Lifters who just focus on the big bilateral lifts of the squat, press, and deadlift family will get strong but can develop muscle imbalances. The body will always resort to plan B to finish the lift, and this is not always good.

Having a strength imbalance by itself is not a huge deal. But over a period of time, it may increase the risk for wonkier technique, which may help increase the risk for injury. Ever witness a lifter struggle to lockout on one side of their body? The defense rests.

Performing unilateral lifts as part of your accessory routine will lead to better and stronger bilateral lifts, reduce injury risk, and lead to better muscle development.

Here we will dive into the advantages of unilateral exercises, how to determine if you have a strength imbalance, and four exercises to reduce them.

4 benefits of unilateral exercises

Besides the vanity benefit of better muscle development here are four reasons why unilateral exercises are important.

  • Reduce muscle imbalances and injury risk: Due to everyday living and typical bilateral lifting, most people have a dominant and non-dominant side. For example, kicking or throwing a ball or carrying the groceries all in one hand. These strength muscle imbalances may lead to injuries and strengthening them will reduce your risk.
  • Improved balance and core stability: Unilateral exercises automatically throw you off-balance, which engages your core muscles to engage to keep yourself balanced. Think we can all agree to staying upright is pretty handy
  • Life and sports require single-leg balance: Sports and activities of daily living that involve running require a lot of single-leg action. Whether it is sprinting, throwing, jumping, or taking the stairs it is rare for both feet to be on the ground at the same time.
  • Improved bilateral lift performance: Ever hear the phrase, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link?” Strengthening your weakness will help improve your technique and may lead to lifting more weight overall.

How to test for muscle imbalances

Before getting into the tests there are a couple of obvious ways to determine strength and muscle imbalances. First, pay attention to your bilateral lift form. Have trouble locking out one side over another or does one side feel ‘easy’ and the other side difficult? Second, check the size of the muscle in question. Does one leg or arm look larger than the other? If you can’t tell measure, it too see if there is any size discrepancy.

Here are another two tests to determine if your quads are stronger than your hamstrings and 5RM unilateral push/test to see if you have pressing or pulling imbalances between arms.

Hamstring-to-quadriceps strength ratio

Your hamstrings should have around 60 to 75 percent of the strength of the quads. It’s not the perfect ratio, but knowing the strength between your quads or hamstrings will point you in the right direction. No need for fancy equipment, just access to a leg extension and leg curl machine.

Instructions:

  • Work up to your five-rep max on both machines, testing one leg at a time with good form. Rest three minutes between the quad/hamstring test and rest as needed between attempts. Record numbers and then it’s math time.
  • Leg curl divided by leg extension x 100 = hamstring/quad strength ratio
  • For example: 60 pounds hamstring / 90 quads x 100 pounds = 66% hamstring/quadriceps strength ratio.
  • If the ratio is less than 60 percent, include more unilateral hip-dominant/hamstring exercises into your routine, to correct this imbalance.

Note: Do this for both left and right legs.

Push/pull strength imbalance

Most of us have strength imbalances between our left and right sides due to activities of daily living. Don’t keep feeding this imbalance with bilateral barbell exercises. Instead, unilateral work will help turn this weakness back into strength and your lifting numbers will improve as a result.

Note: Core strength will be a factor in unilateral upper-body work.

Instructions:

  • This is using a cable machine, but any dumbbell unilateral variation will do. For example, dumbbell shoulder press, floor press, or any unilateral row.
  • After your warmup, work up to your 5RM on the cable row, then alternate arms, working with good form. Progress by raising the weight five to 10 pounds at a time per side and rest when needed. The test stops when you can no longer lift the weight (or it’s a mighty struggle) for five reps on either side. Do this cable chest press also.
  • After completing this test, it should become apparent whether or not you have a strength imbalance between your left/right sides with the press, the pull, or both.

4 unilateral exercises to strengthen muscle imbalances

There are many exercises that will work here but these four will strengthen muscle imbalances between sides and will aid in your fat loss or hypertrophy goals.

Bodybuilder working out his arms with a fat grip dumbbell row exercise

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