How to Utilize Unilateral Training To Build Stability and Strength

By Anthony Yeung

By Anthony J. Yeung w/ Craig Capurso 

You already know resistance training is key for a strong, muscular, and lean body. Chances are, you already do plenty of traditional strength exercises like bench presses, back squats, and deadlifts.

Those exercises are part of something called “bilateral training,” which are exercises where both legs or both arms work at the same time.

But by using exercises where you only use one arm or one leg at a time — called “unilateral training” — you can unlock even MORE benefits and results.

It Improves Your Stability 

By training each arm or each leg independently, you increase the intensity of the load on your stabilizing muscles, which helps you build a stronger foundation for more advanced movements. Sure, bilateral exercises activate your stabilizers too, but not at the same level.

Unilateral training calls on your core, almost automatically, to maintain balance through challenging movements. With a stronger core comes better balance and a lesser risk of injury performing advanced exercises. 

It Helps Your Bring Lagging Muscles Up to Par

Is one leg or one arm stronger than the other one?

Imagine how much uneven stress that puts on your joints when you exercise or play sports. And if you only do bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts, your weaker side won’t have the chance to catch up.

Instead, by targeting each side separately, you’ll have an opportunity to fix imbalances, which can prevent injuries and improve overall strength gains.

It’s Easier On Your Body

This is a harsh reality, but not EVERYONE is made for heavy squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. Back, knee or shoulder problems can turn those gym staples into a recipe for disaster. 

With single-leg or single-arm exercises, you're limited to the amount of weight you can use at a time. For the beginner or the person who struggles with joint issues and other mechanical issues, unilateral exercises can be optimal for building strength without placing too much stress on the joints.

Unilateral Exercises 

There are COUNTLESS single-arm and single-leg exercises to choose from, but here are some of Craig Capurso's favorite unilateral exercises for stability and strength! 

Some of my favorite exercises are...

Single-Leg Box Squats

This is a great intro to unilateral lower body training! All you have to do is stand facing away from a box or bench, stick out one leg, sit down, and stand up with just one leg.

To make it harder, sit on a lower box or bench and add weight by holding dumbbells or wearing a weighted vest.

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is one of the best exercises for lower-body strength. Even better, it reduces your base of support to train your stability and forces your hip stabilizers to work overtime. 

Grab two dumbbells and stand facing away from a bench and rest one foot behind you on the bench. Squat down with the forward leg and keep that shin vertical. Lean forward as you go down and keep all the weight on the heel of your forward foot.

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts

The traditional Romanian deadlift blasts your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. But by doing it with only one leg, you further activate your hip stabilizers and core so you can build great strength without all the stress on your spine.

Stand tall with your chest up and shoulders back. Bend forward at your hip while reaching back with one leg. With your other leg, let the knee bend slightly. Maintain a long, straight line from head-to-toe, keep your lower back arched, and keep your core tight throughout. Go as low as you can without rounding your lower back and stand back up.

Lateral Squats

With lateral squats, you move side-to-side — in something called your “frontal plane” — so you can target different muscles and open up a new plane of physical movement. It also helps you increase your hip mobility and your hip strength.

Start with a very wide stance and your feet straight. Sit back into one hip and push that knee out. Repeat on the other side.

Single-Arm Cable Row

If you want a strong back, wide shoulders, and big arms, this is the single-arm exercise for you.

Set a cable handle to chest height. Grab the handle with one hand, stand perpendicular to the cable, and row. Make sure your shoulder blade glides down and inward as you pull. Don’t twist with your upper-body.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

With single-arm dumbbell bench presses, you fix the asymmetries that could be holding back your barbell bench press. This exercise activates the stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and actually targets your core.

Lie on a bench with your shoulders squeezed together and your feet firmly planted on the floor. With a dumbbell in one hand, drive that weight straight up. Keep your elbow close to your ribcage at the bottom of the movement and tighten your core.

Anthony J. Yeung, CSCS, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Health and helps guys get fit for their wedding at GroomBuilder.

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