ASK YOU TO GIVE UP ON COMPOUND MOVEMENTS? NEVER. BUT WE’LL MAKE A STRONG CASE AS TO WHY UNILATERAL EXERCISES—ESPECIALLY OUR TOP PICKS—BELONG IN YOUR TRAINING ROUTINES.
BY JEREMIAH SALAS /// PHOTOGRAPHS BY PER BERNAL
IF YOU DILIGENTLY PERFORM compound staples such as the bench press, dead lift, overhead press, and squat week after week, you’re all but certain to ram headfirst into a plateau. Of course these are all effective and important exercises, but training the same way all the time will get you nowhere, no matter what program you choose. One simple way to break your body out of a muscle-gaining rut is to train it one side at a time. The only unilateral exercise most guys do is one-arm rows, but almost any move can be broken in half to work one side at a time, and doing so can make it equally—or arguably more—effective for spurring gains. The following is our guide to unilateral training—including our nine favorite lifts you can start using today to build muscle, prevent injury, and improve flexibility, balance, and strength.
MULTILATERAL BENEFITS Training one arm at a time isn’t just some bro science trick. And single-leg training doesn’t just mean “lunges.” Not only can unilateral training help identify and correct muscular imbalances—an important diagnostic to run for those seeking a better body—but it can also recruit and engage more total muscle with every rep. Research out of Iowa State University shows that unilateral exercises generate 20% more force than similar bilateral exercises while increasing the involvement of your body’s most growth-prone fast-twitch fibers. For example, if you normally barbell curl 100 pounds for 10 reps, that would theoretically mean that you’re capable of lifting 50 pounds per side using dumbbells. But because of the increased force production when training unilaterally, you’re actually more likely to be able to handle 60-pound dumbbells for the same number of reps with each arm. By going with unilateral instead of bilateral work for any exercise, you can increase the total amount of weight moved for the workout, while also training your muscles to generate more force on traditional exercises.
This method of training can also boost core strength because the body has to account for the inherent imbalance. Ever try single-arm lateral raises without holding on to a stable object? Your deep transverse abdominis, obliques, and other muscles near your spine light up like Times Square as they resist lateral flexion and prevent you from toppling over. This additional muscle activity then strengthens key muscles that help you to lift more weight on other moves while also fortifying you against injury.
One additional and often overlooked benefit to unilateral training is the ability to help your resting side. Australian researchers determined that the contralateral (i.e., resting) side averaged strength gains of about 10% of the working side due to the increase in nervous system activity during unilateral sets. That’s right—the resting side got stronger when it wasn’t even directly working.
Researchers are unclear on the exact mechanisms for the myriad benefits of unilateral training, but it is widely believed that the body is compensating for the absence of a contralateral contribution. In other words, your body becomes stronger because it simply has to.
1. ONE AT A TIME
Bilateral moves involve the most muscle and evoke the greatest response of muscle-building hormones, such as growth hormone and testosterone. But by sprinkling unilateral moves into your current routine, you can get the best of both worlds. And while the simplest prescription for unilateral training is to find a way to use one arm or leg for your favorite moves, we wanted to focus on nine standout exercises that hold more potential benefits than the standard unilateral fare to which you are accustomed.
Single-arm Band Flye – TARGET: CHEST, INTERNAL/EXTERNAL OBLIQUES, TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS Attach a resistance band with a D-handle to a fixed object. Grasp the handle and step away from the anchor point to infuse the band with tension. With your arm at full extension and a slight bend in your elbow, flex your chest to bring the D-handle toward your midline, pausing for a count before returning to the start and repeating for reps.
The resistance band provides linear variable tension, meaning that the movement becomes harder as the range of motion increases. And at full extension, your core musculature works overtime to resist rotating toward the anchor point.
Single-arm Landmine Floor Press – TARGET: CHEST, SHOULDERS, TRICEPS Position yourself on the floor with your body parallel to the barbell, your head nearest to the weighted end. Scoot yourself into a position that puts the end of the barbell about even with your shoulders. Maneuver your elbow under the bar and grasp it firmly with a neutral grip. Press it up and then lower the weight along the same path.
Allow for slight travel toward your midline on each rep for a greater range of motion. Complete all reps for one side before switching.
