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Unilateral Training: Definition, Examples, Benefits, and Uses

What is Unilateral Training?

Unilateral training refers to exercises that train one side of the body at a time, unlike bilateral exercises, which engage both sides simultaneously. Examples of unilateral activities include Bulgarian split squats, single-arm dumbbell curls, one-arm tricep extensions, and single-leg Romanian deadlifts.

The Benefits of Unilateral Training

1. Helping Correct and Prevent Muscle Imbalances

By forcing each side of the body to work independently, unilateral exercises are a coach’s best friend for assessing the fitness capabilities of clients and monitoring for side-to-side imbalances.

For example, if a client’s right side is significantly stronger and they can lift more weight for more reps, there is a clear imbalance you must address.

Additionally, when added early on, unilateral movements can reduce the risk of imbalances developing. 

2. Promotes Core Stability

Movements that train both sides of the body allow for greater stability because of a counterbalance. However, that’s not the case with unilateral movements, which means the core musculature must engage more to keep trainees stable. 

The Romanian deadlift is one simple example. Performing it with both feet on the floor is relatively easy, but balancing on one foot is much less stable, and the midsection engages more.

3. Helps Trainees Focus Better on Isolation Activities

While somewhat subjective, I’ve found that trainees struggling with muscle activation and the mind-muscle connection can benefit from unilateral exercises. Training one side of the body allows lifters to narrow their focus and put all their mental effort toward training one area.

4. Beneficial for Functional Fitness

Unilateral exercises more closely mirror everyday activities, such as climbing stairs, carrying groceries with one hand, or holding your child. This means they improve functional capacity.

For instance, doing a single-arm shoulder press helps develop the stability and strength needed to lift an object overhead (e.g., a piece of luggage in an overhead bin).

5. It Can be Integrated Into Asymmetrical Training

Asymmetrical training, which loads one side of the body more than the other and places athletes in more dynamic and unpredictable positions, is highly beneficial for improving sport-specific skills, balance, and coordination.

Unilateral exercises can make up part of an athlete’s asymmetrical training plan, helping them perform better in various sports settings.

How to Implement Unilateral Training Into Clients’ Workout Plans

1. Assess Individual Needs

Begin with a visual assessment and look for signs of imbalances, such as one shoulder blade lower than the other or one arm bigger than the other. 

Also, when performing a visual assessment, consider what the person’s dominant side is, as that will typically be the stronger and more developed one.

Once the visual assessment is done, proceed to a simple strength test to determine if either side is stronger. You could do that with various dumbbell exercises where both sides work independently.

A person’s injury history can also provide insight, though not always. For example, if someone has had a history of elbow or knee issues, that side of the body might be slightly less developed.

This is because trainees can consciously (or subconsciously) try to load that side a bit less to avoid pain or a new injury. Over time, that could lead to a significant gap in muscular and strength development.

2. Start With Simple Movements

Some clients will benefit from more unilateral work than others, but it’s always best to start small. 

Save unilateral training for isolation exercises at first to give your clients time to get used to working one side at a time. Gradually introduce compound unilateral exercises as necessary, but do so without external resistance or use a light load.

3. Balance Unilateral and Bilateral Exercises

Unilateral exercises should complement bilateral activities, so aim for a balanced approach. 

Build training plans with both types of activities, monitor your client’s performance, and adjust when necessary.


1. Can unilateral exercises reduce the injury risk?

Unilateral exercises can improve stability and fix side-to-side muscle imbalances, leading to better technique during training. This can promote safety and reduce the risk of injuries.

2. Are unilateral exercises suitable for beginners?

Unilateral movements are suitable for trainees of all levels, particularly those with side-to-side muscle imbalances.

3. Can workout plans consistent solely of unilateral exercises?

While unilateral exercises offer many benefits and can make up a training plan, it’s also beneficial to include bilateral activities to save time and build greater total strength.

4. How are unilateral exercises different from asymmetrical training?

Unilateral exercises are those where one side of the body works at a time. In contrast, asymmetrical training aims to load the body unevenly and put athletes in uncomfortable positions to improve balance, coordination, explosiveness, and sport-specific skills.

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