Or… should you train with one leg or one arm at a time or at the same time instead?
In unilateral training, exercises are performed either on one side of the body or on one limb. For example, single-leg squats or lunges are unilateral exercises. Do unilateral exercises have more value compared to bilateral exercises? This is what I will discuss in this blog post.
Basic exercises are always bilateral exercises. Barbell bench press, squats, pull-ups, deadlifts – these exercises are performed simultaneously with either two arms or two legs, i.e. both sides of the body. These exercises are mostly performed with both sides of the body, because that way we have more strength to use bigger weights. Despite the fact that unilateral exercises do not usually perform 1x maximum repetitions, they have many other positive characteristics that bilateral exercises do not:
- Most unilateral exercises have a greater range of motion than bilateral exercises. For example, the range of motion of the shoulder blades is greater when performing push-ups or pull-downs with one arm. A greater range of motion results in muscle hypertrophy. Or, if you want a wider back, perform pull-downs on a block machine with one hand.
- Unilateral exercises help to find the differences between the sides of the body and balance them at the same time. For example, dumbbell bench press gives a good overview of which side of the body is stronger and which side is weaker. When bench pressing with a barbell, the stronger side of the body works harder and allows the weaker side to be weaker. Also, the bar moves straight up equally, and we don’t know that one side of the body is doing more work and the other less. However, it is important to give both sides of the body an equal load, and therefore it would be good to alternately perform exercises with dumbbells.
- Stability increases, which is very necessary when doing unilateral training. For example, single leg squats improve knee stability more than regular squats. Unilateral training also requires a more perfect posture from the body when performing the exercise.
- Finally, one very exciting fact: by training one limb or one side of the body, the other side of the body also becomes stronger. This training method has been used in rehabilitation for a long time, but not particularly in regular training. There has been a study, where people had one arm in a cast. One group performed the exercises with one arm, the other did not perform exercies at all- The results revealed that the group that exercised had a smaller decline in muscle strength in the “injuried” arm.
In other words, if you have one leg that is significantly stronger than the other, don’t only strengthen your weaker leg – do exercises for both legs equally, so both legs become equally strong 😉
Bilateral training is fundamental in strength training. We are able to move larger weights with two sides of the body, and it is not necessary to focus on training only one side. However, it is worth paying more attention to unilateral exercises, because it enriches the usual training.
Do more exercises with dumbbells and try different exercises 😉