What is a unilateral exercise?

Pistol squat

Unilateral exercises are those which place emphasis on only one limb, as opposed to bilateral movements, where multiple limbs are utilised to perform an exercise, such as the barbell bench press. An example of a unilateral exercise is the pistol squat, an exercise that is performed by squatting down on one leg. Unilateral exercises have an array of benefits such as improving muscular imbalances, improving strength training, and reducing risk of injury - this is why you should be adding them to your workout routine.

Improves muscular imbalances & makes you stronger in bilateral exercises

Muscular imbalances occur when a set of muscles are unequal in strength and/or size to their opposing set of muscles. Imbalances are typically caused by excessive use of one set of muscles, but neglecting the other.

arm wrester uneven bench press

An example would be having one arm weaker than the other; this is a common problem with a lot of people as we tend to use the dominate side of our body to pick up heavy loads. These imbalances can be equalled out by utilising dumbbells to isolate each limb separately until they are at equal strength[1]. This allows you to generate the same amount of force throughout both limbs, when performing bilateral exercises which in turn, allows you to lift more weight.

Increases core strength

Performing unilateral exercises requires activation of the core muscles in order to stabilise the spine and account for an imbalance due to load on one side of the body. Regular activation of core muscles results in an overall stronger core, which has been shown to reduce lower back pain[2], increase sporting performance, improve posture, and can contribute towards developing a six pack.

Decreases risk of injury

Appropriate unilateral training methods can reduce the risk of injury, by as previously mentioned, reducing muscular imbalances, which can prevent overuse of the dominant muscle, putting you at less risk of developing muscular strains[3]. Also as previously mentioned, continuous unilateral training can increase core strength and stability[4]; current evidence suggests that decreased core stability may increase the risk of injury, especially in the lower back region[5].

Examples of unilateral exercises

Single Arm Shoulder Press

single arm shoulder press

Single Arm Bent Over Row

bent over row

Bulgarian Split Squat

Bulgarian split squat

Single Arm Bench Press

single arm bench press