post 8 Best Unilateral Exercises (Tips & Workout Plan Included)

8 Best Unilateral Exercises (Tips & Workout Plan Included)

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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Speaking from my personal and professional fitness experience, and as a seasoned trainer with years of expertise, if you want to unlock the potential of each muscle in your body to produce an explosive burst of power, you will need to include unilateral exercises in your routine for optimal results.

As a seasoned fitness trainer, I have observed the profound impact unilateral exercises have on coordination, strength, and balance in clients of all fitness levels.

Today, I will take you through some of the best unilateral training, how they benefit your body, and why they should be an essential part of your workout routine.

Quick Summary

  • The best unilateral movements include single-arm dumbbell row, shoulder press, Bulgarian split squat, and one-leg Romanian deadlift.
  • To prevent injury and maintain proper form with unilateral lifts, start with lighter weights and gradually increase intensity and volume over time.
  • According to the International Journal of Sports Therapy Physical Therapy, unilateral exercises enhance strength, balance, stability, and reduce injury risk, essential for overall fitness.
  • In my professional opinion, incorporating unilateral exercises is key to unlocking true physical potential and symmetry in fitness routines.

The Best Unilateral Exercises To Build Muscle

Unilateral exercises to build muscle

Single-limb exercises focus on working one side of the body at a time instead of dividing the workout equally between both sides, which is typical in traditional bilateral training.

The best single-limb exercises improve muscle imbalances, increase stability and balance, and prevent injuries.

“Unilateral training is one of the most overlooked training styles there is, but it’s so important.”

- Alena Luciani, Strength & Conditioning Coach

Upper Body Unilateral Exercises

Pulling a single cable

In my years as a personal trainer, I've seen clients, especially those recovering from shoulder injuries, make remarkable progress with these exercises.

1. One Arm Machine Row

This is a great exercise that I highly recommend for targeting the upper back, shoulders, and arms muscles, providing a comprehensive workout for these areas.

Using a machine, you can adjust the weight and focus on proper form throughout the movement.

To perform a single arm cable machine row:

  1. Attach a D-handle to a cable machine at chest level.
  2. Step back while facing the machine and hold the handle with your right hand.
  3. Slightly bend your knees and row the cable back with your right arm.
  4. Keep your back straight and elbow tucked in.
  5. Hold and squeeze your muscles, then extend your arm and repeat.

2. One Arm Shoulder Press

The single-arm shoulder press is a unilateral exercise that targets the shoulders and arms while engaging the core for stability.

This exercise is great for those looking to improve their shoulder strength and build a more symmetrical physique.

Here’s how to perform this exercise:

  1. Assume a stance with legs at shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in one hand.
  2. Bend your arm and hold the dumbbell above your shoulder.
  3. Extend your elbow to raise the dumbbell directly overhead.
  4. Lower the dumbbell back to your shoulder.

3. One Arm Dumbbell Row

Dumbbell row for arms

The one-arm dumbbell row is a popular exercise in weight training that targets the upper back muscles.

It can be performed with various weights and rep ranges to increase strength and muscle mass.

Follow these steps to do a single-arm dumbbell row:

  1. Stand and hold a dumbbell in one hand with a neutral grip.
  2. Hinge forward until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.
  3. Drive the elbow back and retract the shoulder blade.
  4. Pull the dumbbell towards the body, then slowly lower it back down.

4. Side Plank Crunch

A side plank crunch is a strength training exercise that targets the obliques, hips, and core muscles.

It involves assuming a side plank position while crunching the upper part of the body and lifting the top leg towards the elbow of the lower arm.

To do a side plank crunch:

  1. Lie on your left side on the floor and lift your upper body while placing your left elbow on the floor.
  2. Stack your feet on each other with your left arm perpendicular to the floor.
  3. While maintaining a straight line, bring your right leg up and your left elbow down to meet like you are crunching.
  4. Squeeze your abs while balancing for a moment, then return to the starting position and repeat.

Lower Body Unilateral Exercises

Performing lower body unilateral exercises

The best lower-body unilateral exercises are described below.

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is not only widely recognized and popular but also highly effective. From my experience, clients have found this exercise particularly beneficial for targeting imbalances.

It works the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings while challenging balance and stability.

Bulgarian split squats are especially suitable for elderly populations, as it enhances balance and reduces the risk of falls

Here’s how you do the Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Clean a pair of kettlebells into the rack position.
  2. Put your back foot on an elevated surface and place a weight plate before your big toe.
  3. Lower your back knee towards the floor while maintaining a slight forward lean.
  4. Push through your front foot to return to the starting position.

