What Does “Unilateral Exercise” Mean?
The term “unilateral exercise” refers to training one side of the body. Bilateral exercises would be training both sides of the body at the same time; for example, a squat (both legs) or barbell bench press (both shoulders). Whether your goals are for general fitness and healthy joints, or bodybuilding and muscle pump, unilateral exercises can be used in your weekly training routine.
Unilateral Exercises for General Fitness
Unilateral exercises are performed to help balance the body from side to side. It is extremely common to see athletes with one shoulder stronger/bigger than the other, or one leg stronger/bigger than the other. These imbalances can lead to compensation in the body when performing bilateral exercises. When performing a back squat with one leg stronger than the other compensation occurs and the hips will shift towards the stronger leg. In many cases the hips will shift towards the stronger leg resulting in internal rotation of the weaker leg (knee caves inward) and rotation at the low back. This compensation leads to improper and unsafe movement patterns. Overtime we can help balance out the body by incorporating unilateral exercises to make sure muscles are firing correctly during bilateral movements.
Unilateral Exercises for Bodybuilding
In my opinion, these exercises are amazing at isolating the muscle so you can stack on volume and get that incredible “pump” bodybuilders seek. The goal of the exercise is to teach that muscle(s) to fire and express more strength. These adaptations can be the result of growing a bigger muscle. Multiple sets of 5-15 repetitions per side can help build that muscle size and improve the body awareness of that muscle firing. When one shoulder, or leg, is smaller than the other then the goal should be to BUILD a bigger muscle to even out both sides. Using a bodybuilding approach can help to make sure the correct muscle group is isolated and being challenged to grow from high volume sets. Finding the “pump’ in the desired muscle can increase body awareness and eventually better control of that muscle which transfers to better form during bilateral exercises.
Sets and Reps
Depending on the goals and training age of the athlete, you can perform 3-6 sets of these exercises. A good place to start is 3 sets of 8 reps to help build some confidence in the movement. If the goal is to build a bigger muscle then 10-15 reps per set should be the target range. When trying to build strength in the movement sets of 5-8 reps with heavier weight can help drive strength adaptations.
My 8 Go-To Unilateral Exercises
With each exercise I list the targeted muscle groups. If you have an issue with one one of those muscles being weaker, then you might want to try that exercise for a few weeks and see if it helps. When you try the exercise think about the intended stimulus I mention and see if that stimulus is challenging your body to adapt. Lastly, try the different variations to see which one you like best.
- Reverse Lunges
Targeted Muscle Groups: Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings
Intended Stimulus: Quad strength and size, Knee stability, Increased leg drive
Variations: Dumbbells in each hand, Goblet hold, Barbell front back, Barbell back rack, Deficit reverse lunges
- Cossack Squat
Targeted Muscle Groups: Quads, Glutes, Adductors
Intended Stimulus: Lateral knee stability, Quad strength and coordination, Hip mobility
Variations: Dumbbells in each hand, Goblet hold, Barbell front rack, Barbell back rack
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Targeted Muscle Groups: Glutes, Hamstrings, Spinal Erectors
Intended Stimulus: Glute activation for hip extension, Hamstring and low back stability, Balance
Variations: Barbell clean grip, Dumbbell/kettlebell in each hand, DB/KB in one hand
- Split Squat
Targeted Muscle Groups: Quads, Glutes
Intended Stimulus: Quad strength, Knee stability and coordination
Variations: Goblet hold, Dumbbell/kettlebell in each hand, Barbell front rack, Barbell back rack, Front foot or Rear foot elevated
- Step Ups
Targeted Muscle Groups: Quads, Glutes
Intended Stimulus: Quad strength and size, Increased leg drive, Balance
Variations: Box height for step up, Goblet hold, Dumbbell/kettlebell in each hand, Barbell front rack, Barbell back rack
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Strict Press and Push Press
Targeted Muscle Groups: Shoulders
Intended Stimulus: Shoulder strength and size, Shoulder stability
Variations: Dumbbell press, Kettlebell press, Seated press, Kneeling press, Landmine press
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench
Targeted Muscle Groups: Pecs, Shoulders, Triceps
Intended Stimulus: Stability and coordination of the pec and shoulder, Pec strength and size
Variations: Dumbbell press, Kettlebell press, Incline bench, Decline bench
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Targeted Muscle Groups: Lats, Rear Shoulder, Biceps, Forearms, Upper back
Intended Stimulus: Stronger pulling, Lat and upper back strength and size
Variations: Dumbbell row, Kettlebell row, Banded row, Landmine row
These 8 exercises cover all the large muscle groups in the body. They are mostly used as accessory lifts after you perform your compound bilateral exercises. For example, reverse lunges after back squats, single-arm strict press after barbell push jerks, single-leg romanian deadlift after conventional deadlifts. Remember to perform these exercises with a slow and controlled tempo with the goal of better muscle coordination and building a bigger/stronger muscle. You can pick 2-3 movements and perform them as a circuit or simply throw them in whenever you want to add variety to your training. Repeat movements so you can track progress then start trying new movements and see how they feel. Get creative and find ways to add these into your weekly programming!
If you have questions about how to incorporate these exercises into your training routine comment below and/or email me.