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The Importance of Incorporating Unilateral Training in Your Workout Routine

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

What do Bulgarian divided squats, flinging a flying disc, and the solitary-box extension of hopscotch all have in common? They all officially qualify as one-sided training – the underappreciated, highly advantageous style of exercise that involves working one side of your physique at a time.

“One-sided training is one of the most neglected training styles there is, but it’s so crucial,” says Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning coach and founder of Training2xl. “Yes, it can construct a more symmetrical body, but it can also aid in injury prevention, provide you with the additional strength you need to overcome a plateau, and enhance stability and core strength.” Not too bad.

But, what exactly is one-sided training and why is it so darn effective? Here, Luciani and other strength experts share the 411 on one-sided training – including how to incorporate it into your workout regimen.

What Is One-Sided Training?

If you took Latin in high school – or know what a unicycle is – you likely understand that “uni” means one, and therefore can deduce that one-sided training involves utilizing one of something.

“It’s any training that involves isolating and utilizing the muscles on one side of the physique at a time – as opposed to distributing the workout evenly between both sides as you do with traditional, bilateral training,” explains Luciani.

For example, a pistol squat (also known as a one-legged squat) entails keeping one leg raised in the air, then squatting all the way to the floor using the strength of the single, standing leg. That’s a one-sided exercise. On the other hand, the basic air squat or barbell back squat are bilateral movements that work both sides at the same time.

Why One-Sided Training Is So Important

Everyone has a dominant (stronger) and non-dominant (slightly less strong) side of the physique. Think about raising your hand in grade school during roll call; whichever arm you raised is likely your dominant side.

“We are all naturally stronger on one side of our physique than the other,” explains Luciani. For instance, “if you write with your right hand, your left arm is weaker and if you always take your first step upstairs with your right leg, your left leg is weaker.”

These strength imbalances are typically more pronounced in athletes, says Luciani. For instance, if you’re a runner, the leg that you accelerate off of is stronger than the other. If you’re a pitcher or tennis player, the arm you use to pitch or serve is going to be more muscularly developed.

Yes, it happens naturally, but the issue is muscular asymmetry is not ideal. “Right to left, side to side, imbalances in the physique are bound to happen, but you want the muscle tissues on each side of your physique to be evenly strong and mobile,” says Erwin Seguia, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports physical therapy and founder of match fit performance.

And if they’re not? Well, two things can happen. First, the more powerful side can compensate excessively for the other, further widening the disparity in strength between the two sides. Often, during bilateral movements such as the bench press, push press, deadlift, or barbell back squat, the stronger side will do slightly more than fifty percent of the work, explains Allen Conrad, B.S., D.C., C.S.C.S. If you’ve ever squatted heavy and experienced more soreness on one side compared to the other, that’s because that side likely exerted more effort. Essentially, the dominant side compensated for the weaker side. This can hinder the weaker side from catching up in terms of strength.

The second possibility is that instead of the stronger side compensating excessively, different muscles on the weaker side are recruited (that shouldn’t be recruited) to assist in completing the movement. Let’s take a heavy bench press as an example: It mainly targets the chest and triceps, with the shoulders and back serving as secondary muscles. If during the final phase of the movement, one side is lagging behind — even if it’s just by an inch or two — your body may recruit more of your shoulders or back (and possibly even your lower back, yikes) to complete the repetition.

The potential consequences of imbalances are significant, hence the importance of unilateral exercises. “The muscles on the stronger side can be prone to overuse injuries,” says Luciani. “And the joints and muscles on the weaker side of the body become more susceptible to injuries.”

There is another very important benefit of unilateral training: enhanced core strength. “In order to maintain stability while performing these single-limbed movements, your core has to work extra hard,” says Luciani. “Any time you load one side of the body, it will engage and strengthen the core.”

How to Assess Your Muscular Imbalances

To emphasize, nearly everyone has some degree of muscular imbalance due to sports or daily life. If you are genuinely concerned about being uneven, you can always seek guidance from a trainer or physical therapist for an evaluation. Otherwise, here’s a basic method to determine the extent of your imbalances and understand how much you would benefit from unilateral training.

