Many people consider the essentials and fundamentals of training as good technique at all times, proper warm up, embracing the core, etc. However, sometimes there is an important component that might not look as important or necessary, but is greatly beneficial and should be included in everyone’s routine: unilateral exercises.
Unilateral means working one side of the body in isolation. For example, a unilateral dumbbell bench press will work only one side of the body at that time. More than giving variation to the session, there are more benefits towards working unilaterally. Depending on the goals of the individual, unilateral exercises will have a different approach, as athletes will look to mimic more sport based movements. However, both athletes and non-athlete individual benefit from the following adaptations:
Unilateral exercises have a narrow base of support as they are performed with one limb rather than both. Because of this, they require more neuromuscular input to maintain balance (brain working harder), having more muscles recruited for the job. Unilateral can improve the “unused” side, as the neurological system has the ability to send cross-over messages to the same muscle on the other side of the body.
Unilateral exercises will challenge balance more since they have a smaller base of support. Unilateral exercises will recruit core stability in order to maintain this balance, along with working on proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body through the sensation of imbalance of the body), making unilateral exercises a multi target modality.
3. Less muscle imbalance.
Training unilateral exercises help lower the chance of muscle imbalances as bilateral exercises often hide the deficiencies one side of the body has. If not addressed, this can develop an unhealthy pattern that will lead to injury. As some exercises can feel more difficult on one side than the other, it is crucial to work both sides of the body equally to create a more well rounded and balanced structure which will be shown in several aspects of daily life, not only when lifting.
In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with bilateral movements and exercises. They are necessary in order to involve the whole body, which is necessary in many movements. However, unilateral movements should be taken into consideration in order to unveil any type of muscle imbalances or discomfort. If not addressed, will create a pattern that will develop maladjustment, compensation and eventually, injury. So if you are planning on working out, or you are training already, make sure you add unilateral movements to your menu.