Benefits of Unilateral Movements
For the majority of us, we operate bilaterally. We do pretty much every activity without really any isolation. This includes your arms and legs. We may have a favorite side. Your right arm may be your dominant one, and it feels stronger. You may notice that one side is less coordinated or weaker.
As we operate without much isolation, imbalances can creep in. This happens because we really favor one side without noticing. As you squat, you push off more on the right or you pull more with one arm in a pull-up. This is normal!
However, it can eventually lead to some injuries because you overcompensate. One side ends up getting more work than the other, and the wrong things get used. No matter how hard you think about it, one side is just more developed.
How do we fix this?
We have to start isolation. This is called unilateral work, where we focus on one side versus both at the same time. This can be seen in a split squat, or a one-legged leg press. This puts all of the focus on one side of the body.
By doing so, you take all of the thought from it. When doing the bilateral movements, we tend to “try” and focus on one side, but it never ends well. However, during a unilateral movement, you don’t have a choice.
Initially you will notice that this feels awkward and hard. That’s because it is. Your coordination and balance aren’t used to this yet. It takes some practice and focus, but eventually you will gain the needed qualities.
Regardless, you begin working those lagging muscles. Muscle that may not have been “turned on” before will begin to be used. They have to if the exercise is to be done correctly.
If you have one side that is particularly weaker than the other, you can begin by giving it a little more attention. If you are doing an exercise in a rep scheme of 10’s, you can do 12-15 on the lagging side. This will help it catch up a little faster!
Now doing this for one week won’t fix anything. You need to actually put this into practice over a period of time for it to work.
Taking a “block” or about three to four weeks of training unilaterally would be a great start. This will help you sort of reset and build a new base.
Full on unilateral work is recommended. After some time of putting this to use you can go back to your bilateral movements. What you may notice is that you are a lot stronger now! This comes from actually bringing up those lagging muscles and putting yourself in a position to have even strength. Not one side will be working harder than the other. They can now work in sync to perform the said exercise better!
You will also notice that some exercises won’t “bother your back” or “make your knees hurt”. This is due to the fact that you won’t be compensating with the wrong muscles. When some people have weak glutes or hamstrings, they use more back instead. So, going back and fixing this issue with unilateral work will prove a great benefit.
Now, as mentioned before, one side may be weaker. You also won’t have as much coordination at first. Please start off with lighter weights. You may think you can use as much weight, but you would be wrong. You need to work up the little muscles, coordination, and balance to perform these exercises right.
How to start
I would start off by just including one exercise per session as unilateral. From there you can include more, but this is a great way to ease into this sort of training. You can begin building a base and some balance before going all in.
As you go through this, it is recommended that you include some manual massage to help stretch and loosen the muscle fascia. This is the tissue that encases the muscle and needs to be loosened so that the muscle can operate better. You may have used a foam roller or lacrosse ball for this. Doing so can help that lagging side with any issues as you enter into more unilateral training.
Unilateral training is great for fixing any imbalances you may have. If your normal bilateral exercises are causing you some pain or discomfort, it is recommended that you switch it up for a bit and work on each side individually. What you may find is a reduction in injuries or discomfort.
Ease into this type of training due to the lack of balance and coordination that can be present. We are great on two legs, but not always our best on one.
If any issues arise, utilize some soft tissue work such as foam rolling to help you get through this process!