Bilateral movements, working both sides of your body at the same time, are what most lifters prioritize. However, to optimize your training and get even better muscle-building results, don't leave unilateral movements behind!
Unilateral training involves exercises that use one of your body, as opposed to both. Not many see the benefits in doing this which makes these exercises often overlooked – don't make this mistake! Unilateral exercises can help fix muscle imbalances, improve your balance and core strength, and build functional strength. These are all benefits that will help improve your training performance, including helping you lift heavier and safer!
You don't have to give up your bilateral training for unilateral training, you can easily incorporate both! To make sure you're doing that in the best way possible, keep on reading for tips on how to incorporate unilateral movements into your routine, plus a list of which unilateral exercises to start doing.
How to incorporate unilateral exercises into your routine
Throwing in a few upper body and lower body unilateral exercises into your workout without much thought isn't the best way to reap all the wonderful benefits of unilateral training. Remember, random training, whether it’s bilateral or unilateral, won't give you the best results!
To help ensure that you're incorporating unilateral exercises into your training as effectively as possible then consider following the following tips:
- Start your sets with the weaker side: One of the main reasons for unilateral training is to fix muscle imbalances. So, you want your weaker side to catch up to the stronger one. To ensure that you're bringing the weaker side up to meet the stronger side, work that side to fatigue first! Then do the same number of reps on the stronger side. This will allow you to strengthen both sides equally that way the weaker side is no longer playing catch up.
- Considering doing unilateral exercises before bilateral ones: Everyone says to start with your heavy sets first, which are usually bilateral compound lifts. This is good advice, but there's nothing wrong with doing it the other way around. If you really want to focus more on fixing muscle imbalances, then consider starting with unilateral exercises! It will help to activate the muscles that are normally not working to their full potential during heavy bilateral lifts. You may run the risk of fatiguing your muscles before your big lift, but there's a high chance that you'll be able to lift more because the muscles are firing better in unison.
- Pause before switching sets: Train each side as an individual set by pausing for a short rest period in between each group of reps. It might be easier with a lighter weight, but if you're lifting a challenging weight then take a little break before switching to the other side. Doing this will help ensure that your form doesn't break down before the end of your set. Take a 15-second rest period between sides, but if you're going heavy and feel fatigued then rest for a period of up to a minute.
- Don't start heavy: Since you're only using one side of the body, you probably won't be able to lift as heavy as you normally would. This means you should avoid starting heavy! You may be able to squat 100+, but lunges and split squats may be a different story... So, start light. Going too heavy too soon will make it harder for you to balance which can result in an injury.
Best unilateral exercises
Lunges aren't the only unilateral exercises in the world. They're great and definitely should be incorporated into your routine, but one leg may dominate a little more than the other, but it doesn't place full focus on one particular side.
Keep lunges in your routine, but include these unilateral exercises in your training as well...
- Grab a dumbbell with an overhand grip in your right hand and let it hang at arm’s length in front of your thigh. Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor behind you. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your lower back arched naturally, hinge at your hips, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let your left leg stretch out behind you with your toes pointed down to the floor the entire time.
- The weight should travel straight down toward the floor in your right hand. Hold your left arm out to the side for balance.
- Return to the starting position without letting the toes of your left foot touch the floor.
Bulgarian split squats
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms fully extended at your sides and your palms facing each other.
- Place your foot on the bench behind you.
- Lower your hips toward the floor so that your rear knee comes close to the floor.
- Pause and drive through your front heel to return to the starting position.
- Stand 6 inches in front of a bench, or raised platform.
- Step onto the bench with your right leg, while making sure your foot is flat against the bench.
- Lean forward slightly and push yourself upwards through the heel of your right foot, so your left leg can come up to the bench.
- Step down maintaining the right leg under control.
Single-leg glute bridge
- Lie faceup on the floor or on a mat. Place one leg straight and bend the other leg with the foot flat on the floor or mat.
- Place a dumbbell on your stomach (low). Raise your body by extending the hip of your bent leg, keeping your extended leg and hip straight.
- Return to the original position by lowering your body with an extended leg and hip straight.
Pistol squats (single-leg squats)
- Stand with feet placed around shoulder-width apart. Extend one leg in front of you, and stand upright with your chest and head high, and shoulders pulled back and down.
- Engage your core, and with a slight bend on your knee, begin to hinge forward at the hips to lower into a squat maintaining your back straight and torso upright.
- Try to go as deep into a squat as possible, the aim is to move through the full range of motion, but you should work your way up to that.
- Keep your muscles tight and engaged as push through your heels to stand back up to the starting position.
Single-arm shoulder press
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold the position.
- Now lift your left arm, so that it is making a 90-degree angle with your elbows.
- Engage your core, and maintain upright as you move your left arm up; stretch, press, and hold.
- Reverse the movement back to the starting position (arms at back to the 90-degree angle).
Single-arm chest press
- Lie flat on a bench holding a dumbbell with your left hand.
- Engage your core as you turn your left arm out with the dumbbell, similarly to a chest press position.
- Push the dumbbell above you keeping it in line with your chest and a slight bend in the elbow.
- Slowly lower back to the starting position.
Single-arm dumbbell row
- Kneel over side of bench by placing knee and hand of supporting arm on bench. Position foot of opposite leg slightly back to the side. Grasp dumbbell from floor.
- Pull the dumbbell up to the side until it makes contact with ribs or until the upper arm is just beyond horizontal.
- Return until the arm is extended, and the shoulder is stretched downward.
- Repeat for the number of reps appropriate for you and continue with the opposite arm.
Single-arm triceps extensions
- Position dumbbell overhead with arm straight up or slightly back.
- Lower dumbbell behind neck or shoulder while maintaining the upper arm's vertical position throughout the exercise.
- Extend arm until straight. Return to the starting position.
Leaning lateral raises
- Standing next to a squat rack (or somewhere that supports your weight), hold a dumbbell in your hand farthest away from the rack, your arm at your side, and your palm facing towards you.
- Grab the rack with your free hand for support. Raise the dumbbell up to the side at shoulder height.
- Pause, then lower the weight to return to the starting position.
These are just a few of the best unilateral exercises, there are more you can include in your routine to help you develop strength in a particular muscle group. If you need further help structuring unilateral movements with bilateral movements – check out the Fit With Iulia app! You'll get goal-focused workouts planned for you every week by Iulia herself which includes a variety of bilateral and unilateral exercises. The app also features macro tracking, progressive overload tracking, Summer challenges, and so much more.
Try your first workout for free – no subscription is required. Simply download the Fit With Iulia app, select the goal that best fits yours, and start your first workout with Iulia!