If you’re a regular reader of the fitness content here on BroBible you know we’re big fans of big movements. The benefits multi-joint, compound exercises has been explained over and over again.
Squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows are among some of the best exercises you can do in the gym. And while you will see awesome results performing these movements, what if I told you that your program was still missing critical components…especially if your goal is to shred fat or build muscle.
Bilateral vs Unilateral Exercise
Exercises can be performed two ways. They can be done in bilateral fashion, meaning both arms or legs are working in unison. This is the traditional way you think of performing exercises: back squats, front squats, barbell or dumbbell bench press, deadlifts, bent over rows, overhead presses, etc.
Basically, bilateral movements are exercises that utilize both legs or arms at the same time.
Then there are unilateral exercises. These are the missing component in a lot of peoples programs. Unilateral exercises provide amazing benefits when it comes to burning fat and building muscle. We’ll talk about those in a second.
First, what are unilateral exercises? Well, if bilateral exercises use both limbs in unison, then unilateral exercises use only one limb at a time. Think lunges, single leg squats, one-arm rows/pressing, and so on.
The Benefits of Unilateral Exercise
“The road to shredded is paved in single-leg exercises.” – John Romaniello
First off, lets not dismiss the benefits of bilateral exercises. Movements like back squats, deadlifts and bench press provide immense physiological benefits. By simple biomechanics, they allow you to move more weight and produce more force. They work great and should definitely be a part of your program.
That said, unilateral exercises also provide their own unique benefits:
- Unilateral exercises provide balance and symmetry. There is no better way to bring up lagging body parts than with unilateral exercises. With bilateral exercise, there is always going to be one side that is doing more work than the other simply because of which side of your body you naturally favor.
Unilateral exercises not only will help correct side-to-side strength imbalances, but will improve the mind-muscle connection, meaning you will be more comfortable moving with both limbs individually.
- Unilateral exercises are great core and stabilization work. Lets get this out of the way right now: If anyone reading this ever steps foot on a Bosu ball again in order to “improve balance and engage their core”, I will personal come to your gym and engage your core with my fist.
Seriously, if you want to improve core strength, stability, and balance, there are few ways better than unilateral exercise. When holding a weight on just one side of your body, or standing on just one leg, your entire body has to work incredibly hard to stabilize and prevent rotation. This engages your abs, obliques, spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, quads…basically every muscle in your body is used to help you remain in a neutral position.
- Unilateral exercises are highly metabolic. Think about it, when you do a single-limb exercise, you have to do so many reps on one side and then do the same number of reps on the other side.
This means you are essentially doing twice the work. You take twice the number of breaths, twice the number of heartbeats, twice the number of muscle contractions…and what does all this equate to? That’s right, more calories burned! This is what makes unilateral exercises great to include in a fat loss program.
With any unilateral exercise, you are going to be using less weight than you would with bilateral exercises. It’s important that you don’t sacrifice form in order to try and move more weight. The benefits of unilateral exercises come from recruiting as many muscles as possible; and that only happens with good form.
Unilateral Exercise Examples
If you want to start incorporating unilateral training into your program, here are six great exercises to start with:
Dumbbell Bulgarian/Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Dumbbell Step Ups
Single-Leg Dumbbell/Barbell Romanian Deadlift
One Arm Dumbbell Row
One Arm Dumbbell Push Press
One Arm Dumbbell Bench Press