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Get strong with unilateral training

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Whether you’re an elite athlete or just a weekend warrior, don’t overlook unilateral exercises in your exercise routine.

Unilateral training simply means training one limb at a time, such as a single arm press or a single leg squat. Unilateral exercises can be done with your own body weight or loaded with a dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance band or cable.

There has been a lot of discussion in the fitness industry about single limb lower body exercises, with many well known coaches insisting that single leg work is safer and more effective than traditional bilateral leg strengthening exercises like squats and deadlifts. I propose that everyone could benefit from some unilateral work, for not only the lower body, but also the upper body.

In sports and in real life, we perform movements that require us to balance on one foot or manipulate objects with one hand. In this sense, unilateral training is quite functional.

Unilateral exercises also challenge stabilization muscles which may not be otherwise utilized during bilateral movements. This includes joint stabilizers as well as deep core muscles, which are extremely important for general physical preparedness. Single limb movements also improve skills such as balance, co-ordination, concentration and agility, which are often neglected in today’s aesthetic-centric fitness culture.  

In addition to the obvious carry-over into athletics and real life, unilateral training is important for injury prevention. Single limb movements are notorious for exposing weaknesses or imbalances between one side of the body and the other. Try some single arm kettlebell presses, or pistols and you will see what I mean. One side tends to be much more difficult than the other. This can be a result of past injury, or simply a natural weakness. However, it is important to note that these imbalances rarely correct themselves, and left alone, these undiagnosed weaknesses can eventually lead to further injury, another important reason to train to reduce imbalances.

Though it’s not necessary to always train unilaterally, it’s important to include some unilateral work in each training cycle.  One way to do this is to work on single leg and single arm movements for a few weeks at the beginning of a training cycle, as part of a preparatory phase before moving on to some of the big lifts.

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