One of the most popular reasons for starting a workout plan is to get stronger, but many go about accomplishing this goal the wrong way. While lifting heavier weights definitely plays a part, lifting techniques such as unilateral training play a huge role in helping every bodybuilder achieve their greatest strength gains.
By Roger Lockridge
You can only be as strong as your weakest parts, which is why unilateral training is so important when it comes to overall strength. Meaning “performed on only one side”, unilateral exercises are a great way to switch up your routine and challenge yourself in a way that isn’t just upping your weight. Including moves like single leg presses, dumbbell rows, lunges, or single arm bench presses will improve your overall body by honing in on each individual muscle group and targeting weaknesses you may have never known you had.
Why Do This?
There are several other benefits to adding unilateral exercises into you plan.
- Mind-Muscle Connection – One of the most telling traits of a seasoned athlete is their mind-muscle connection. In feeling your muscles contracting and extending during exercise, you can better focus on truly working the muscle you are targeting and getting the full benefit from the lift you are performing. Focusing on one side at a time isolates the specific muscle you want to work so you can concentrate on that area and make sure that you’re executing the movement properly. Lifting in a slow and controlled manner not only improves your mind-muscle connection, it greatly contributes to the rate and magnitude at which you gain strength.
- Balance of the Physique – Not everyone focuses on the aesthetic side of bodybuilding, but for those of us that do, we know how important it is to have a balanced and symmetrical physique. Unilateral training is incredibly effective in not only creating a balanced physique, but in evening out existing asymmetry. Whether you plan to step onstage or just want to look good for photos, unilateral training is a great tool to target those slight muscle imbalances and prevent any individual part from overpowering another.
- Find Weaknesses and Improve – You can’t determine if one side is weaker than the other by doing exercises that require you to use both. If you are constantly going for PR’s and exerting yourself to the fullest on every exercise, you probably are not focusing on the subtle differences in strength from one side to the other. For example, using one leg at a time on the leg press will help you determine which side you need to devote more time to in addition to train your muscles in a completely new way. Committing more time to improving your weaker side will help you improve improve not only that muscle group, but your overall strength and balance as a bodybuilder.
How to Work it Into Your Plan
You can use unilateral sets at any point in your workout, but I suggest including them at the beginning of the training session. You have the most energy at this point and can give those sets your greatest commitment. Also, you can use them to help you warm-up and establish the mind-muscle connection that will help you get the most out of your workout.
Finally, unilateral sets can help you pre-exhaust the muscles before you work into the bigger, compound movements. While initially you might notice a decrease in strength in those movements, eventually you’ll find you’re stronger than you were before.
If your gym has machines that allow you to work one side at a time, opt for these because you can isolate the targeted muscle while staying in a restricted motion. This can minimize the risk of injury while still allowing you to push yourself. Of course, dumbbell options are great as well for anything in the upper body. For lower body, single leg presses or extensions can help you with the quads. Leg curls can be performed unilaterally to target the hamstrings, and any version of the calf raise can be done one at a time.