Why Unilateral Exercises Will Improve Your Muscle Gains
There are many benefits to training unilaterally. Some of these include strength, size, fat loss, and increased athleticism. Seems too good to be true right? Not so fast, let’s take a look at how training one side of your body at a time can be a game changer for your training.
Unilateral training takes advantage of a concept known as the bilateral deficit which means that you are stronger with one limb than you are with two. For example, if you can back squat 400 pounds for a one rep max, you should be able to perform multiple reps of a Bulgarian split squat with 200 pounds. The same is true for your upper body as well for an exercise like the standing military press with a barbell when compared to one arm dumbbell press.
What is happening when you take advantage of the bilateral deficit is that your nervous system is able to send a stronger signal to the working muscles of one side of the body. This allows your muscles to contract harder which in turn makes you able to lift more weight. Not only do you get stronger more quickly training this way, you also gain more muscle. More weight for more reps equals more muscle… period.
Additionally, unilateral training creates more systemic stress. It requires more time under load to complete a set than an exercise that uses two limbs instead of one. What this simply means is that if it takes you 10 seconds to perform a set of military press, then it will take 10 seconds to complete the left arm and 10 seconds on the right arm to complete a set.
This is doubling the amount of time that you are spending under load. Increased time under load means an increase in the release of muscle building hormones which promotes increased muscle growth and repair while also encouraging fat loss.
Another benefit of unilateral training is a symmetrical and balanced physique. When you utilize unilateral training you are isolating one side of the body at a time which can be very enlightening if you have strength deficits or imbalances between the left and right sides of your body. This not only allows you to build an aesthetic physique but an injury free one as well. Possessing an asymmetrical physique is one of the largest factors in predicting future injury so take some time to balance out your deficits with unilateral training.
The final benefit of unilateral training is increased athleticism. Pretty much every sport or activity is a unilateral activity whether its running, skipping, or pushing open a door. By training in the same manner the strength developed in the gym carries over much readily into these activities.
Training unilaterally is quite a stability challenge especially in some of the larger compound exercises such as heavy one arm presses and single leg deadlifts and split squats. These exercises not only demand a lot of work from the prime movers but from the stabilizer muscles as well. The soreness experienced after a unilateral training session is very unique and often times is in the very deep stabilizer muscles more so than the prime movers.
How to Use Unilateral Exercises
It should be considered that while unilateral training has many benefits and deserves a place in your training, it will not replace the major compound, bilateral, barbell lifts in your quest to get bigger and stronger. A training program that is balanced with both modalities will allow for maximum benefit from both unilateral and bilateral exercises.
When selecting the exercises for your training program be sure to take into consideration the nature of the exercises that you pick. It is very common for example, on leg day, to perform all bilateral exercises such as squats, RDLs, leg presses, hack squats, leg curls, and leg extensions. Take leg day to the next level by adding in unilateral training.
An example leg day that includes both modalities would look something like this.
- Barbell Front Squat 3 set of 8
- 2a. Bulgarian Split Squat 3 sets of 10
- 2b. Glute Ham Raise 3 sets of 8
- 3. Walking Lunge 3 sets of 50ft
- 4. Single Leg Deadlift 3 sets of 12
- 5. Prowler Push or sled drag 4-5 sets of 30 second drags
- 6. Calf work 3-5 sets of 12-15
The example workout has both bilateral and unilateral exercises in balance and a proper ratio of knee dominate to hip dominate exercises. This ensures maximal development of the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Or, instead of combining both bilateral and unilateral training in one session or program you could use an all unilateral training program as a way to deload. This would allow you to work on strength and muscle imbalances developed from a heavy barbell training program. I recommend that all unilateral training program last a minimum of six weeks.
An example unilateral leg day would look like this.
- Bulgarian Split Squat 3 sets of 8
- Single Leg Deadlift 3 sets of 5
- Reverse lunge 3 sets of 10
- Single leg curl 3 sets of 12
- Prowler Push 4-5 sets of 30 second sprints
- Single leg calf work 3-5 sets of 12-15
In summary, take advantage of unilateral training to increase size, strength, and symmetry while simultaneously becoming more coordinated and less prone to injury. You can take advantage of unilateral training by incorporating it into a combined training program with both bilateral and unilateral exercises, or you can take some time to strictly focus on unilateral training for up to six weeks.
Either way don’t neglect the gains the can be made by focusing on one side of the body at a time and as always keep progressing to keep the gains coming.