Why are unilateral exercises so effective?


Those of you doing my Kettlercise and HIIT classes at the start of this year may have noticed that we were doing more single leg or arm movements – here’s why:

The key benefit is that these make you use both sides of your body equally, avoiding over-training or overusing your dominant side. Unilateral training is also a great way to:

  • Increase strength on the weaker side of your body. Often our non-dominant arms and legs are lacking in strength, not just because we use them less in everyday life, but also because during traditional gym workouts we unconsciously let our stronger side take over. Forcing each side of the body to work differently - and separately - immediately highlights any muscular weaknesses and imbalances that may be affecting your progress in the gym as well as our day-to-day functioning.

  • Improve balance and kinaesthetic awareness. Unilateral exercises require a strong knowledge of where your limbs are relative to your torso. So next time you trip and catch yourself before falling, congratulate yourself on your well-developed kinaesthetic sense! Asking the left and right sides of your body to simultaneously perform different tasks forces you to create and strengthen mind-to-muscle connections that you might not otherwise use.

  • Incorporate extra core training in your workout. Whenever we ask the right and left sides of our body to perform different movements, we turn on our deep core stabilizers: the muscles that help support the spine and protect it from being injured. For example, lifting a single, heavy weight up and over your head requires the obliques on the opposite side of your body to contract and engage in order to keep your torso upright.

  • Push through training plateaus. Sometimes we get stuck at a particular weight or progression of an exercise. No matter how hard we try to progress it, we can’t seem to increase the difficulty or the load. Unilateral exercises can help you push through plateaus by forcing the weaker side of the body to become stronger, as well as providing a slightly different stimulus to the body (akin to changing the angle of your chest press or the stride length of your lunge). Doing things a little differently is often the key to moving forwards.

  • Unilateral training helps rehabilitation more than bilateral training. When you train one side of the body, the other side is also stimulated. This indirect stimulation of the non-working side of the body improves strength in the injured area. This is called cross-education of muscles, and is a “neural event”: The brain pathways used for the 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.

Examples of low-impact, unilateral lower-body exercises include:

• Lunges: side, forward, backward.

• Single-leg or "pistol" squat

• Box step-up

Unilateral upper-body exercises include single-arm:

• shoulder presses or lateral raises

• rows or chest presses

• standing dumbbell rows

• triceps extensions and biceps curls

So now you know! Looking forward to doing more of this with you in classes soon.

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