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Bilateral Exercises: Definition, Examples, and Uses

What are Bilateral Exercises?

Bilateral exercises train both sides of the body (involving the same muscles) to complete a movement. An example of a bilateral exercise is the barbell curl, where both arms are involved and both biceps produce force to lift the weight. Such activities are more efficient, allowing athletes to train more muscles in less time.

Bilateral Exercises vs. Unilateral Exercises

The primary difference is that bilateral exercises train both sides of the body simultaneously, whereas unilateral movements focus on one side at a time. 

To use the bicep curl as an example again, lifting a barbell involves both sides of the body and is a bilateral movement. In contrast, a single-arm dumbbell curl trains one bicep at a time and is classified as a unilateral exercise.

A Deeper Look at Bilateral Exercises (+ Examples)

Bilateral exercises are an integral part of any good weight training plan. First, they are more efficient, allowing athletes to engage both sides and spend less time on each set. 

Second, by engaging both sides simultaneously, trainees can produce force and build greater absolute strength. It’s a case of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” because muscles that work together are far more capable than when examined in isolation.

An example would be how trainees can generally bench press far more weight when using a barbell than a single dumbbell. This coordination between many large and small muscles creates a stable base for pressing and allows for a far greater force output.

To clarify, dumbbell movements can also be bilateral so long as both sides of the body work simultaneously. An example would be a dumbbell shoulder press, where the trainee holds a weight in each hand.

Examples of excellent bilateral exercises include:

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Hip thrust
  • Barbell row
  • Barbell shoulder press

That said, unilateral exercises also have a place in a structured workout program, such as to better isolate specific muscles or work on side-to-side muscle imbalances that may develop over time.

How to Program Bilateral Exercises

It’s generally best to put bilateral exercises into workouts early when trainees are fresh and at their strongest. This allows for the best possible performance and a higher strength and power output. 

However, it’s important to prioritize proper technique and ensure that both sides of the body work and develop evenly.

To use the barbell bench press as an example, sometimes the dominant side takes over and develops more quickly. This results in a gradual ‘tilt’ of the barbell to one side, which becomes more pronounced as trainees practice the movement for months. 

Bilateral exercises can also be used later in a workout (e.g., when isolating specific muscles), especially for trainees with less time to train. 


1. What is an example of a bilateral exercise?

An example of a bilateral exercise is the barbell back squat, in which both sides of the body work together to promote stability and complete the movement.

2. Are bilateral or unilateral exercises better?

Neither type is inherently better than the other. Unilateral and bilateral exercises offer unique benefits, and it’s best to combine them for optimal results.

3. What are the disadvantages of bilateral exercises?

A potential issue with bilateral exercises is that trainees may become too focused on the weight they lift and disregard proper form, which could eventually lead to compensatory movement patterns and side-to-side muscle imbalances.

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