Having your front foot elevated allows for a greater range of motion than traditional Bulgarian split squats, placing a greater stretch on your working leg’s glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
2. Dumbbell Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat TARGET: QUADS, HAMSTRINGS, GLUTES
Set up a small platform, box, or weight plate in front of a flat bench. Place your working-side foot on the platform and the top of your non-working foot on top of the bench. Holding the dumbbells at full extension at your sides, slowly descend into the bottom position before forcefully pressing through your front heel to return to the start position. Perform all reps for one side, rest one minute, then switch.
Single-arm Landmine Clean & Press – TARGET: DELTS, GLUTES, ERECTOR SPINAE, TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS Position yourself at the weighted end of the landmine with your feet shoulder-width apart and the end of the barbell lined up with your working arm. Squat down to grasp the bar with your working-side hand, thumb facing you, arm at full extension, back flat, and head in a neutral position. Inhale deeply and press through the floor to accelerate the bar upward while extending through your ankles, knees, and hips. As the bar passes chest level, quickly “jump” under the end of the barbell and “catch” the bar at shoulder level. Finish the movement by push-pressing the weight to full extension.
This starting position eliminates the contribution from the smaller supraspinatus muscle (which is most active during the first 30 degrees of the exercise), putting the onus squarely on your middle delt to complete each rep.
3. Leaning Lateral Raise – TARGET: MIDDLE DELTOID
Hold a dumbbell at full extension in one hand and grasp a fixed object with the other. Keeping your feet near the fixed object, lean away so that the dumbbell hangs slightly away from your body. With your working arm slightly bent, contract your delts to elevate the weight in a wide arc out away from your body. Pause for a count at the top and slowly return to the start.
Single-arm Pulldown – TARGET: LATS, MIDDLE BACK
Use a D-handle or rope attachment and grasp the attachment with one hand and take a seat on the floor so your arm is overhead. Use your non-working arm for stability. Allow for a good stretch before depressing your scapula and pulling the weight forcefully down toward your side. Drive your elbow down as far as possible and squeeze both shoulder blades together for a count before returning to the start position.
The single arm pull down has the added benefit of a slightly greater range of motion. Control the weight back to the start on every rep, allowing for a full stretch at the top. You can change the travel path of your elbow to alter the muscular emphasis.
There are multiple start positions for the Meadows row. You should feel free to adjust yours in order to achieve the proper range of motion or just for a different feel after you’ve mastered one position.
Meadows Row – TARGET: BACK, TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS Load a landmine or corner a loaded barbell and set yourself up at the weighted end with your shoulders (roughly) facing the pivot point of the bar. Reach down and grasp the fat end of the bar, your non-working hand resting on the inside of the same-side knee. Keeping your back flat and head neutral as you would in a single-arm row, engage your lat to pull the weight up toward your ribs.
Single-arm Negative Dip – TARGET: CHEST, TRICEPS, OBLIQUES Sit in a dip machine with the seat belt fastened and load the plate selector with a weight that you can handle for about 10 reps. Press the weight down with both hands. Once you reach full extension, remove one hand and control the weight back up using the other hand. At the top, grasp both handles and press the weight down again. Complete all reps for one side, rest one minute, then switch.
This move targets your pecs and lats in nearly equal measure. The key is to keep the line of pull toward your back pocket, rather than your front pocket as you would with conventional flyes.
4. Single-arm Back Pocket Flye – TARGET: CHEST, BACK
In a cable apparatus, attach a Dhandle and set it to shoulder level or higher. Grasp the handle with one hand and step away from the pulley directly across toward the opposite pulley so that you are directly on the midline of the cable station. With your arm slightly bent—as you would executing a normal flye—inhale deeply and contract your working side chest and back muscles to pull the handle down and slightly back toward your back pocket. Hold the contraction for a count and return slowly to the start.
UNILATERAL TRAINING TIPS: Use these guidelines when programming these nine moves into your existing workout routine.
PLACEMENT To take advantage of additional force generation, do these moves first or second in your routine for the associated body parts.
WEIGHT Most of these exercises can and should be trained in whatever rep range you’re focusing on in your training. The single-arm landmine. clean & press, however, is a power-oriented movement and reps should be kept lower (2–6 reps) to maximize bar speed on each set. Because of the intense isolation, leaning lateral raises should be kept in standard hypertrophy ranges (8–15 reps).
REST Unilateral training is fatiguing—even more than bilateral exercise. To keep good form, and ensure that one side’s tired muscles don’t impact the other side, be sure to rest at least one minute after finishing one side before moving on to the other. You can rest 1–2 minutes after finishing both sides.