Unilateral training refers to using one limb at a time, as opposed to bilateral training which involves both limbs.
A leg press and seated row are bilateral movements while a single leg press and single-arm dumbbell row are unilateral movements.
Many actions in everyday life require us to use only one limb at a time. Regardless of what specific activity you are training for, unilateral moves help show weaknesses or imbalances within the body. It’s the discovery of these weaknesses, and corrections, that allow us to further improve our health and performance.
I personally love doing full body compound movements, training multiple muscle groups at a time. These are extremely efficient and result in a bigger central nervous system response, thus a better hormonal response, leading to better strength and body composition.
However, I always keep at least one isolation exercise or unilateral movement in my clients (and my own) daily routines. This way, we never allow one dominant muscle group to compensate for a weaker one, thereby exacerbating the imbalance.
If you are just starting to incorporate unilateral training, try a simple dumbbell row – one knee and hand on a bench, back straight, other arm hanging straight holding a dumbbell. “Row” the weight up to about the armpit, trying to pull the arm up and over with the shoulder blade (but don’t twist the torso).
Another simple move to start with would be standing on one leg. This can be done while doing other movements, such a bicep curl or internal shoulder rotation, or it can be treated as its own movement. Standing on one leg will reveal weaknesses at the joints, in the leg or core muscles, or even neurological proprioception issues.
My favorite unilateral movements, as exemplified above, are for the legs and the shoulder blades.
Unilateral training for the legs will reveal weaknesses or incoordination in the lower body, but also instability throughout the core, and may even provide an opportunity for postural analysis. Movements like lunges or single leg dead lifts (SLDLs) are my go to movements for clients trying to increase strength, stability, and function.
Unilateral training for the upper back is useful because it will teach an individual to move the arms in concert with the shoulder blades. If an individual is only using their shoulder muscles, when reaching, lifting, or moving loads, they risk rotator cuff injuries. However, if they can incorporate all the muscles of the upper back, they will have a safer strength potential.
Some advanced movements to work towards would be things like a one-legged squat (pistol squat) or a one-arm pull-up. To achieve either of these, the muscles, stabilizers, joints, and bones throughout the entire body have to be strengthened perfectly.
So, if your workout has stagnated and you’re having trouble adding repetitions or weight to your movements, try incorporating a few unilateral movements to reveal imbalances and weaknesses.
And remember: a personal trainer can help guide you through this process of exercise selection, providing motivation, and finding areas to improve upon safely, guaranteeing long-term improvement!