Exercise is essentially a pandora’s box—full of surprises. How else would you explain your trainer finding new ways to make you sweat every single day? To keep one’s fitness journey interesting, and in order to get the most gains from working out, the body needs to be taken outside the comfort zone.
One way to do so is to perform unilateral exercises, a fresh twist on familiar exercises. Think of squats and do it on one leg, take the Arnold press and do it with one hand at a time while kneeling down, or attempt a single arm lat pull down. Unilateral workouts are based on the simple concept of “one step at a time,” says Rishabh Telang, a Cult.fit fitness expert. “Unilateral workouts are exercises that target one side of the body at a time,” he explains.
Unilateral exercises should be a part of everyone’s training programme, irrespective of the goals, as they play a critical role in addressing the muscular imbalances in your body, says Abraar Khan Waryah, co-founder and head coach of Gridiron Fitness Studio in Kolkata. “You engage your core a lot more while performing unilateral moves, so a stronger core is another benefit you get. These moves also improve your stability,” he adds.
Whether it’s strength workouts, training for a running event or recovering from injury, unilateral exercises play a big and salient role. Bengaluru-based running coach and co-founder of Kaizen Runners, Nirupma Singh, includes unilateral exercises and drills in her training routine. “Other than building running and explosive power, runners also need to build unilateral stability so that it all comes together while racing,” says Singh.
Telang points out that unilateral exercises allow for targeted strengthening and controlled progression, so they are employed in rehabilitating specific muscles or joints after an injury. Performing these moves also help in improving muscular deficits. “When it comes to weight training, lifters should have unilateral workouts in their repertory. It can assist them in achieving safer, more stable lifting mechanics by eliminating any side-to-side deficiencies. This could result in improved force transmission and bigger lifts,” adds Telang.
Human bodies have imbalances. All of us have a stronger side, or a stronger arm, or a more dominant foot. By turning to unilateral exercises, we take out the compensating act of the stronger side of our body. These exercises help correct muscle imbalances by focusing on each side independently. This leads to improved muscle balance and symmetry, reducing the risk of injuries and improving overall aesthetics, says Telang.
Unilateral exercises challenge coordination and proprioception, which is one's awareness of their body in space, and hence improve both. Training each side, separately, enhances our neuromuscular coordination, leading to better overall movement patterns and motor skills. Since unilateral exercises often mimic real-life movements—which are often asymmetrical and require individual limb strength—we are able to improve our functional strength, making everyday activities and sports performance more efficient. Moreover, these exercises also strengthen the stabilizing muscles around our joints, thereby enhancing joint stability and reducing the risk of injuries. By addressing muscle imbalances, Telang explains, these movements promote optimal joint alignment and mechanics.
People who play sports that involve asymmetrical movements, or specific dominant sides, such as badminton, tennis, squash or golf, can benefit greatly from unilateral exercises. That’s because these exercises help improve muscular balance, coordination, and functional strength, which translates into enhanced performance and reduced injury risk. All those who are at that stage in their fitness journey where they are tiring of the same old routines, unilateral movements can add variety and help keep workouts engaging and challenging.
“They can also help break through plateaus by targeting muscles in different ways, stimulating new growth and development,” says Telang. Unilateral exercises are particularly useful for those recovering from injuries, particularly in joints or specific muscles. These movements allow for targeted rehabilitation, helping to rebuild strength, improve stability, and restore balance between the injured and non-injured sides.
Five unilateral exercises you should try: If you're new to unilateral movements, consult a qualified fitness professional for guidance before attempting them. Start with an appropriate weight, don’t compromise on form.
Single-leg Romanian Deadlift: Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, hinge forward at the hips while lifting one leg behind you. Keep your back straight and lower the weight towards the floor, then return to the starting position. This move targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
Bulgarian Split Squat: Stand with one foot forward and rest the top of your rear foot on a bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell on your shoulders. Lower your body by bending your front knee while keeping your torso upright, then stand back up to the starting position. This move targets the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
Single-arm Dumbbell Row: Place one hand and one knee on a bench, and hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand. Pull the dumbbell up towards your waist, keeping your elbow close to your body, then lower it back down. This move targets the back muscles, particularly the latissimus dorsi.
Single-arm Overhead Press: Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand at shoulder height, with your palm facing forward. Press the weight overhead while keeping your core engaged and your body stable, then lower it back down. This move targets the shoulders, triceps, and core.
Single-arm Farmer's Carry: Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand by your side, walk while maintaining an upright posture, and engage your core muscles. Repeat on the other side. This move targets the shoulders, arms, and core. Also improves grip strength.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.