If you aren’t including unilateral exercises in your workout routine, you will want to after you read this. Because whether you’re a runner that wants to hit a personal record, a lifter who wants to deadlift and squat more OR simply a weekend warrior who wants to stay injury free, you NEED to correct those imbalances and build strength with unilateral exercises!
What are unilateral exercises?
They are moves that target one side at a time. They help you correct imbalances that can lead to injury, build core stability, improve your balance, develop functional strength and strengthen your mind-body connection.
Basically, unilateral exercises are must-do exercises that people tend to avoid because they feel more awkward than bilateral moves like squats and push-ups. However, we need to work each side independently so that our dominant side doesn’t always take over. By working each side independently, you can help that weaker side “catch up” and you can prevent injuries that can be caused by overcompensating for muscle imbalance.
Too often when a muscle isn’t firing correctly and one side is weaker, we compensate by recruiting other muscles to carry a load that they shouldn't be responsible for. This can create poor movement patterns and lead to overuse. Both of which can cause injury. That is why doing unilateral moves allows you to address these imbalances and prevent compensations.
Unilateral moves are also a great way to advance basic exercises when you don’t necessarily have access to a ton of equipment or different weights. By standing on one foot or loading only one side, you create instability, which not only makes a move more challenging, but also helps work your core and improves your balance. Plus, a weight that may not have been challenging when both sides were working together, may be more than enough to challenge one side at a time.
If you are ready to start using unilateral training, try these 3 Must-Do Unilateral Moves to start!
Single Leg Deadlift
Improve your balance, strengthen each leg and glute independently and improve your core stability with the Single Leg Deadlift. To do the Single Leg Deadlift with just your own bodyweight, stand up nice and tall, balancing on your right leg with your left toe lightly touching the ground. Your arms should be hanging down by your sides.
Hinge at the hips, lifting your left leg back toward the wall behind you as you keep your back flat and lower your chest parallel to the ground. Do not round your back. As you hinge over, extend your arms down toward the ground. Make sure to sit your butt back and load your glute as you hinge over instead of simply leaning forward. Do not squat, but you can, and should, keep your standing knee soft to help you sit back and load your glute.
Hinge over as far as you can with good form and then drive through that standing heel to come back up to standing. Feel your glutes work to bring you up nice and tall. Squeeze your glutes at the top and repeat. Lightly touch your left toe down before hinging back over on the same leg.
Half-Kneeling Single Arm Press
Make your core work harder with this half-kneeling unilateral press variation to isolate each arm. While you can do the Single Arm Press as a standing unilateral upper body move, you can make it even more unstable and force your core to work harder by moving to the half kneeling position.
To do the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Press, set up half kneeling with one knee on the ground. Flex your back foot and make sure your foot, ankle, knee and hip of your front leg are all in line. This will make sure your front glute is firing. Hold a weight in hand opposite the knee that is forward and bring the weight up to your shoulder.
Make sure your back knee is under your hips so you can engage your glute and press the weight up from your shoulder. Without leaning to the side or back, press the weight up toward the ceiling. Squeeze the glute on the same side as the arm that is pressing. Feel your lat working to help you press by stabilizing the shoulder. Lower the weight back down and repeat. Brace your core and keep your low back from taking over. Add weight as you can but make sure you don’t lean way as you press.
Single Arm Plank Rotation With Knee
This is a killer core move to build shoulder stability while also targeting your serratus anterior, abs and adductors. This is an advanced rotational exercise. Beginners may need to touch their foot down during it or do it with their hand up on an incline.
To do the Single Arm Plank Rotation With Knee, set up in a side plank position from your hand with your top leg in front of your bottom leg and your feet flexed. Lift that back leg as if kicking it back and up toward the ceiling slightly as you reach your top hand out in front of you and toward the opposite wall.
Your chest will rotate toward the ground as you lift up into this side plank position with your opposite arm and leg raised. Make sure to really flex the foot that is down to engage your inner thigh and protect your knee.
Then, begin to tuck your raised leg under your body and forward, driving your knee forward as you tuck your raised arm down to meet it. Rotate your chest back open as you do. Try to touch your knee to your elbow as you rotate your chest back open and away from the ground. You can tap your toe down as you tuck your knee to make the move easier.
After slowly tucking the knee to the elbow and feeling yourself pivot around that shoulder then kick the leg back out and reach back out and overhead with your hand. The muscles around your rib cage should really be working. Beginners may need to tap their foot down instead of keeping it off the ground as they extend back out.
Move slowly to stay balanced and try to keep your hand on the ground under your shoulder. Beginners can tap the toe down behind them or even just do the knee tuck without the kick out.
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.