The benefits of unilateral training

There are huge advantages in unilateral training, which has become the norm for specific strength protocols yet does not render bilateral training into oblivion.

Published : Aug 24, 2019 19:18 IST

Power runner.
Power runner.

Power runner.

The debate over unilateral versus bilateral training has been going on for years now. Many sports scientists all over the world have been involved in research regarding this topic for some time now. Finally it boils down to strength and conditioning coaches, performance specialists, biomechanists and sports physiology therapists to decide on what suits the athletes the most according to a need analysis of a particular sport and skill.

There are huge advantages in unilateral training, which has become the norm for specific strength protocols yet does not render bilateral training into oblivion.

The best programme for an individual depends on where one is in their fitness voyage or performance goals. Do you want to maximise your strength, or improve your balance, core strength or stability? Or prehab? Are you recovering from an injury and looking to strengthen specific joints or muscle groups? Analysing these questions before making exercise selections will help one draw a pathway before setting an exercise regime.

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Advantages of unilateral training

Since most sports are played using a single leg or even general locomotion like walking, unilateral exercises – which involves asymmetrical exercises that only use one side of your body at a time – are more functional in their approach to specific skills or sports.

The carry-over from the gym to on-field performance is more likely through a specific exercise regime.

Single-leg exercises are difficult. Loads of other parameters need to come into play while executing a particular exercise and to be effective in the long run. They are movements specific through a proper chain of muscles – be it global or local muscles – and are also difficult to master initially.

Sports are played mainly on one leg

When we are trying to make our training specific to sports, it makes sense to train only one leg at a time, because this replicates more precisely what the athlete will be required to perform on the field. This demonstrates the need for stability of a he single leg and how greater force production or reduction on one leg can lead to quickness in the success of the exercise. In addition, structural stability of the joints is essential to prevent serious injury.

Foundation of balance and stability of the core

During unilateral activities of the lower body, the individual must produce strong contractions while standing on a single leg. This requires extra proprioception with significant stability and kinaesthetic awareness than bilateral activities. The same principle applies to unilateral movements of the upper body, as the core must function to prevent the trunk from unwanted rotation during a push or pull processes.

Muscle imbalance solver

Muscle imbalances in athletes often lead to injuries and reduction in performance on the non-dominant side.

Each athlete has a dominant arm or leg. While performing bilateral exercises, we mainly depend on the stronger side to perform more work. For example, if you perform a heavy squat or dead lifts or any Olympic lifts, it is natural that the stronger leg/side fires a bit more significantly the than the weaker leg/side.

Unilateral training avoids this problem by forcing you to work on both sides in isolation, avoiding the dependence on the stronger side to take over the weaker side. This eventually helps to reduce muscle imbalances throughout the body.

Cross education and rehabilitation

Through a phenomenon known as cross education, unilateral exercises also strengthen the unused side of the body. Training a specific limb joint increases strength gains in the untrained contralateral limb. Fundamentally, unilateral exercises can increase strength in limb joints without training them directly, thereby eliminating limiting factors with better focus on building strength.


By combining both bilateral and unilateral training in the same training session with specific choice of exercise selection, one can get the maximum benefit required.

Unilateral exercises predominantly work on the frontal plane, which acts as a supporting system for bilateral exercises, which work on the sagittal plane. The prime movers and the supporting muscles work in tandem for effective recruitment in transfer of power or strength with stronger neuro-muscular response work on both unilateral and bilateral exercises.

Unilateral exercises

· Bosu shoulder press

· Step up and rotate

· Romanian dead lift/Bulgarian dead lift

· Single-arm cable pull-down

· Lunge one-arm landmine press

· Zercher reverse lunge

· Single-leg supine bridge

· Power runner

· Single-arm snatch

· Single-arm stability ball chest press

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