Work Your Muscles with Unilateral Training

Using dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and even simple bodyweight movements, you can explore the vast array of movement options available to you.

Unilateral training isn’t anything new these days. We hear a lot about different techniques to do it, such as carries, bands, kettlebells, suspension trainers, and single-limb exercises. But since so many training systems have adopted these as the norm, it doesn’t make much sense to categorize them as new or different. They are mainstream techniques and are here to stay.

But while we all know by now to include some of these alternative modes of training in our program, does that mean the barbell has become useless? Not so fast.

As one of the most recognizable and versatile pieces of equipment to ever grace the gym floor, the barbell is arguably the most popular and universal tool to reach any physical goal. As a facilitator for performance, fitness-related goals, or even as the star of the show (as in powerlifting and weightlifting competitions), it is unequalled in effectiveness. Barbells are cost-effective, replacing the need for dozens of separate machines. Bilateral use of the barbell enables you to lift maximal loads, making progressive overload that much easier to achieve.

There Is Life Outside the Collars

That said, the bilateral barbell exercises most people perform also tend to miss the benefits of unilateral movement. Therefore, you may develop strength imbalances from one side to the other. Your range of motion may also be compromised since you aren’t able to take complete control of all angles during a lift. For example, with the barbell bench press, you can’t bring your arms to the centerline at the top of the lift. Since everyone is built differently, this can result in shoulder strain, and over time, could lead to something worse.

Unilateral training enables you to work each limb independently, greatly increasing your options. You are more easily able to move freely in all planes of motion, allowing you to cater your movement pattern to your specific body type and range of motion limitations. It will also help you even out strength imbalances, which will reduce your injury risk over time.

How to Break Your Bilateral Barbell Habit

Using dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and even simple bodyweight movements, you can explore the vast array of movement options available to you. Let’s look at a few of the more common bilateral exercises, and what you can substitute for each to get in some effective unilateral training.

Barbell squat and leg press:

Pistol squat
One-legged leg press
All forms of lunges, step ups, split squats, and jump split squats

Barbell and Smith machine shoulder press:

Two-arm dumbbell press
One-arm dumbbell press
Kettlebell press
All lateral dumbbell movements, Arnold press, neutral-grip dumbbell press, and dumbbell upright rows

Barbell bench press (flat or incline):

Dumbbell bench press (flat or incline)
TRX push-ups, dumbbell flyes (flat or incline)
Single-arm dumbbell or kettlebell bench press
Single-arm machine press
One-arm push-ups

Leg curls and Romanian deadlifts:

Single leg curl
Single leg Romanian deadlift
Single leg rollout
Standing single leg curl

Barbell and machine rows:

Dumbbell two-arm row
One-arm TRX pull
One-arm pulldown
One-arm cable row
One-arm kettlebell row
Renegade row
One-arm T-bar row
Dumbbell deadlift

Barbell, preacher and machine curls:

Dumbbell spider curl
Dumbbell preacher curl
TRX curl
Standing dumbbell curl
Hang curl

Barbell triceps extensions and close-grip bench press:

TRX triceps extension
One-arm overhead dumbbell extension
One-arm triceps press on machine

Standing and seated calf raise:

Single leg press calf raise
Single leg seated calf raise

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