Why Unilateral Training Is So Important

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We all have our good side. For me it’s my right side where I have a God-Gifted Glorious dimple. What does that mean? I put my good side ahead while taking selfies. Jokes apart, we all have a ‘strong side’ and one ‘not-so-strong’ side. And like my subconscious behavior of turning my head ever-so-slightly to the left so my dimple is visible- that’s just how our muscles behave!

We are all naturally stronger on one side of our body- the hand we write with, the leg we always put up first while going upstairs (stepping up with the other leg never even occurred to us). These differences exist in everyone and that’s okay. Until we need to do something that we are not used to. Like lifting a pressure cooker with both hands and one arm just gives in or play cricket with friends one day just to find your left leg just isn’t as nimble. In athletes this difference can be quite pronounced. In a runner one leg just won’t accelerate off as quickly or strongly or in a tennis player one arm will be very muscular and the other one puny!

This happens naturally but the truth is that muscular asymmetry is not ideal. We want our right and left sides to be very close in mobility and strength. If not, these can be catalysts for injuries- one building over the other!

So, what happens if we are unaware of these differences and we continue to work-out/run/cycle/push our bodies? These differences get stronger with time. Meaning your stronger side gets stronger and your weaker side learns that it’s okay to relax and gets weaker over time.

I always say this. Our body is like team work. When there is something to be done, there may be a few team members that give their best and the others just coast along, being kaamchor and never really pushing themselves because they don’t need to. This is why each team member needs to be put on the spot to do their best without anyone assisting – to understand their true mettle. The same goes for our body. Unless we do unilateral training, we never know what is exactly working. Our body is supremely intelligent- more than we give it credit for. The movement, the athletic activity, the workout will happen either way but whether we did it to our best capacity or whether only the strong parts of us pitched in while the others slept is to be determined!

Here’s what’s actually happening. The stronger side is constantly over-compensating and over-working/over-loading in everything from walking to bench-press to squats. This is further widening the strength gap between the two sides. The second thing that’s happening that you are unaware of is that the muscles that were NEVER supposed to get recruited during that movement DO- in order to compete the movement- meaning now their smaller muscles that are not meant to do the weight lifting that just got over-burdened leading to a muscle pull or an injury.

ALL this is avoidable if you focus on unilateral movements from time to time instead of ONLY bilateral as is the case in most workouts, training and sometimes rehab. You must force the weaker muscles to pull their weight but be careful to start slow and not push too hard. An extremely big advantage of unilateral training is that you push your core to work twice as hard. In order to keep yourself stable during unilateral movements, if your core doesn’t wake up and work then you simply fall over! Talk about forcing the core to act! About time!

So how to add unilateral movement exercises? Easy! Pick a few from the following and see the results.

Try these- single chest arm press, single arm row, bottom-up, kettle press, walking lunges, reverse lunges, backward walking, curtsy lunges, single leg step ups, single glute bridges, single leg airplane, single leg star, pistol squats and many more. While you do these be aware of muscle activity (which muscles are working right now) and whether there is a difference in activity VS effort VS quality of movement in your right VS left movements. If you are cued into this, truly this will blow your mind. Sadly, very few people are attuned to this.

When I want to test how my patients are doing, I NEVER test bilateral movements. I always test unilateral movements. That’s what gives me a true picture of what’s causing the dysfunction and gives me a clue of what’s going to get them to their road to recovery and injury free living.

An important word of caution- when you are first getting started with unilateral training, stay within the 5 – 10 rep range and let your weaker side determine the weight that is right for now. The goal is to help the weaker side catch up to the stronger thus even-ing things out – not making the stronger side even stronger and causing the imbalance to get bigger! So- always start with your non-dominant side testing the waters.

Honestly a superior workout- the best bang for your buck- is to do all unilateral movements and adjust your reps based on self- awareness instead of pushing out thousands of squats and crunches- that’s purely a waste of time and effort in my mind!