What is a Unilateral Exercise?

Unilateral exercises are very important for a variety of reasons and should without a doubt be included within your workout routines. That is why I wanted to answer the question, what is a unilateral exercise? They have many benefits, all of which can be used effectively for different circumstances and at different times throughout your workout. I will be going over all of this as the article progresses, enjoy!

The Definition:

If you look at the word unilateral, you see two distinct parts, uni and lateral. Uni means one and lateral can mean from side to side or two sides, so if you put the two together you get one side. That is exactly what a unilateral exercise is, you are training one side of your body. Obviously, we cannot train an entire half of our body alone, so what this means is you are training one side of a particular muscle group.

To put this into context I will use the example of a curl. If you are doing a barbell or EZ bar curl, you are using both of your arms, specifically both of your elbow joints to perform the exercise. This is what’s called a bilateral exercise, you are using two sides of your body and therefore working both your biceps simultaneously. If you were to do a dumbbell curl, you would only be using one elbow joint to move one weight, therefore working your biceps individually. This is an example of a unilateral exercise, you are working one side of a muscle group individually.

Dumbell Curl

Unilateral Exercises in Relation to Your Training:

Unilateral exercises have many applications within your training and can benefit your training in many ways. One of the main benefits includes its ability to separate two sides and not let one take over the other. Another benefit includes being able to train around an injury/bring up a lagging muscle group. Lastly, unilateral training often allows you to feel the individual muscle working more than if you were to do a bilateral exercise.

Let’s say you’re doing a barbell curl and your right arm is stronger than your left, your right arm may take over and do more work than the left because it is stronger. If you were doing a dumbbell curl, your left arm would have to do all the work as there is no way for the right arm to contribute. This allows the exercise to put all of the tension on the left arm.

As for training around an injury, you don’t have to stop training entirely. Let’s say you hurt your right leg, that doesn’t mean you need to stop leg training entirely. You can do a single leg, leg press for example. This is especially beneficial if the leg you are able to train with was lagging behind the injured leg, this would help bring it up to par. You just need to make sure you bring your injured leg back up to par when it is recovered (follow medical direction for all of this when dealing with any injury of course). Also, unilateral training allows you to focus on a specific muscle group to help fix muscle and strength imbalances. Let’s say your right arm is bigger than your left. Maybe you want to throw in an extra set of dumbbell curls only on your left arm after your main working sets; this until your left arm has caught up to your right arm.

Lastly, sometimes it is easier to use and feel the muscle you’re trying to target if you are doing a unilateral exercise. This could be the case for one of two reasons. Number one is you have a dominant side of a muscle group taking over which makes it tough to feel the other side of the muscle group working. Or number two, working one side of the muscle group at a time, let’s take the legs for example, allows you to put more focus on the individual muscle you’re trying to work.

Implementing Unilateral Exercises Into Your Training:

Don’t get me wrong, just because there are many benefits to unilateral training doesn’t mean it is all that should be included in your training, nor should it always take precedence. For the majority of people, I would still suggest using the main compound movement(s) as your primary exercise(s) and apply progressive overload to them. However, consider adding in a unilateral exercise or two, maybe midway through or towards the end of your workout. Whether it is a less physically demanding compound movement like a single leg, leg press, or a unilateral isolation exercise like the dumbbell curl. They have their place.

For unilateral movements, I would suggest including one or maybe even two if your training multiple muscle groups in the same workout. For those who are trying to train around an injury, or have a more serious muscle/strength imbalance, than you may want to consider prioritizing unilateral movements to the beginning of your workouts; or even as your main lift in some cases.

 The Scoop on Unilateral Exercises:

You now know that a unilateral exercise works one side of a muscle group individually, and some of the many benefits of them. You also have some ideas as to how you can effectively incorporate unilateral movements into your training.

You have some new-found knowledge on unilateral exercises, that you can take into your workouts to help better your progress. As always, if you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to leave them below and I will be sure to reply!

Until Next Time,

Kohl Johnson

Please refer to my liability disclaimer to ensure you know who is responsible for use of this information after reading.

Support is much appreciated if you benefited from this:

Kohl Johnson

I am a 16-year-old fitness fanatic! I have learned nothing but quality training and nutrition information from the utmost well-respected individuals in the field. Now, my only focus is to share this knowledge with you for your benefit, in the most honest way possible. We are all in this together! LET'S GO!

2 Responses

    • Hi John, yes typically I have unilateral exercises within my routine. I usually put them midway through or towards the end of my workouts though. There are times where they can be beneficial to be included as a primary exercise, it depends on you and your goals though.

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