Unilateral exercises – movements using only one side of your body at a time – are a great way to isolate certain muscles and/or muscle groups while also activating the abdominal stabilizers by forcing you to balance your body and compensate for the weight on one side. It’s a great way to work on imbalances and improve strength and size in your weaker lifts, but it’s also a sure-fire way to switch things up and prevent boredom in the gym.
If you’re looking to add some unilateral training into your routine, here are five of the best to help build your physique.
1) KNEELING DUMBBELL CURL & PRESS
How: Take a dumbbell in one hand and get into a kneeling, lunge position with your back knee resting on the ground. Make sure your front leg is completely vertical and perpendicular to the floor. Hold the dumbbell in the hand opposite of your front leg at your side, palm facing in. Hammer curl the weight up until it is resting on your deltoid, with your elbow pointed ahead, and press the weight overhead. Return the weight to the bottom in the reverse order.
Why: A half-kneeling position will force you to lift the weight using proper form and isolate the muscle you’re working – there’s no way to swing the weight up on the curl or dip the hips down and press the weight overhead. No cheating! The half-kneeling position also offers a challenge to stability, engaging the core stabilizers even more.
2) REAR FOOT ELEVATED FRONT SQUAT
How: Set up a bench or box parallel and behind a squat rack or rig. Grab the bar in a front rack position, just as if you were going to perform a traditional front squat. Take a step back and place one foot on the box or bench behind you, making sure only the front half of your foot is on the edge of the box. You should now be in a modified lunge position with you rear foot elevated on the box behind you. Start the movement by slowly lowering yourself down until your front thigh is parallel with the ground. Return to the top and repeat. To ensure your front leg is in the right position, your shin should be completely vertical at the bottom of the squat and perpendicular with the floor. To regress the exercise, grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides – the movement pattern is the same.
Why: Rear foot elevated squats are a great option to isolate one leg and smash the quadriceps. Another great advantage is the ability to use less weight then a bilateral squat but still get the same effect which can really come in handy during high volume training periods when fatigue of the nervous system can affect your training negatively. Also, the hip flexors on the leg up side get a nice stretch, which tend to be tighter than they should be in most people with desk and computer jobs being so present.
3) SUITCASE CARRY
How: Grab a heavy kettlebell, dumbbell, or farmers walk handle in one hand. Stand up and walk as far as you can or for a set distance. It’s that simple; just make sure to keep your shoulders level, eyes looking straight ahead, and don’t run. Running during a loaded carry is just stupid.
Why: Loaded carries are a great way to challenge the entire body, specifically targeting the upper back, forearms, and abdominal stabilizers. Carrying a heavy weight on only one side causes the opposite side to compensate for the extra load on the opposite side and work even harder.
4) LANDMINE PRESS
How: Set a bar up in a landmine attachment if your gym has one, or just set a bar down in the corner of a squat rack or in the corner of a gym. Load up only the side of the bar not in the attachment or corner. Stand at the end of the bar and pick it up in hand, resting the end of the bar on your deltoid. Your feet should be back far enough so you have a slight forward lean, without the lean the press will be very awkward if possible at all. With your elbow pointed straight ahead and wrist straight press the bar overhead, keeping the bar path in a straight line and return it to your shoulder.
Why: Landmine presses are a great way to hit your delts and triceps hard, because of the bar path arching slightly away from you versus a traditional press that travels straight upwards. The triceps are involved a bit more as it is more of a shoulder press followed by a triceps extension.
5) SUSPENSION TRAINER 1-ARM ROW
How: Set up a suspension trainer on a rig or pull up bar, grab the handles, and step your feet forward. Let your arms extend and lower your torso to the ground so you are holding yourself up by your arms. Make sure you are on your heels with your toes flexed towards your shin. Release one handle so you are now supporting yourself with one arm, make sure your position doesn’t change and your body doesn’t rotate. With the back of your hand facing the ceiling, row your body up to the handle making sure not to rotate as you go. To help prevent rotation you can extend your free arm out to the side. As you row, make sure you rotate your hand from a back of the hand towards the ceiling position (pronation) to a palms facing in position (neutral grip.) To progress the exercise, walk your feet out further, add a weighted vest, hold a kettlebell in the opposite hand in a front rack position or drape a chain on your shoulders.
Why: By supporting your bodyweight on only one side you are making your body compensate BIG time on the opposite side and upping the intensity for the muscles responsible for the pulling motion of the row.
Unilateral exercise can offer great benefits to your physique and movement quality to keep you injury free. I’m not saying that you need to replace every bilateral exercise with its unilateral counterpart but adding a unilateral exercise or two into your workouts can provide some huge benefits. When performing a unilateral exercise be sure to pick a lower weight than you would with bilateral (two limb) movements. Some unilateral exercises can get away with an equal amount of weight as their bilateral counterparts, but most require less weight. Go ahead, try a few unilateral exercises – I promise you will enjoy them!