If your goal is to grow muscle, get fit, reduce injury risk or to enhance your athletic ability, unilateral training is essential.
So what is Unilateral Training?
Unilateral Training is the performance of exercises that are single-arm or single-leg movements. Whether you are advanced or new to training, Unilateral Training should be a part of your training program!
Why is Unilateral Training essential?
Longevity is important and if Unilateral Training can potentially reduce injuries, then surely it's worth performing.
The use of unilateral work can help with balance, proprioception (awareness & movement of the body) and stabilisation. But during training or programming this is often overlooked as an important training factor.
Within soccer, the potential reduction of ACL injuries during a season has been demonstrated. During a study in 2011 that used multiple balancing exercises within a training program, when compared to a group that did not. Additionally, it is important to note this is in combination to other exercises and a consideration of potential other factors that could contribute to potential injuries such as weak hamstrings (1).
So what can we take from this?
For most gym users performing specific balance work is not necessary as the inclusion of unilateral work within a program will contribute to similar benefits. Upper and lower body unilateral exercises should be performed to compliment bilateral (the use of both arms or legs together) exercises in most cases.
Strength & Muscular Imbalances
No matter how long you have been training, having strength and muscular imbalances is normal, however, lack of unilateral training will cause imbalances to become a greater risk of injury. The overuse of bilateral movements will prevent both sides developing equally and the over dominance of just one side. Performing unilateral movements will help create a more equal balance of strength long term thus producing a greater balance during performance (2).
One unique benefit to unilateral training is the cross educational effect on an untrained limb. A study in 2010 found a 16.3% increase in strength in the untrained bicep while the trained bicep increased by 26.4% (2). Furthermore, a meta analysis (combines the results of multiple scientific studies) also suggested unilateral strength training produces adaptations in the opposite limb (3).
It is further suggested that execution of 3-5 sets of 8-15 repetitions of eccentric (lengthening of the muscle) contractions with rest times of 1-2 minutes between sets may determine a greater effect. However, executing basic unilateral movements concentrically (shortening of the muscle) and eccentrically on the trained limb may be adequate for most individuals.
Unilateral training should not be overlooked and will only progress your training, and help reduce the risk of injuries.
It does not just benefit the reduction in potential injuries!
During unilateral training we have the potenial to produce more force due to the muscles contracting alone which is known as the bilateral strength deficit (4). Therefore if your goals are movement related then unilateral training must be considered.
- G.Cerulli et al. (2001) proprioceptive training and prevention of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in soccer players
- A. Pearce & D.Kidgell. (2010). Reduction of the bilateral deficit following unilateral strength training
- R. Cirer-sastre, J V. Beltrán-Garrido & F. Corbi. (2017). Contralateral Effects After Unilateral Strength Training: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Training Loads
- EC. Costa et al. (2015). Effect of unilateral and bilateral resistance exercise on maximal voluntary strength, total volume of load lifted, and perceptual and metabolic responses