Unilateral and bilateral. It is what it says it is on the tin.
Working with one side, working with both sides. Ta-daaaa. Each have their own benefits, but is bilateral training flawed? What about imbalances? What about symmetry? What about injuries? Well, as with anything, a number of approaches can help us to achieve our goals and both methods can work in this instance. However, let our team give you a few reasons as to why you should drop that barbell from time to time for a bit of focus on single limb training.
We usually measure our strength in form of bilateral work; squats, deadlifts, rows, shoulder press and bench press. However, whilst working unilaterally (often with dumbbells, machines, kettlebells & cables) it will aid form improvement, will help to increase weights on those big compound moves and annihilate your core. Have you also noticed how single limb movements can help to improve bilateral movements, yet, bilateral movements do not help to improve unilateral actions? Our issue is probably our mentality towards unilateral work (especially lower body training), because aren’t those exercises for ‘girls’? Step ups, lunges, etc.
Unilateral lower body exercises can be broken down into two approaches; anterior chain (or knee dominant) & posterior chain (or hip dominant) training.
Anterior Chain or Knee Dominant
Single Leg Training
What falls into this category? All squat variations; we’re talking pistol squats, all variations of the split squat, all variations of lunges and step ups. The benefit of these exercises is that they are difficult (not impossible) to turn into lower back and glute exercises, unlike our friend The Back Squat.
These exercises can be further broke down into static unsupported exercises (no forward or backwards movement, e.g. pistol squats) as the non-working foot does/should not reach the ground and dynamic supported exercises (forward and back movement and there is a change in the centre of gravity, e.g. lunges, split squats) as supporting leg maintains contact with the ground. Unfortunately, supported exercises do not and will not enhance or improve performance of unsupported leg exercises.
Posterior Chain or Hip Dominant
Single Leg Training
This work is not only single limb, but single joint. Often, our progress is not measured on how many joints are used, but how many muscles. Let’s take a moment to focus on the single leg deadlift. Again, it kinda comes across as a girly exercise. You don’t really feel like you can go too heavy and therefore doesn’t really feel like a ‘manly’ exercise when in actual fact, it has the combined action of moving a joint in one plane whilst stabilizing in two others. In order to maintain correct form, the movement also incorporates your lower traps, rhomboids and the spinal erectors in order to stabilize the spine and the scapula. Not only does it bring together all these muscles, but minimises back stress by half as the main stresses are directed towards the hamstrings and glutes.
So, when it comes to unilateral exercises (both upper and lower body), what are the benefits?
Unilateral work helps to obliterate strength imbalances, especially when it concerns the larger muscle groups such as the quadriceps, hamstrings and chest (pectorals). You may already use dumbbells for your biceps, we all do, but focusing this work on the large muscle groups can help make great progress. Unilateral exercise help promote growth and strength increase as it not only works prime movers, but stabilizers and neutralisers whilst enhancing functionalness (yes, I made that word up, so what?).
When the stabilisers and neutralisers engage, so too does the core. If you’re out of ab ideas or merely can’t be bothered, throw in the single limb exercises. Whether it’s pistol squats, quad extensions or bench presses, you’re gonna need that core of yours to hold yourself tight and prevent a loss of balance, in turn, helping you to maintain better body control.
What else do we get from single limb work? BETTER SYMMETRY! We all want a well balanced body, whether it’s our butt (ladies 😉 ) or shoulders and back (hello gents). Working with dumbbells, or unilateral machines (or just unilateral work), will help you to push each side to it fullest potential without the other side taking over or overcompensating. By targeting imbalances and symmetry, it can help to gain the size and power required to execute those big moves.
Yes, yes, bilateral work is fantastic for getting PB’s on barbell rows, squats, deadlifts and bench press but you tend to lose the mind-muscle connection as you become more focused on preventing that heavy-ass weight falling upon you. The unilateral exercises can help to mentally focus on the contraction of the muscle, maintain better form and enhance growth.
A draw back of attempting those sought after PB’s is that you generally require a spotter to stop those big old weights collapsing on top of you and slipping into a black out. When it comes to unilateral training, it brings a safer approach to pushing yourself to your limits; instead of pushing yourself with maximum power, you’ll be pushing through to failure, digging deeper within to gain those extra couple of reps. It’s much easier (and safer, for sure) to drop your dumbbells!
Due to the fact that you’re only working a single limb, we wouldn’t advise to work outside of the 8-12 rep range, as anything lower (3-5 reps) will place too much strain and torque on your body and most likely increase the risk of injury. Injuries is a sore spot for many of us. And it’s inevitable that at some stage or another, you’re going to pick one up. Some use this as an excuse NOT to train hard or to push their body to its limits. A number of studies have found that training the non-injured side will also promote strength on the injured side due to neurological crossover.
A further example is the fact that a high percentage of us wonderful human beings have leg asymmetry. When we relate this to squatting and deadlifting, the asymmetry can cause torque and compression from the load you’re moving. Unilateral work drastically reduces this issue.
So, what is our question to you; why would you not incorporate unilateral exercises into your programme? I am in no way, shape or form telling you to ONLY do unilateral exercises, but use them to compliment your current programme.
All Power Moves Fitness programmes are focused on working bilateral and unilateral in an aid of progression and increase personal bests of those big ol’ lifts. Download the PowerMoves Fitness app to enquire further about any programmes that may take your fancy.
Boyle, M. (2007). The Case for Single Limb Training. Retrieved from: https://www.t-nation.com/training/case-for-single-limb-training
Bumgardner, T. (2015). Boost Your Barbell Strength With Unilateral Training. Retrieved from: https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/boost-your-barbell-strength-with-unilateral-training.html
Schoenfeld, B. (2012). An Interview with Nick Tumminello. Retrieved from: http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/an-interview-with-nick-tumminello/
Vontz, A. (2015). Unilateral Armament: Single-Limb Training For Strength And Size. Retrieved from: https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/unilateral-armament-single-limb-training-for-strength-and-size.html