Should you be doing more unilateral training?

Unilateral training is the performance of a movement or an exercise using a single arm or a single leg.  Many of our go-to exercises, like a bench press, have both limbs doing the same movement at the same time.  While this can be a great muscle strengthening exercise, it does not replicate real-life movements.  How often do you find yourself, in daily life, moving in the same pattern as you would on a bench press, outside of a workout session?  Some movements are more representative of daily movement than others (i.e. the squat motion might best mimic getting out of a chair, lowering a laundry basket, shoveling, etc.).  However, there are many real-life movements that require the use of a single appendage, such as carrying something in one arm so you can still open the door or planting one leg to create greater stability.  By the training principle of specificity, in order to become better at a single movement pattern, one should partake in that movement pattern.  So, to better replicate real life, should you be doing more unilateral training?

Here are a few of the benefits to unilateral training to consider.

Unilateral training may help to avoid overtraining or overuse of the dominant limb

When doing bilateral movements of both limbs, the dominant limb may be able to compensate for the weaker limb, leading to imbalances in training. Unilateral training may help to correct some of these imbalances by utilizing greater core stabilization and helping to prevent injuries.

Using one limb can help both to become stronger

When training one side of the body, the other side is still stimulated. This idea of cross education means that the stimulation of the primary muscles in the unilateral exercise activates the same muscles on the opposite side of the body.  This effect can help to promote rehabilitation outcomes when dealing with injuries.  The isolation of single limb exercises may also require a higher level of concentration, helping individuals to be more engaged in their workout.

There are many types of unilateral training to try

If you’re looking for simple unilateral exercises, here are a few lower-body exercises: lunges (forward, side or back), box step-ups, single-leg push off, or single leg squats.  Some upper-body unilateral exercise include: single arm resistance with biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, shoulder presses, chest presses or bent over rows.

If just starting out with a new exercise routine, it may be helpful to get some ideas, tips, and supervision from a professional and/or trainer.  If you regularly participate in exercise and are looking for slight changes, unilateral exercises might be a great addition to your program.  Hopefully, adding in some unilateral training will impact your daily life and long term independence without you even realizing it.

Kimberly Burke is the director of the Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University, an outreach program through the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students. To learn more, see the Adult Fitness website.