Unilateral exercises are single-leg or single-arm movements. The primary benefit of including unilateral exercises in your training programs is that the exerciser is using both sides of the body equally. Doing so helps your clients avoid overtraining or overusing the dominant side, helps to isolate and correct muscle imbalances, improves balance, utilizes core muscles, aids in injury prevention and facilitates rehabilitation.
Compared to bilateral training, unilateral training facilitates rehabilitation to a greater degree. When you train one side of the body the other side is also stimulated. Indirect stimulation of the non-working side of the body via working the opposite side improves strength in the injured area. This is called cross-education of muscles, and is a neural event. The brain pathways that are used for the primary unilateral exercise stimulate the same muscles on the opposite side of the body. The key to applying cross-education is to recognize that it works for the same muscles on the opposite side of the body only. For example, doing a single-leg knee extension with the right leg stimulates the left quadriceps muscle, but not the left hamstrings.
Cross-education is greatest for lower-body muscles and when eccentric (lengthening) contractions are used to train the working muscles (Manca et al., 2017). However, concentric (shortening) contractions also work, as do isometric (no change in length) contractions, though to a much lesser degree.
To utilize unilateral training during sessions, try the suggested exercises and routines below.
Low-impact, unilateral lower-body exercises include:
- Side lunge
- Forward lunge
- Backward lunge
- Single-leg or “pistol” squat
- Box step-up
Unilateral upper-body exercises include:
- Single-arm dumbbell shoulder presses or lateral raises
- Single-arm rows or chest presses
- Single-arm standing dumbbell rows
- Single-arm triceps extensions and biceps curls
Plyometric exercises, which vary in difficulty, can be used to progress unilateral training routines.
Unilateral lower-body plyometric drills include:
- Single-leg push-off (low)
- Lateral push-off (low)
- Lateral box jump (medium)
- Jump split squat (medium)
- Single-leg vertical jump (high)
- Single-leg tuck jump (high)
Note that the exercises above are ranked by level of difficulty from low to high. Start with low-intensity exercises and add medium- to high-intensity exercise.