Is unilateral training part of your fitness plan? If not, it definitely should be. For those not in the know, unilateral training involves using one limb at a time – your right arm, left arm, right leg or left leg – through movements such as bicep curls, box step-ups and side lunges. Simple to incorporate into your routine and replete with brilliant benefits, it’s a type of training you’ll not want to miss out on. Learn more about its perks below.
During regular exercise, it’s all too easy for your stronger muscles to ‘dominate’ the way you move. For instance, you might lean more on your left leg while walking, strengthening muscles in that part of your body while those in your right leg weaken. This can lead to problematic muscle imbalances (that are increasingly difficult to correct, the longer they’re left untended) and possible injury.
By making you focus on each limb separately, unilateral training both helps to pinpoint any burgeoning imbalances. You will direct your attention to which limbs and joints you should focus on when working out. Ultimately, this will push you closer to achieving an evenly conditioned body.
Nobody would blame you for assuming full-body workouts or popular bilateral sports (exercises which you use both legs simultaneously) would be more effective than unilateral training. Exercises such as squats and deadlifts require you to use more of your body at once, after all.
But it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, research suggests that unilateral training can promote greater muscle growth than bilateral training. It can also help you to avoid something called ‘bilateral deficit’. Meaning: the force of your limbs working together is less than if each limb were working separately.
So – why is it so effective? It’s partially due to the ‘cross-education’ that occurs during training. When you work on one side of the body, the corresponding muscles on the other side are stimulated. A prominent study showed that – across 785 subjects – cross-education proved very effective in strengthening muscles throughout the body, increasing upper limb strength by +9.4% and lower limb strength by +16.4%.
This is especially good news for athletes undergoing rehabilitation for an injury. It means that, through unilateral training and cross-education, it’s still possible to grow and strengthen damaged muscles, decreasing the risk of atrophy while the injured limb recovers.
Studies show that unilateral training can strengthen your core muscles, particularly when performing resistance exercises. This is because you’re using specific parts of your body at one time, making it trickier to balance and working core muscles harder to stay centred and stabilized. A stronger core provides great support for the spine and better protection for your organs, so that’s a big plus.