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Unilateral movements are lifts done with, or on, one limb as opposed to bilateral movements which require both limbs (squat, bench, deadlift, etc.). As lifters, most of us tend to focus on bilateral movements. After all, that is where we test our mettle. But adding some unilateral exercises can help us improve upon our weaknesses and give us that edge we need to add some plates to the bar.
Is one of your arms stronger than the other? I am guessing the answer is yes. We all have strength imbalances from one side to the other. While doing bilateral exercises we can trick ourselves into thinking we are symmetrical; the stronger limb can pick up some of the slack of the weaker one. This is impossible to do with unilateral exercises, if one side is weaker the weight will not go up. With unilateral lifts we can attack our asymmetrical weaknesses.
Unilateral exercises are great for developing punishing core strength. Think about it, if you are doing a standing one arm dumbbell military press the right side of your body has to remain rigid and tight while your left side lifts the dumbbell overhead, and vice versa. Think about how long your core is isometrically contracted while doing a set of unilateral presses. That’s going to bring some serious core stability that can carry over to your squat, clean, deadlift, snatch, etc.
Research has conclusively shown that unilateral resistance training forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers than bilateral resistance training. It requires much more effort for one limb, working by itself, to move a weight from one point to another, than two limbs working collaboratively to move the weight the same distance.
While bilateral, compound movements should still be the bread and butter of your lifting routine, adding unilateral movements will open up a new level of strength gains. For example, let’s look at bench day:
Unilateral movements help fix strength imbalances, increase core strength, and recruit more muscle fibers than bilateral movements. They are a great accessory to any training program but cannot take the place of bilateral, compound movements.