, which is especially helpful for completing daily tasks that require the use of both sides of the body,” explains Malek. Think of activities like carrying grocery bags, picking something up from the floor, or reaching overhead to store your slow cooker on a high shelf.
Furthermore, bilateral movements can be advantageous for beginners who are just starting to get comfortable with weight training, as they allow you to adapt to using both sides of your body to generate force.
Here are three primary advantages of incorporating bilateral training in your exercise routines.
Enhance Strength and Power
Boosting muscle strength in major muscle groups is an efficient way to maintain agility and mobility while establishing a strong foundation for performing other types of movements. “[Bilateral training] can also be beneficial from a neurological standpoint, especially when acquiring a new exercise, as it allows the body to execute the movement with both sides of the body,” states Malek.
Furthermore, utilizing both sides of your body enables you to handle heavier loads. The end outcome? You will rapidly achieve strength and power. “Bilateral training provides a means of enhancing power since you have two limbs working together to move the load,” explains Malek. “Bilateral training truly allows you to focus on maximizing your strength, as you can lift more weight with a bilateral deadlift compared to a single-leg deadlift, and squat with greater weight when both feet are on the ground instead of just one,” adds Scarfo.
Research supports this claim: A study published in the Journal of Physics: Conference Series discovered a higher percentage of change and an increase in bilateral strength among participants in the bilateral group compared to both a unilateral training group and a control group. Moreover, bilateral exercises that target the back (such as the barbell back squat) have been shown to build strength and power, and even enhance running speed and jump height, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Decrease Injury Risk and Accelerate Recovery
Maintaining two points of contact with the ground ensures greater safety, allowing you to engage in more frequent workouts and prevent accidents, strains, and injuries. “Bilateral exercises often necessitate less balance than unilateral exercises, enabling you to focus on perfecting your form rather than compromising it or losing balance while supporting your weight,” explains Scarfo. “This advantage is especially significant for individuals who practice jumping or explosive exercises like plyometrics, which carry a higher risk of injury,” he adds.
Bilateral training not only prevents injuries but also promotes a speedier recovery. “After sustaining an injury, bilateral training plays a crucial role in retraining the body and relearning movements in order to regain the same level of strength you are accustomed to,” explains Malek. As bilateral movements provide stability and balance, they serve as a gradual reintroduction to training through basic, simple movements after recovering from an injury. This approach prevents overwhelming or straining the muscles with excessive challenges before the body is adequately prepared to perform safely and with proper form.
Bilateral exercises may also expedite injury recovery by enhancing joint capabilities, such as mobility and strength. In one study, bilateral training involving resistance and plyometric exercises improved recovery by increasing walking speed, bilateral propulsion, hip movement, and joint power in the muscles of the lower body, as stated in an article in Spinal Cord.
Aid In Everyday Movement
Bilateral training can alleviate the burden of routine tasks and daily motion by enhancing mobility, flexibility, and power. “It can also be beneficial in maintaining strength in both limbs (upper or lower extremity), which is especially advantageous as we go about our daily activities using both sides of our body,” Malek explains.
Fundamental daily mobility functions encompass pushing a stroller, rising from bed or getting up after sitting in a chair or car, or exerting force to place your suitcase in an overhead compartment on an airplane — all of which necessitate bilateral training exercises.
“To strengthen your upper body for lifting and carrying heavier weight [in real life], attempt an overhead press with a barbell, which aids in sculpting your shoulders,” Scarfo suggests. “Push-ups are excellent for developing your chest, biceps, and triceps, but they also provide an additional full-body boost by stabilizing your core,” he adds. Interpretation: You won’t need to take breaks every block when transporting your heavy grocery bags from Trader Joe’s back home.
The Finest Bilateral Training Exercises
Squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and calf raises are fundamental exercises that target major muscle groups in the lower body (also known as your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles). “They are wonderful to include if you aim to strengthen your legs or maintain healthy hips and knees,” Malek states. Craving a challenge? You can modify certain variables to intensify bilateral exercises, such as adjusting tempo, exercise volume, sets and reps performed, as well as varying your intensity level, she adds.
Ideally, bilateral training exercises should be incorporated a few times a week as a foundation for muscle building and strength maintenance, according to Malek. “I would argue that everyone can benefit from including some form of all three bilateral exercises [listed below], and you can customize the program as you see fit,” Scarfo adds.
Squats can be executed without weight or with additional weights and specific equipment, such as a kettlebell and a barbell for a goblet squat or back squat, respectively. “Incorporating weights enhances the challenge and enables more efficient and targeted engagement of specific areas of the body,” Malek explains. For instance, a back squat necessitates greater core muscle stabilization to control the weight.
“This movement is a highly functional exercise that we require whenever we rise or sit from a seated position in a chair,” she continues. Squatting also bolsters lower body strength and works those larger muscle groups to aid in functional movements and prevent injury.
“Deadlifts can be performed using dumbbells, barbells, or even resistance bands, and they involve hinging at the hips to support glute and hamstring function for returning the body to an upright position,” Malek elucidates.
Sustaining a healthy and robust deadlift can boost mobility and strength in your posterior chain. “[Deadlifts will] also contribute to developing a more resilient body, particularly in the spine and hips,” she notes.
Double-leg calf raises are an exceptional exercise for fortifying the calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
Building Strength and Stability with Bilateral Training Workouts
In order to propel ourselves forward while walking or running, it’s crucial for the ankle plantar flexors (a group of muscles) to possess sufficient strength,” states Malek. To enhance the challenge, you can introduce additional weight and equipment. Some examples include utilizing a barbell, cable machine, a set of dumbbells, or a kettlebell.
Additionally, there are numerous other bilateral training exercises that can be incorporated into your workout routine to build strength:
The Top Bilateral Training Exercise Recommendations
When seeking a bilateral strength training routine, it is advisable to avoid workouts that feature terms such as “split,” “side,” or “one-legged/single leg” in their titles, as these exercises primarily focus on unilateral training. To enhance your strength and stability using bilateral movements, try the following workouts: