Everyone wants to get stronger — that’s why we go to the gym to lift weights. But chances are, most of your exercises target both arms or both legs at the same time like a squat, deadlift, or pushup (called “bilateral training”). Yet by using exercises that target each arm and leg separately — called “unilateral training” — you can unlock tremendous improvements for your fitness and body.
3 BENEFITS OF UNILATERAL TRAINING
1. IMPROVES BALANCE AND STABILITY
When you only use one leg or one arm, you instantly make your exercise more challenging because there’s less stability. Now your muscles have to work harder to keep your body still.
As a result, these exercises tend to increase the activation in your core and the stabilizing muscles around your joints to help you move better and protect against injuries.
2. PRESERVES SYMMETRY
For many people, one side is weaker than the other. If left unaddressed, over time, this could create injuries as the body overuses one side compared to the other and develops inefficient movement patterns. (With bilateral exercises, you can’t always strengthen both sides equally.)
Instead, exercise each limb separately to ensure your left and right sides have equal strength, power and stability. That helps you during a tough workout in the gym and a grueling game on the field, court or ice.
3. TAKES PRESSURE OFF YOUR BODY
With unilateral exercises, you’ll instantly notice you can’t lift as much weight as you could with both arms or both legs. (Don’t worry; you’ll still improve your strength!)
The benefit here is it takes stress off your body. For example, instead of doing a 200-pound back squat, you might find yourself doing Bulgarian split squats with only 90 pounds — this can help take extra pressure off your spine, joints and ligaments.
THE BEST SINGLE-LIMB EXERCISES
The move: Start with your feet hip-width apart. Take a long step back — long enough so your knees make two 90-degree angles at the bottom — then return to start with your forward leg. Start with dumbbells and advance to a barbell in either the back squat or front squat position.
The move: Start with a very wide stance and your feet pointed slightly out. Sit back into one hip and push that knee out. Repeat on the other side.
The move: Place one foot on a box or bench. Pull all your weight on that foot and drive yourself up by pushing through your heel. Avoid pushing off with your bottom leg.
SINGLE-LEG ROMANIAN DEADLIFT
The move: With dumbbells in your hands, slowly bend forward and pull one leg behind. Once the weights are below your knees, drive back up and squeeze with your glutes. Don’t twist your hips to the side — keep them square and face forward.
3-POINT DUMBBELL ROW
The move: Facing parallel to a bench, place your right hand and right knee on the bench, getting your torso parallel to the ground. Grab a dumbbell with your left hand, squeeze your shoulder blades and row.
TRX SINGLE-ARM ROW
The move: Take one TRX strap from underneath with your feet closer to the anchor point. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull yourself up while keeping your body straight like a plank. Don’t let your body twist.
SINGLE-ARM OVERHEAD PRESS
The move: Hold a dumbbell by your shoulder and drive the weight directly overhead. Don’t arch backward with your lower back and keep your glutes tight.
SINGLE-ARM BENCH PRESS
The move: Lie on a flat bench with your feet firmly planted into the ground and your shoulder blades squeezed together. Hold on a dumbbell on one side with your wrist straight and press above.