What is unilateral training?
This term means performing exercises that work one limb exclusively or that are biased significantly towards one limb. In a single-leg squat, for example, you stand on one leg, while for a split squat you stand on both legs but place much more emphasis on one of them. This approach is different from bilateral training, which uses both limbs evenly in moves such as the barbell squat or deadlift. The benefits might not be immediately obvious but they are numerous.
Improve balance and stability
A key benefit of unilateral training is that it allows you to even out any strength or size imbalances. Most people tend to use one side of their body more than the other in everyday life and this bias can be exacerbated if you only do bilateral training. Most sporting activities involve unilateral rather than bilateral movements, so adding unilateral exercises to your training can help improve sporting performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Unilateral exercises also help to strengthen stabilising muscles. The single-leg squat helps to build stability in your hips, for example, while upper-body unilateral exercises such as the one-arm dumbbell press recruit core muscles that are crucial to stability.
Many people think that unilateral exercises don’t allow you to use enough weight to build strength. In my opinion, these people simply haven’t done enough unilateral training to become strong using it. A good example is your legs, which you can overload more easily with a unilateral exercise. I find that once people master the Bulgarian split squat, they can handle roughly the same amount of weight on it as they can on a front squat – the difference being that in the split squat, all that weight is loaded on to one leg.
Some people think Bulgarian split squats are dangerous because they place too much stress on your hips, but I’ve coached hundreds of people and have never seen anyone get seriously injured while doing them, whereas people injure themselves performing bilateral squats all the time.
Where to begin
When integrating lower-body unilateral moves into your workouts, the key is to follow a sensible progression rather jumping straight in with advanced moves. You’re better off beginning with split squats before progressing to Bulgarian split squats and then eventually moving on to a true single-leg squat or ‘skater’ squat. Upper-body unilateral exercises don’t require such a degree of balance, so following a progression is less important.
Unlike a lot of coaches, I recommend doing lower-body unilateral exercises before lower-body bilateral moves during a workout. It’s much harder to balance when you’re fatigued, so I like to do them first when I’m fresh and can maintain the correct form.
Unilateral exercises are also a great way to overload your legs without overloading your lower back. If you do single-leg squats first, you pre-fatigue your legs. Then when you eventually perform squats you’ll have to use a little less weight than usual, which allows you to maintain better form. Your lower back is usually the limiting factor in a bilateral squat, but when you pre-fatigue your legs they become the limiting factor again, which is what you want.
For upper-body exercises, the order in which you perform them is less important. I tend to start with bilateral moves, but that’s just my personal preference.
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Bruno’s favourite unilateral exercises to strengthen and balance your body
Bulgarian split squat
‘This helps to develop a nice blend of strength and stability,’ says Bruno ‘You can use a lot of weight with it too.’
One-arm dumbbell floor press
‘A good anti-rotation core exercise that forces you to fight your body’s inclination to twist.’
One-arm dumbbell row
‘This move allows you maintain a more stable torso position than other rows, letting you lift more weight.’