Reg Park Dumbbell Curl

Unilateral Strength: Do You Need to Bother?

Some time ago I read an article on T-Nation called “Unilateral Movements Make You Weak“. Very loud title, in my opinion. Especially for the content inside. The author examined the transfer between unilateral and bilateral exercises from position of maximal strength and using barbells/dumbbells. That article has its own flaws which I don’t want to emphasize right now. But the main take-home point is that unilateral movements DON’T make you weak. They make you stronger. Want to know how? Then read on.

Unilateral?

Ok. Unilateral exercise is a movement which loads primarily one side of the body. For example, One-Arm Curl, One-Arm Press, One-Arm Push-Up etc. Bilateral exercise is a movement which loads both sides of your body evenly and simultaneously. For example, Chin-Ups, Dips, Kettlebell Double Military Press, Sandbag Clean & Press etc. Actually there is a difference between them. Bilateral movements expose body to greater overall load while unilateral movements take more time, more volume and activate core and stabilizers much more.

Why Not to Use Bilateral Exercises Only?

It’s a good question. When you train with weights bilateral movements are likely to build more overall mass because of the greater load that you’re using. But with time it’s also likely that you will develop muscular imbalances. For example, right upper arm bigger than left, or left thigh bigger than right etc. If you suffer from such imbalances unilateral movements can help you big time. The next training session try doing dumbbell curls instead of barbell curls (or kettlebell curls if you want to try something evil). Or try doing one-arm presses instead of barbell presses. It will be refreshing. You can face another strength problem. For example, you can curl a certain dumbbell solid 10 times with your right hand and barely get 8 reps with left. Solution is simple. Start with your weaker arm and perform a set of certain amount of reps that you can manage with this arm. Then move to stronger arm and perform NO MORE reps than with your weaker arm. Let’s take the previous example. Start with your left arm and perform 6 reps. Then move to right arm and perform no more than 6 reps. Strength of your both arms should equalize with time.

Ok, I Got It. Anything Else?

Of course. Unilateral movements are a great help when you hit a plateau in your bilateral movement. For example, you hit a plateau in your Kettlebell Double Military Press. You try to get more reps/sets/weight but just can’t do it. Instead of getting frustrated you can switch to Kettlebell One-Arm Military Press. Movement patterns of these exercises are similar and different at the same time. Get stronger in unilateral movement. You may become very strong in unilateral movement, but not as much in bilateral. No big deal. The main point here is that you can shake things up with unilateral movements and break through plateaus. If you get stronger in unilateral movement you will be at least more confident in bilateral. Your joints, tendons and ligaments will be prepared for heavier weights as well as your core.

Unilateral Exercises in Calisthenics

Well, in bodyweight training everything is upside down. If in weight training bilateral movement is overall harder then in bodyweight training unilateral movement is the hardest. For example, regular push-ups and one-arm push-ups, regular pull-ups and one-arm pull-ups etc. In calisthenics unilateral movement is the ultimate strength goal. In most cases (except leg work, I guess) unilateral movement requires insane strength in muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, core, stabilizers and body as whole. For example, one-arm planche, one-arm handstand push-up, one-arm front lever. These movements are insane in my opinion. The one who can perform them possesses the ultimate strength. And the greater his bodyweight the greater these feats are.

Conclusion

I’d like to sum up several main points here:

  • Unilateral movements don’t make you weak. They make you stronger.
  • If you suffer from muscle imbalances unilateral movements can help you big time.
  • Unilateral movements are a great help when you hit a plateau in your bilateral movement.
  • Unilateral bodyweight movements require insane strength in muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, core, stabilizers and body as whole. The one who can perform them possesses the ultimate strength.

Ok, that’s it. Thanks for reading. If you have any questions feel free to ask. Stay tuned for more on rough training.

Play rough!

Alex Zinchenko

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7 thoughts on “Unilateral Strength: Do You Need to Bother?

  1. Jonathan F.V.

    Right now, I’m doing an experiment. I’m learning to do one legged squats with a person of my own weight on the shoulders, and it’s the only legs training (with GHRs and jumps) I’ll do until I accomplish five solid reps on each leg. Then I want to see how it carries over to squats. I usually don’t go to the gym, and don’t have an access to weights, but I won’t have much trouble for testing, and if it carries over well, I’ll probably keep it up and try to lift (with one leg) one of my students who’s 200 lb.

    For training protocol, I use box one legged box squats (5×1, going about parallel right now), and assisted one legged squats (2×5, hands on a low bar).

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey, Jonathan. I’m doing the same exercise for my legs now. Weighted pistols. I’m interested in this feat of strength. What can I say about carryover? Well, it’s not that great as you may expect. Movement patterns are not identical. If you want big barbell squat then you need to make accent on it. Weighted pistols are cool on their own. It’s two quite different exercises.

      Reply
      1. Jonathan F.V.

        I know. But I previously found the carry over depends a lot on how you do them. If you do them holding dumbbells down, it give you a good potential for max deadlift. Well, my max one legged squat with dumbbells corresponded more or less to my max deadlift. So this time, I try to learn it with an olympic lift back squat style, so it’s as similar to a normal squat (a deep one) as possible. I don’t except 100% carry over, but for sure there will be some, and I think it will increase my squatting potential.

        Reply
        1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

          For sure, there will be some carryover. But barbell squat just feels so much different from pistol, at least for me. Anyway, good luck with your quest.

          Reply
          1. Jonathan F.V.

            Thanks! Yes, they do feel different. But they feel a lot more similar if I force the pistol’s form to be like the squat’s, especially using box pistols. I think I can ensure a better carryover (to be honest, squats aren’t even the goal, like I’m not training for powerlifting, I just want to use them as a gauge for general lower body strength) if I get to do a few reps with the pistols. Cause if you can do a few, you’re just damn strong, and I think that the form doesn’t matter as much as it does for a max. Anyways. I’ll give you some news about it once I can do a few pistols + bodyweight and I tested my squat again.

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