Importance of Unilateral Training



by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Chances are that a good amount of your training is done bi-laterally. Now what does this mean? Bilateral training involves performing exercises that share the stress of the resistance you are using between two limbs. This includes a good majority of exercises you probably perform regularly, such as: squats, deadlifts, push-ups, bench press, or really any barbell exercise. While these bilateral exercises are still great, one thing these exercises do is allow for compensation on one side. Although the stress is shared between two limbs, it may not necessarily shared equally. Due to this, unilateral training is extremely important to incorporate into your training.

Unilateral training, unlike bilateral training, is focused on one limb. This includes single arms dumbbell exercises, or single leg exercises like pistol squats. But why train uni-laterally if you can lift more doing bilateral exercises? Don’t you get stronger by lifting heavier weights? Well you are only as strong as your weakest link. Unilateral exercises do not allow for compensations on one side. They force you to use only one limb at a time, with no help from another. In turn, you are forced to use that limb to its full capacity; and even if it may be weaker than the opposite, this is the best way to address those imbalances and get both of those limbs evened out.

Increasing that balance from one side to another is huge in helping prevent injury during your training. Without unilateral training, your imbalances will continue over time and the constant extra compensation from one side causes poor and irregular movement patterns that will leave you exposed potential injuries. Unilateral exercises not only help address those imbalances, but they also go a long way in strengthening your stabilizer muscles and core muscles recruitment as well. Stronger stabilizing muscles and greater core muscle recruitment are also going to have some great carry over to your bilateral lifts as well, as there a is a tremendous amount of core stabilization needed to squat or deadlift heavy amounts of weight.

Back to the strength aspect; while unilateral training may not allow you to use quite as much weight as bilateral training, the increased muscle recruitment caused by unilateral movements has excellent carry-over to increasing your numbers in your bilateral movements. Increased muscle recruitment allows for you to move more efficiently. Hypothetically, if your movement is more efficient and you have more muscles firing during the movement, your bilateral exercise capabilities should also be increasing in weight without even necessarily training them directly.

Beyond the benefits to your bilateral movement training, unilateral leg training in particular can allow you to train with much less load on your spine. Barbell squats and barbell deadlifts are two of my favorite movements, but the reality is that they definitely do put a fair amount of stress on the spine regardless of how great your technique is. For example, training the squat in a unilateral nature, doing either pistol squats or Bulgarian split squats, allow you to stay significantly more upright which will place a significant amount less force on the spinal column. With that being said, unilateral training is also a great way to keep your legs strong if you have some sort of back injury that you are working through as well.

So, while bilateral training is great, be sure to incorporate unilateral training into your routine as well. Unilateral training will help address muscle imbalances from one side to another to help prevent compensations, build up those individual muscle stabilizers and core stabilization, help prevent injury, increase muscle recruitment and overall strength, and help you train with minimal spinal load. Each of these benefits is also going to help you significantly with your bilateral training as well, not to mention it helps provide you with more variations of movements. Be sure not to let your dominant side take over during your bilateral training. Train unilaterally and make both sides dominant!


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