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Your body is used to taking sides — you’re right- or left-handed, right- or left-footed, right- or left-brained. But your preference for sidedness could mean muscular imbalances that lead to impaired results and possible injury down the line. Even trainees who practice perfect form can develop imbalances due in part to genetic kinesiology. (Thanks, mom and dad!)
But injury prevention aside, unilateral training has a host of benefits — illustrated below — that you might not have known about, and anyone at any level can improve her form, function and results by adding this sort of training to her regimen.
What’s So Great About It?
- It recruits more muscles: Unilateral training demands more from your joints, stabilizing muscles and connective tissues to steady you as you move a load from point A to point B. Additional muscular recruitment means you build greater allover strength, which translates into accelerated results and better injury prevention.
- It improves contralateral strength: The word “contralateral” pertains to the same muscles on opposite sides of the body — i.e., your right pec vs. your left pec. Studies have shown that work done on one side of the body not only benefits the muscle being worked but also the contralateral muscle on the opposite side of the body — even if that muscle remains untrained. So in the instance of your pecs, if you do a one-arm dumbbell bench press with your right side, your left pec will still reap the benefits with up to 50 percent gains in terms of strength. Crazy, right?
- It provides a crunch-free core workout: Unilateral movements stress only one side of the body, forcing you to compensate for this uneven load distribution by activating your core muscles. Your core works as an anti-rotation device in this instance, dynamically stabilizing your lower back and hips, preventing you from twisting and torqueing.
- It enhances proprioception: There is a learning curve associated with unilateral training, and you hone your balance and coordination in order to properly perform an exercise. This means better overall kinetic activity throughout your body and improved performance in the gym and on the playing field.
- It corrects imbalances: No one wants to be walking around with one arm or leg bigger than the other, so to bring up lagging parts, unilateral training is your best friend. Improving strength in contralateral muscles relative to one another also means that no muscle is a weak link and that the risk of injury is diminished.
You’re probably familiar with most of the typical one-handed or one-legged moves, so to help stuff your training toolbox, we’ve come up with some unique and unusual ways to train your separate halves. Blend these moves into your regular training routine, or do a couple of weeks of one-sided training to throw your body a curveball.
One-Arm TRX Biceps Curl
Setup: Make the TRX straps fairly short so you can hold both handles in one hand at ear level with your arm bent 90 degrees, palm facing your head. Stand sideways to the anchor with your feet together, opposite hand on hip. Lean away from the anchor until your arm is fully extended.
Move: Keeping your body straight and steady, bend your elbow and pull yourself up by curling your biceps until you come to standing. Slowly uncurl your arm and return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: The greater your angle of lean-away from the TRX, the more challenging the move becomes. Play with your distance and angle to make the move easier or harder.
One-Arm Swiss-Ball Dumbbell Chest Press
Setup: Lie faceup on a Swiss ball so your upper back and shoulders are supported, and lift your hips to come in line with your knees. Hold a dumbbell at your chest with your palm facing forward, elbow bent and flared out in line with your shoulder. Spread your feet wide for stability and place your hand on your hip.
Move: Press the dumbbell upward by extending your arm until it’s straight. Slowly lower to the start and repeat right away. Complete all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Don’t allow the ball to roll around. Cinch down your abs and control your hips to keep it steady as you move the weight.
One-Arm Dumbbell Cross-Body Triceps Extension
Setup: Lie faceup on a flat bench with your back arching naturally, and hold a dumbbell in one hand with your arm straight up over your shoulder, palm facing forward.
Move: Keeping your upper arm perpendicular to the floor, bend your elbow and slowly lower the dumbbell down and across your body toward your opposite shoulder. When it touches or nearly touches your shoulder, reverse the move and raise the weight back to the start, squeezing hard as you reach the top. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Actively contract the lat on the working side to help stabilize your shoulder and control your upper arm.
One-Arm Lawn-Mower Dumbbell Row
Setup: Take a split stance with your left foot forward and hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Bend forward from your hip with a straight back and place your left hand on your left thigh, with your right arm hanging straight down to the floor, palm facing inward.
Move: Row the dumbbell upward by driving your elbow toward the ceiling. As you reach the top of your range of motion, continue the pull by twisting your torso and shoulders and opening your chest to the right. Uncoil and return the way you came to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Make this motion smooth and controlled, not jerky and explosive like a real lawn mower!
No-Touch Skater Lunge
Setup: Stand on your left foot with your right knee bent, foot lifted behind you, knee flared out.
Move: Bend your standing leg and squat down, tracking your knee over your toes and keeping your hips square as you reach your arms to the left side. Simultaneously reach your right foot behind you and to the left side to counterbalance your weight, but don’t let it touch the floor. Stand back up to the start and repeat right away. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: If you have trouble balancing, touch your toe lightly on the floor.
One-Legged BOSU® Squat
Setup: Stand on the dome of a BOSU® and lift one foot. Extend your arms to the side and focus on a spot on the floor several feet in front of you. Tighten your abs and square your hips.
Move: Slowly bend your knee and squat down as low as you can, keeping your chest lifted and your shoulders back. Feel free to move your arms forward or to the side to help balance, as shown. Extend your leg to return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Your ankle will work double time here to keep you steady on an unstable surface. Split your sets into smaller groups of reps to prevent burnout of those tiny muscles.
Single-Legged Deadlift Windmill
Setup: Stand on your right foot with your left leg behind you. Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder height.
Move: Keeping your back straight, hinge at the hips and fold forward while simultaneously lifting your left leg up behind you. As you descend, slowly open your chest to the right side, reaching your left fingers for your right toes and your right fingers for the sky. Slowly return to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Bend your standing knee slightly to help maintain balance and prevent strain in the back of your knee.
One-Arm Dumbbell Push Press
Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell at your shoulder with your palm facing forward, elbow down.
Move: Bend your knees slightly to load up, then extend them quickly and push through your heels and glutes, using that power and slight momentum to press the dumbbell straight up over your shoulder to a full extension. Lower it slowly back to the start and repeat right away. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: This is a dynamic move and should involve more than simply your shoulder to execute.