Everyone's doing single-arm and single-leg exercises, here's why you need to join them

unilateral exercises
Unilateral training could be the key to strengthGetty Images

So you've tried the best gym workouts and WH's favourite cardio home workouts, but you're now keen to mix your routine up a little more than deadlift, plank, burpee?

Well, lucky for you there's another type of training that won't only keep you interested in your routine, but could help you achieve your goals sooner.

Let us introduce you to the world of unilateral exercises.

What are unilateral exercises?

Unlike bilateral exercises (squats, deadlifts, press-ups), which require you to use your body symmetrically, unilateral exercises work one side of your body at a time.

They’ve been around since the 19th century, when circus strongmen like Eugen Sandow performed the bent press, a move that involved lifting a heavy weight to the right shoulder, bending to the left, then extending the weight overhead. It challenged more than sheer strength, demanding shoulder flexibility, stability and serious core power.

But Sandow’s signature move didn’t filter down to the gym floor, and bodybuilding moves – bench presses, bicep curls, etc –came to rule the weights room instead.

It may sound counterintuitive, but training as such— aka, incorporating single-arm or single-leg exercises into your workout– is often hailed as the secret to full-body strength gains.

If you want to up your athletic performance, unilateral exercises promise to hone:

  • Proprioception (that’s your awareness of your body’s movements and positioning)

  • Balance

  • Motor recruitment

  • Firing patterns

  • Muscle activation

  • Efficiency

‘The more unilateral work you do, the more athletic you’ll become,’ says PT Jeff Cavaliere. ‘Most athletic actions, such as sprints, don’t let your limbs operate asymmetrically. Your body is “cross-wired” (left arm and right leg moving together), and training limbs individually hones those cross-wired mechanics.’

Unilateral training is a key player in injury prevention, too, stopping you overtraining your dominant side and correcting imbalances.

Andy Vincent, a strength and conditioning coach, adds: 'Most traditional exercises, like squats and push-ups, use both limbs at the same time'

Benefits of unilateral exercises

We've touched upon a few of the benefits above, but Vincent wagers that the biggest benefit of all is unilateral exercises' ability to give you an all-over balanced body.

'One of the key benefits is to create a more balanced strength ratio between each side. You naturally have a favoured leg or arm (for example, your writing hand, or the leg you would use to push you on a skateboard),' he explains.

'When you train it's really common to overuse the dominant side and the other side lags behind. Also, a lot of unilateral exercises require more stability as you have to stabilise the joints to perform the movement (without falling over) and you will notice the trunk muscles have to work really hard to manage all the additional stability and movements required to work on one arm or leg.'

Why are unilateral exercises important?

As a general rule, anything classed as one-sided (friendships, stepping into a ring with Ronda Rousey, talking to a brick wall) should be avoided like an overripe avocado. But there are exceptions– and unilateral training is one of them.

Apart from everything we've just gone over above (a balanced body, better stability and more), Vincent says, 'Unilateral exercises are a proven way to improve joint health. Big lifts use a lot of weight which can be tough, and unilateral exercises are a great way to reduce the load on your joints while still training your body hard.'

Unilateral exercises tick the functional training box, too. The moves are more in keeping with real life – think about walking or climbing the stairs, which both require one leg taking on a greater load than the other.

Then there’s the phenomenon known as cross-education, where working one limb can cause gains in the other, meaning you can essentially increase its strength without directly training it. When you lift a weight with one side of your body, the abdominal and oblique muscles on your non-working side engage to stabilise your torso. The same thing happens during unilateral moves.

‘They prepare your body for the events that take place in your daily life and build joint strength that bulletproofs the body,’ says PT Jay Maryniak.

How often should you do unilateral exercises?

'Try to incorporate some unilateral training into every strength session,' Vincent advises. 'But remember that working each limb one after the other takes more time (the duration of your workout would double if you split each traditional exercise into two, to hit each limb at once), so don't try and do too many exercises in one workout or it'll take considerably longer.'

Unilateral exercise workout: 6-move circuit to try

Most weighted moves, from the deadlift to the bench press, can be done unilaterally. Here, PT Jay Maryniak shares his go-tos.

Time to get your wires crossed.

HOW: Incorporate these exercises into your existing workouts or do them all in order as a full-body session.

TIME: Rest for 1 min between sets and 90 secs between moves.

1. Single-arm frontrack carry

Do: 4 sets in total of 20 steps forwards and20 steps backwards

Targets: Arms, shoulders, core

a. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell in your left hand at shoulder height.

b. Keeping your chest up and your torso straight, walk forwards for 20 steps, then backwards for 20.Repeat the move with the kettlebell in your opposite hand.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

2. Deficit Bulgarian split-squat

Do: 4 sets of 8 reps on each side

Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, quads

a. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a dumbbell in each hand, arms by your sides. Place your right foot on a bench behind you and your left foot on a plate.

b. Bend your left knee to 90°, lowering into a lunge. Keep your chest up. Pause, then drive through your left heel to return to the start.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

3. Single-arm floor press

Do: 4 sets of 12 reps on each side

Targets: Chest, shoulders, arms

a. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand, extended directly above your shoulder.

b. Bend at the elbow to lower your upper arm to the floor, then straighten your arm to return to the starting position. You’ll feel this one tomorrow, for sure.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

4. Kneeling bottoms-up press

Do: 4 sets of 8 reps on each side

Targets: Shoulders, core

a. Start by kneeling on your left knee with your right foot planted on the floor. Tightly grip a kettlebell by the handle with your righthand, bell pointing up.

b. Engage your core and straighten your right arm, pressing the weight overhead.Slowly lower back to the starting position. Placing your left hand on your hip will provide stability and just a little extra sass.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

5. Quadruped row

Do: 4 sets of 10 reps on each side

Targets: Back, core, shoulders, glutes

a. Get on to a bench on your hands and knees. Hold a light dumbbell in your lefthand, arm hanging naturally, and straighten your right leg out behind you, squeezing your glutes.

b. Row the dumbbell up towards your ribcage, keeping your core tight so you don’t tip to the side. Slowly lower it back to the starting position, ready to go again.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

6. Single-leg deadlift

Do: 4 sets of 8 reps on each side

Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, lower back

a. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in your left hand by your left thigh.

b. With your weight in your right heel, bend at the hips, bringing your torso forward,
and extend your left leg back until your torso is parallel to the floor. The dumbbell should hang directly under your shoulder. Reverse the move back to the start. Look at you go.

Unilateral Training
Women's Health UK

Who should avoid unilateral exercises?

'If you're very new to exercise, I wouldn't do too much unilateral training, especially on the lower body,' Vincent says. 'Master the moves on two limbs first. As much as unilateral training is great for joint stability, if you have chronic joint pain, unilateral exercises might be too tough, so build some capacity on two limbs before progressing to one.' Capiche?

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