Unilateral Exercises - Their Benefits, Lower, and Upper Body Examples

Unilateral Exercises - Their Benefits, Lower, and Upper Body Examples

Unilateral exercises train one limb at a time.

This type of exercise is great for building stabilization and fixing imbalances in a movement pattern.

But how often should you train unilaterally, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of this training style?

To help you select the right exercises for your goals, here is everything you need to know about unilateral training.

Unilateral Exercises Defined

A unilateral exercise is an exercise where only one side is performing a movement. An example in the upper extremity, in the arm, would be a unilateral press where just one hand is doing that movement. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Unilateral Training

There are four benefits of unilateral training.

1) First, unilateral exercises are a great way to build stabilization. With only one side working, it forces you to use the core to stabilize the midline to keep you upright and balanced.

The working limb is also forced into active stabilization. The joints, muscles, and tendons are challenged to keep you in balance, which helps prevent injuries by creating stronger muscle fibers.


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2) Second, it fixes imbalances. As humans, we are rarely a hundred percent symmetrical. We can easily overcompensate in bilateral movements, which often leads to injuries. Unilateral exercises can improve imbalances if you train the two sides equally.

3) It’s a great way to manage intensity. Since only one limb is working at a time, you cannot train with the same intensity found in bilateral exercises. 

4) Fourth, unilateral exercises often have better mechanics. The nature of the unilateral exercises won’t allow you to use the same amount of weight as a bilateral exercise. This lowered weight allows you to focus on your mechanics and refine the movement pattern you are working on.

Drawbacks:

Unilateral exercises aren’t the best way to develop absolute strength. Since you are only using one limb at a time, you cannot lift the same amount of load and generate the same intensity found in bilateral exercises. So if the goal is to get as strong as possible, focus on bilateral compound exercises.

Unilateral exercises can also be time-consuming to complete, as both sides need to be performed, turning 3 working sets into 6 working sets. This is an important consideration if time is an issue for you.

How to Use Unilateral Training

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Unilateral training can be used both entirely on its own and included with bilateral training.

You can devote an entire phase of periodization to unilateral training, where each training day focuses on single-limb movements. This is a great tactic to use if you want to fix imbalances and keep the intensity low. 

You can also combine it with bilateral movements in a training day. Start the session with compound movements and then focus on single-limb movements towards the end.

Tips to Keep In Mind When Programming:

  • Do the same number of reps on each side
  • Define whether you want rest between sides or not
  • Start with the weaker limb
  • Focus on movement quality

Upper Body Unilateral Exercises:

Lower Body Unilateral Exercises:

Example Unilateral Training Day

  • A1) Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press, @30X1, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 60 seconds b/t sides, 90 seconds b/t sets
  • A2) Single Leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift, @2121, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 60 seconds b/t sides, 90 seconds b/t sets
  • B1) Single Arm Cable Row, @2121, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 60 seconds b/t sides, 90 seconds b/t sets
  • B2) Dumbbell Split Squat, @2121, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 60 seconds b/t sides, 90 seconds b/t sets

Learn How to Write Training Programs that Get Results

Now you understand unilateral training and when to use it.

But choosing the right exercise is only a small part of a training program. 

To drive results, you need to understand how to assess a client’s movement, periodize their program, and progress it over time.

Thankfully these are all skills that can easily be learned. Sign up for our free Professional Coaching Blueprint today and learn how to create training programs that drive results.

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