Most people who train love to squat, bench, deadlift and do all of the lifts that left them lift as much weight as possible. They don’t think about the possible imbalances that they could develop from doing years and years of bilateral work and sooner or later it catches up to them.
I feel like unilateral training is very underrated nowadays and only a few coaches know the importance of single limb work. Some people say that it builds more muscle because you can overload one side at a time with more weight and it takes mental toughness because you have to do a set for each side. I’m not going to say which one is better because neither are, every exercise is simply a tool in the toolbox and you use the appropriate tool for the appropriate task.
Today I will be showing you the importance of unilateral exercises and why they need to be in your program for you to stay healthy, get stronger and not look disproportional! Here are some reasons why you should include unilateral lifts for both your upper and lower body:
• Create some balance between both limbs so that you don’t have one side bigger than the other or one side stronger than the other.
• Unilateral lower body training with dumbbells puts less stress on the spine so you can bump up the volume and frequency without it affecting your recovery ability too much.
• Unilateral training also works your core because your body must work hard to stabilize.
• Improved balance and coordination
• Develops contralateral strength
One of the biggest misconceptions is that by doing a lot of unilateral work your limbs will be 50/50 but this false. You will never get a limb to reach the exact strength level as the other one but you can get it pretty damn close.
INCORPORATING UNILATERAL LIFTS IN YOUR PROGRAM
Most lifters usually incorporate the big lifts like a squat, bench or deadlift as their main movement which means that it is done first in the workout because those are the lifts where you can move the most weight and you want to be fresh for those big lifts. After the big lifts are out of the way there are usually assistance lifts that will help assist the big lifts and then there is accessory work. I like to dedicate a lot of my accessory work to bodyweight training, cable work and unilateral training. Many people may have different views on this, but I personally don’t like going under 6 reps on unilateral exercises. I like to get around 8-12 reps in for the most part, focus on getting a good range of motion with cheating, not ego lift, have slightly shorter rest periods while still hitting it with intensity!
Below I have 6 exercises that I include in my programs (not all at once), but out of the 6 lifts I will always include at least 2-4 of the exercises or at least a very similar variation where I change the hand placement or foot stance.
1) ONE ARM ROWS (Dumbbell, Barbell or Landmine)
One arm rows are definitely at the top of the list when it comes to unilateral upper body pulling exercises, what’s there not to like about this lift? This exercise allows you to:
• Row heavy weights
• Helps you fix imbalances between your left and right lat
• Puts minimal stress on the lower back so you can get more volume in
• Improves your deadlift lockout and your barbell/T bar rows as well
I include this exercise in all of my programs either with a heavy dumbbell or as a single arm Tbar row. It is a great lift that could be modified for pretty much any program and I think that anyone would benefit from it. The good thing about using the landmine/barbell is that there is a greater loading potential so if your dumbbells only go up to 100lb then you can use the bar and load up 25s (for more range of motion) and get a lot more weight so it will be a lot harder for you to max out.
I like to do this exercise as an assistance lift on upper body days and I usually go for 8-12 reps.
2) ONE ARM DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
The single arm dumbbell bench press is a great exercise for hitting each pec individually. This exercise is kind of like the one arm row which is a horizontal pull but instead its a horizontal push because it works the muscles on the opposite side. The single arm dumbbell military press is a great option too.
3) SINGLE ARM HAMMER STRENGTH ROW
The single arm hammer strength row is a great exercise for many reasons. One of the main reasons is because when the weight gets too heavy on chest supported hammer rows the weight tends to compress your chest area and it gets a bit hard to breathe. This is why doing it with one arm will pretty much force you to cut the weight in half so you will be able to breathe a lot easier and you can row heavy with one arm at a time to help correct imbalances and increase total workout volume.
4) BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
Just like how the one arm row is my favorite unilateral upper body lift, the Bulgarian Split Squat is hands down my favorite lower body unilateral lift for many reasons. The first reason is because you can use some pretty good weights with this considering it’s a unilateral free weight exercise. The second reason is because it doesn’t stress the lower back so much so your lower back won’t be the limiting factor which might be the case when you back squat. With the BSS, you’re able to push your legs to the limit (one leg at a time of course).
For more quad focus you want to keep your body as upright as possible and for more glute and hamstring focus you want to have a forward lean like the person in the photo above.
I like to do higher reps of 8-15 on this lift but sometimes I will torture myself with sets of 15-25.
5) BULGARIAN RDL
I actually only started really incorporating Bulgarian RDL’s about a month ago but they are an amazing posterior chain exercise and Jason Ferruggia is a big fan of them too (which is where I got the idea from). The Bulgarian RDL is different from the single leg RDL because the single leg RDL doesn’t require a bench so there is a lot more balance involved. In most cases I am not trying to improve my balance but get strong and put on muscle so I like to do the Bulgarian RDL so that I could use more weight and I also don’t have to worry as much about balancing issues with the bench although there is still some balancing required since there is only one leg on the floor. These hit the glutes in a more unique way too and the pump you will get from doing these is crazy as well.
I like to do these for higher reps as well and I like to use one or two dumbbells depending on how I feel. It’s either I do the lift with one heavy dumbbell or 2 moderate to light dumbbells, do what you feel is best.
6) SINGLE LEG HORIZONTAL BACK EXTENSIONS
The single leg back extension is another great unilateral exercise (so is the unilateral 45 degrees back raise), I usually do this at the end of my lower body days but with a 2 legs while I hold a dumbbell on my chest but I still incorporate this one in some of my programs but sometimes I will do both, it really depends on how I feel. I try not to focus too much on my accessory work and put more of my focus on the main lifts and assistance lifts.
Can I use any of the unilateral lifts as a main lift?
Unless if you are taking a serious de-load, are very injured or lack a lot of equipment then I wouldn’t recommend it. I see some people on the internet doing super heavy Bulgarian Split Squats for low reps and I don’t believe in going that heavy on lifts like this. I do believe in pushing hard and doing reps above 6 but I don’t really recommend making unilateral lifts your main lifts in most cases. Of course, there can always be some exceptions, if you have a screwed up lower back or a bad knee and still want to squat then I suppose that you can make Bulgarian split squats your main quad exercise because that’s the free weight exercise that you are able to go the heaviest on (especially if you are leaning forward a bit).
Can I use a barbell for the Bulgarian split squat or Bulgarian RDL?
I personally wouldn’t do it, but you can if you want to. I wouldn’t be comfortable putting a barbell on my back while I’m standing on one leg with heavy weights. This is why I rather use dumbbells because if anything goes wrong I can simply drop the weights.
Would Super setting 2 opposite unilateral exercises together such as a Bulgarian Split Squat & Bulgarian RDL or One Arm Dumbbell Press & One Arm Row be a good idea?
Yes, in fact if you are doing a split where you train your upper twice and lower twice then I would recommend it. So on your upper body days you can superset the unilateral press and row while on the lower body day you can superset the unilateral squat and RDL.
So there you have it, I am a big fan of adding in unilateral work for overall health and longevity in the iron game and hopefully you will include at least 2 of these lifts (one upper and lower body unilateral lift) in all of your programs. Coaches such as Eric Cressey, Ben Bruno, Jason Ferruggia, Bret Conteras also have their clients incorporate some of these lifts so you can read up on them if you want to know more details about unilateral training. If somebody can do one arm dumbbell rows with an 180lb dumbbell for 10 reps or do Bulgarian Split Squats with 275×10 you can’t say that this person is weak. Weight is weight at the end of the day and strong is strong.
Train hard, stay healthy.