Let’s say you can bench press 100 lbs. You might assume that theoretically, you should be able to press half of that weight with each of your arms individually, but it usually doesn’t work that way, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. “Moving weight on just one side requires a lot from your stabilizing muscles, and it takes more coordination to perform an exercise with one arm at a time, as opposed to both,” says Wickham. “Most people can lift closer to 30 percent of their total weight when performing the single-limbed version of an exercise compared to

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So, how do you examine your muscle imbalances and determine whether you need unilateral exercises? Assess each side separately. Attempt the single-limbed version of the movement, gradually increasing the weight to identify which side is stronger, states Wickham.

Attempt this examination with the single-leg deadlift, as an example:

  • Commence with a bare barbell or relatively light dumbbell and perform three repetitions consecutively, per side.
  • If all repetitions on both sides were executed with proper form, escalate the weight, as advised by Wickham.
  • Then, repeat the process. Continue adding weight until one side is no longer capable of handling additional weight with good form.

Most likely, you will be capable of lifting a heavier weight on one side compared to the other. “If you still have energy remaining on one side and believe you can lift more…refrain from doing so,” mentions Wickham. Instead, once your form begins to deteriorate, cease the exercise and make note of the weight you were able to lift and which side felt the strongest. Do not be surprised if this weight is lower than anticipated. “Single-leg deadlifts are significantly more demanding than deadlifts where both feet are planted on the ground due to the balance required,” explains Wickham. The same can be said for various unilateral exercises such as pistol squats, lunges, and step-ups, among others.

The objective here is not necessarily to achieve a personal record, but to assess whether the strength on each side of your body is equivalent. If you do not regularly engage in weightlifting, you can also test each side of your body with bodyweight movements, monitoring the number of repetitions you can perform on each side. (This will more specifically assess your muscular endurance versus muscular strength.) Remember, the purpose of this examination is to determine how you may benefit from conducting unilateral movements — you do not want to sustain an injury in the process.

How to Integrate Unilateral Training Into Your Workouts

Great news: Incorporating unilateral movement exercises into your routine is not rocket science. Any movement that involves moving only one side of your body at a time qualifies as a unilateral exercise and, when performed with proper form, can help correct these imbalances. Here are some of the top unilateral exercises.

Upper-Body Unilateral Exercises: Seguia suggests the single-arm overhead press, single arm chest press, single-arm row, bottom-up kettlebell press, and single-arm overhead walk.

Lower-Body Unilateral Exercises: In addition to single-leg squats and deadlifts, “any lunge is a great option,” states Seguia. Experiment with walking lunges, reverse lunges, front rack lunges, rear elevated lunges (also known as split squats), and curtsy lunges.

Luciani asserts that individual-leg ascendances, individual-leg burdened ascendances, and individual-leg gluteal arches are efficient.

Full-Body Individual Exercises: Give a try to Turkish get-ups, windmills, and walking single-arm front rack carries. “I cannot stress enough how beneficial they are, as they challenge and strengthen the entire body, one side at a time,” states Seguia.

When beginning unilateral training, stick to the range of 5-12 repetitions and allow your less dominant side to determine the weight you use, as recommended by Seguia. “The objective is to help the weaker side catch up to the stronger side, rather than simply making the stronger side even stronger.” Acknowledged.

Two additional tips: Initiate with your non-dominant side. “Load your less-strong side first, so that you address the weaker side when your body is fresh,” suggests Luciani. Also, maintain an equal number of repetitions on both sides, she advises. (Refer to the paragraph above for a reminder of why this is important).

As for incorporating these movements into your routine, it’s not really crucial, according to Luciani. “Honestly, unilateral training has the potential to replace all of your bilateral training because it will only enhance your performance in those bilateral movements,” she explains. Therefore, “there is no definitive right or wrong way to integrate unilateral training into your routine, especially if you haven’t been incorporating it thus far,” she adds. A valid point.

If you need some guidance, you can consider transforming three of the aforementioned unilateral exercises into a circuit, which you can incorporate into your weekly schedule twice.