Unilateral Training: Why One is Better Than Two

LifeStart Fitness Director and CPT Nick Gallardo

LifeStart Fitness Director and CPT Nick Gallardo


by Nick Gallardo, BS, ACE-CPT

Bilateral (two limbs) training usually makes up the bulk of most people’s lifting programs. Rarely do I see anyone in the weight room do any unilateral training (unless it’s curls, everyone does one-armed curls). Heck, why move less weight with one limb when you can move more with two? Obviously using less weight will hinder your progress. Wrong. Bilateral training should be the bread and butter of your workouts, but there are many benefits of incorporating unilateral exercises into your training routine.

Unilateral training (single-limb training) can help shore up any muscular imbalances that you may have. Everyone generally has a dominant side of their body that they prefer to use during daily activity, which can create strength imbalances between the two sides of your body. One example of this can bee seen with the squat. Maybe you can feel yourself leaning on one leg during a heavy squat. There is a good chance you’re trying to compensate for an imbalance. Adding in exercises such as the rear foot elevated split squat will help to strengthen and balance the weaker leg with the stronger one.

When training to eliminate any imbalances, be sure to start with a weight that the weaker limb can handle. Starting with a lighter weight and working up to heavier weights will ensure that you stay injury-free while eliminating any strength discrepancies.

Performing unilateral exercises forces your body to adjust to absence of stability that is usually present with bilateral exercises. Deep core muscles that may be dormant during your double-limbed movements will work harder. Hip and shoulder stabilizers generally will be more active during single-limb exercises due to the lack of symmetrical stabilization across the body.

Let’s think of a single-arm dumbbell bench press. If we try loading just one arm with the weight we use during a two-arm bench press (Let’s say 50 pounds each arm), the first thing you’ll feel when you put that weight up is yourself falling off the bench. Not only will your core musculature have to work that much harder to keep yourself balanced on the bench, but your rotator cuff will be working harder to keep that dumbbell stabilized as well.

Not every gym is created equal, with some lacking in the necessary equipment to perform exercises such as the back squat, bench press, or deadlift. No worries, though. If you’re “maxed out” on weights, adding unilateral exercises might be able to help you keep making in strides in your routine with the same weights. Now, a 100 pound rear foot elevated split squat doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to do a 200 pound bilateral back squat. But you’ll be putting more stress on a single limb, and that usually leads to greater muscle activation from that limb.

Some of my favorite unilateral exercises are the rear foot elevated split squat and the single arm dumbbell bench press. Try adding these in as accessory exercises during your next workout, shooting for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.

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Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

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