Personally, I love big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, pull ups etc – all are bilateral movement superstars. But I always start my routines with unilateral movements before I progress to the big boys.
Unilateral exercises are single arm or leg movements whilst bilateral exercises use both arms or legs.
An example of a unilateral exercise for the upper body is a single arm row vs a bent over barbell row which is bilateral. For the lower body – pistol squats are a great example of a unilateral exercise vs the back squat which is bilateral.
For starters, all of us have a dominant side that normally does more than 50% of the workload and this can lead to imbalances and injuries.
By spicing up your workouts with more unilateral exercises, you create the opportunity for your weaker side to get stronger and be more inline with your dominant side. This will lead to better balanced strength and an improved bilateral output. Not only does this method help improve imbalances between the limbs, but it also utilises more core muscles and can aid injury prevention.
Unilateral training can also help with rehabilitation. When you exercise one arm or leg in a movement, the non working side will also benefit from the training. The signal that your brain sends to activate one side (when you do a unilateral movement) will also stimulate the muscles on the opposite side. This process is called cross-education of the muscles and is a great way to assist in a rehab protocol.
Aim to start with your non-dominant side 1st and then follow with the dominant side. Use the same tempo, range and reps on both sides. This will be beneficial for the non-dominant side when the energy system is less taxed and can perform better even if a bit weaker.
Start with a low loading parameter and reps and then build up to a suitable rep range. Also bear in mind that you can’t assume if you do a 50 kg barbell chest press you will be able to do 25kg (50%) single arm Dumbbell press. The rule of thumb is you should aim for about 30% of your bilateral exercise so for this example aim for round 15kg dumbbell unilateral press.
Want to put this theory to the test? Try the following exercises for per muscle group:
Single arm dumbbell press
Single arm cable fly’s
Single arm shoulder press
Single arm lateral raise
Single arm dumbbell rows
Single arm cable lat pull down
Single arm skull crusher
Single arm tricep cable extension
Incline dumbbell hammer curl
Single arm standing bicep curl
Quad & Gluteus:
Pistol squats (use TRX for assistance)
Single leg straight leg deadlift
Single leg hamstring curl
Standing single leg calf extension