2. One Leg Calf Raises

Calf raises are a great way to strengthen and tone the calves, improve ankle stability, and prevent injury.

You can perform these as a dumbbell or machine calf exercise. You can even use your own body weight.

Here are the steps to perform this unilateral exercise:

  1. Find a low surface and place the ball of your right foot on the edge of it, ensuring you have something to hold for balance.
  2. Slightly bend your left knee and lift the opposite leg, standing on your toes.
  3. Hold for a moment, then lower your heel without losing balance.
  4. Repeat the up-and-down movement for the desired reps.
  5. Keep your working calf engaged in all the reps.

3. Seated Leg Curls

Woman doing seated leg curls

This unilateral exercise focuses on strengthening the hamstring muscles one leg at a time.

You can also modify it into standing leg curls.

To perform unilateral seated leg curls:

  1. Choose the desired weight and adjust the pad above the back of your heels.
  2. Slightly lift the weight to tense your hamstrings, which is the starting position.
  3. Take a deep breath, contract your hamstrings, and curl the weight upward with a neutral spine.
  4. Lower the weight back down to the starting position.

4. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

This unilateral movement addresses imbalances by targeting the left and right muscles of the legs individually.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Hold a kettlebell by the handle in your right hand, with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Shift your weight to your right side, bend your right knee slightly, and hinge forward at the hips.
  3. Lift your left foot off the floor and let the kettlebell go down like an anchor.
  4. Hold the position when your left leg and torso are parallel to the floor, then go back up and repeat.

Benefits Of Unilateral Training 

Showing one arm muscle

Single-limb exercises have become increasingly popular in recent years, and for a good reason.

The benefits of unilateral exercises include:

  • Better Strength and Stability: Scientific research by the International Journal of Sports Therapy Physical Therapy shows that unilateral exercises can lead to increased strength gains, improved balance and stability, and reduced risk of injury, which is crucial for overall fitness [1]. It can also help in correcting postural imbalances caused by sedentary lifestyles or repetitive movements in certain occupations.
  • Reduced Muscle Imbalances: By training each side separately, you can identify and address muscle imbalances, which can help prevent compensations and overuse injuries. The fact that they help regain balance and muscle symmetry makes them particularly beneficial in rehabilitation programs and post-injury workouts.
  • Improved Muscle Activation: Research published by the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that single-limb exercises can lead to increased muscle activation, better neuromuscular control, and improved overall performance [2].

Safety Tips and Precautions

While single-limb exercises have many benefits, I always emphasize to my clients the importance of these safety tips.

  • Start Light: Always start with light weights and gradually increase as you become more comfortable with the movement.
  • Maintain Form: Focus on keeping your core engaged and your back straight.
  • Work with a Trainer: Use a spotter or trainer to ensure you’re performing the movements correctly if you're new to unilateral exercises.
  • Train Both Sides Evenly: Incorporate unilateral exercises evenly on both sides and bilateral exercises to prevent muscle imbalance.

Example Workout Routine

Man doing unilateral exercise indoors

Here’s an example workout routine that incorporates unilateral exercises:

1. Warm-up: 5-10 minutes of light cardio or dynamic stretching bilateral exercise

2. Upper body:

  • One Arm Machine Row: 3 sets of 10 reps (each arm)
  • One Arm Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 10 reps (each arm)
  • One Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 10 reps (each arm)
  • Side Plank Crunch: 3 sets of 10 reps (each side)

3. Lower body:

  • Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets of 10 reps (each leg)
  • One Leg Calf Raise: 3 sets of 15 reps (each leg)
  • Unilateral Seated Leg Curl: 3 sets of 10 reps (each leg)
  • Single-leg Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 10 reps (each leg)

4. Cool-down: 5–10 minutes of static stretching

FAQs

Are Unilateral Exercises Better Than Bilateral?

No, unilateral exercises are not better than bilateral exercises. Both types of exercise have advantages and drawbacks. It's important to include both in your workout routine to ensure balanced strength.

How Many Unilateral Exercises Should I Do?

You should do at least 1–2 unilateral exercises for muscle development. The number of unilateral exercises you should do will depend on your fitness goals, current fitness level, and workout routine.

How Can I Improve My Unilateral Strength?

To improve your unilateral strength, include various unilateral exercises in your workout routine and gradually increase the weight or resistance. Focus on proper form and engage the targeted muscles during each exercise to improve strength.


References: 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3325639/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5972467/
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