In everyday life, it’s rare that we move in the way most people train. In the gym we tend to be evenly balanced, but in life we might be loaded more on one side. Let’s face it, one shopping bag is probably going to weigh more than the other. How can we train for this? Enter unilateral exercises.

So what are unilateral exercises?

Unilateral is just a fancy way of saying ‘one-side’, so a unilateral exercise is one which only uses one side of the body. For example, a single-arm overhead press is the unilateral version of the bilateral (meaning two-side) regular overhead press.

Here are four benefits of including this type of training in your workouts:

1. Improved Balance

Some unilateral movements, especially those focused on the lower body, force the body to work hard on balance. If you are standing on one leg while you move, it will require more balance development than standing on two legs! A great example of a balance-dominant movement would be a single-leg Romanian deadlift (pictured below).

what are unilateral exercises

2. Greater Core Stability

When loading one side of your body more than the other, the core muscles will be working much harder to keep your torso upright. We often tend to think about core training as being sit-ups and the like, but working these muscles in terms of stability is much more effective. Rather than for ‘sitting up’, in reality the primary job of the core muscles is to keep the spine supported when performing any movement. A suitcase deadlift (pictured below) would be a fantastic movement for developing core stability.

suitcase deadlift

3. Reduced Muscle Imbalances

When performing bilateral movements, our bodies can sometimes overuse our dominant side. For example, if we are right-handed, when we are performing a press up our right arm may unconsciously take more of the weight and allow the left arm an easier ride. The same can be said for pull-ups, squats, or any other movement using both sides on one surface or bar.

Unilateral movements remove this chance, and force your body to only use the relevant muscles for the given side. A single arm overhead press (pictured below) compared to an overhead barbell press, for example, will mean your less dominant side is having to lift the whole weight without your more dominant side helping out.

single arm overhead press

4. Training Variety

No matter how good a training programme is on paper, if you don’t enjoy it then you won’t stick to it!

One of the key factors in programme adherence is variety, and including unilateral movements adds a whole new selection of exercises to your arsenal. They are challenging not only in terms of strength, but also balance, coordination and technique. This mental stimulation adds to the physical challenge, and you gain an extra feeling of achievement as you progress.

what are unilateral exercises

All-in-all, unilateral movements can be a great addition to your training programme, and the benefits are wide-ranging. You will find a new level of challenge and achievement, as well as developing functional strength and technique which carries over effectively into real life.

Have you tried including unilateral movements in your training? Let us know in the comments!

We regularly include unilateral movements in our group sessions, as part of our 6-week Transformation Challenge. Fancy finding out more? Click here!