Unilateral Exercise: Accessory Exercises for Performance and Longevity
When Powerlifters and Weightlifters actually do their accessory work, it’s really helpful. We’re all guilty of missing out accessory work here and there, but it’s important to treat it seriously.
Today we’re discussing why unilateral exercise should be a significant player in your accessory work. We’ll define it, run through why it’s such an important and beneficial choice, then hit you with some of our favourite examples.
Stick around if you’re ready to actually take accessory work seriously and use it to build the best, most sustainable results.
Unilateral and Asymmetrical
The definition of unilateral exercise is anything that is relating to or affecting only one side. This is obvious when you look at examples: 1-arm dumbbell press, single leg RDL, or the lunge.
They’re asymmetrical exercises that focus on moving with one side. Using this training is great because it forces you into unstable positions, where you’ll have to stabilise yourself through conscious effort.
This is part of the point: while one side of the body is primarily moving the weight, the other side needs to be dedicated to support and stability. If you’re not taking this active approach wit the whole body, you may as well not be doing unilateral exercises.
It’s easy to ignore some of your own shortcomings in bilateral (or normal, two-sided) exercise, but it also overlooks some of the most important benefits.
The Key benefits
Balancing strength asymmetries
When performing unilateral exercise, you’re going to make significant progress evening out the strength of both sides of your body.
Most people aren’t symmetrical: we usually have a dominant side and don’t grow in perfectly mirrored halves. As a result, you’re probably stronger on one side than the other. Properly-performed unilateral exercise can help even this out.
For example, walking lunges will balance out development in the legs and hips. If you give yourself 4 sets of “1 length”, you’re going to be limited in weight by the weakest side. The training effect on that side will be significant, while slightly less for the side that is already stronger.
Through this process of strengthening weaknesses, you’ll move back towards strength symmetry. It’s not a huge concern, but it does promote the best results and a sense of balance in how you move and train – especially in the long-term.
Building control in the hips, shoulders, and scap
The movement of only one side is a huge stability and balance challenge, as mentioned above.
This means that the muscles in control of this stability are going to develop – both in terms of mass, and conscious control. You’ll mainly experience this in 3 areas: the hips, the core, and the upper back.
These regions are primarily concerned with controlling the movement of the limbs and torso. As you perform a unilateral exercise, they’re involved in both stabilising and moving through their intended range. The result is exactly what we said before – strength, size, and better control.
For example, the Bulgarian split squat is great because it forces you to control the hip-knee in ways that are more demanding, but lighter, than a regular squat. You can’t compensate for it – you have to address the issue head-on.
These all contribute to your normal goals, whether that’s strength training for sprinting, powerlifting, or weightlifting. These kinds of movements offer a chance to develop better body awareness and control in key muscle groups; there’s never a bad time to exercise better conscious control!
Rotational and anti-rotational strength
One of the types of training almost everyone (myself included) overlooks, is rotational and anti-rotational strength. If you’re a powerlifter or weightlifter, it’s natural to forget rotation because these sports are all sagittal.
It’s become a bit of a meme to talk about rotational strength with hacks like Functional Patterns being ridiculed (and rightly so) for droning on about it. However, getting out of the sagittal plane for your accessory work is a great way to go.
Asymmetrical, unilateral exercises help you build strength rotating and resisting rotation. To return to the walking lunge, you’ll need to focus on keeping your hips ‘squared’ (or perfectly aligned). This requires conscious control in the hips and core to keep your torso in one place, developing anti-rotational strength.
Figure 1 - If you don't have a child for your cheesy workout photoshoot, a plate could also be used, I guess…
If you’re performing these movements properly, they can be a great tool for strengthening the core in ways you’re not giving enough attention. This is really important for long-term joint health, as well as being a factor in spinal stability and combatting the ever-present risk of lower back pain.
Balance and stability training
The introduction of balance and stability alone are significant benefits to athleticism and may have a knock-on effect to better performance in your competitive movements.
If you’re going to be doing accessory work anyway (which you should be), then you may as well get the most benefits possible. The introduction of unilateral work won’t add much, if any, recovery demands and can provide a significant benefit to your overall athletic profile.
Balance is something you’ll scarcely train in strength sports, but has a key role in long-term health and wellbeing. Equally, stability in the ankles, knees, hips, core, and shoulders all add up to better longevity (both inside and outside of sports) and support long-term progress.
Figure 2 - decidedly NOT the kind of balance and stability training we had in mind.
Producing your best results consistently over time has to be built on a foundation of health, strength, and co-ordination. You can work on all of these with good unilateral work.
As a quick final note, remember that most real-world injuries are ridiculous, odd movements. Things like twisting and bending simultaneously are responsible for a lot of strains.
The best way to prevent injury is to get familiar – and strong – in the positions you’re moving through. Unilateral exercise has a serious role in keeping you healthy.
You might not be worried about pulling something right now, but it’s always good to prepare yourself. Injury resilience is great, but even better if you never know you’ve been at risk – put the work in now.
Examples and Applications
So, what did we have in mind? Here’s a quick-fire round of our favourite unilateral exercises and why we love them. If you’ve got a problem with any of these choices, feel free to get in touch with your complains so I can bitch-slap you.
Lower Body Unilateral Exercises
Reverse Lunge: a great beginner exercise for hip extension in single-leg knee bends. Great for warming up, cooling down, and may even get you a cheeky leg pump if you grab some weight.
Walking Lunge: a progression on the reverse lunge. Not only is it great for just doing the work, but it’s a little more specific to actual movements you’re going to do in life. You know, walking.
Step Up: this is a super-versatile movement and you can make a lot out of it with very little effort. You can perform them for stability, strength, or power. Whatever you’re training for, there’s a step up for that.
Bulgarian Split Squat: the absolute daddy of single-leg squatting. It’s got a long range, easy to progress (either elevate the front foot or add weight), demands amazing control, and it’ll get your quads/hips/core feeling spicy real quick. If you can, do.
Single Leg Press: it’s like a leg press except now you can work in with other people in the gym. Single leg presses are great for accessory work because they help build some neglected muscles and they’re a great way to get a pump without fatiguing the hips/lower back.
If it’s good enough for Bryce Lewis, it’s good enough for you and me.
Single Leg Contralateral RDL: fancy name for “single leg RDL but on opposite sides”. Rotation strength everywhere, great for hamstrings, glutes, and improving your hip hinge. Win-win-win.
Single Leg Glute Bridge: athletes in more classical (or, as they say, real) sports do a ton of powerful glute bridges. Weightlifters do almost none, and powerlifters are always focused on shifting the biggest possible hip thrust. Single leg glute bridges should be used as an accessory – especially when performed for power.
Upper Body Unilateral Exercises
Single Arm Cable Row: add a fat grip or use a false grip and it gets real fun. Keep the rest of your body square and try to feel your scapula sliding forwards and backwards through the movement. Control here will save you a ton of shoulder issues in the future, trust me.
Dumbbell Row: it’s a classic – big back, bicep pump, better unilateral control. Go do some.
Single arm Dumbbell Bench: underrated exercise for longer ranges, better scap control, and keeping your shoulders healthy. This doesn’t need to be heavy, just feel the full range and keep your shoulder in the classic ‘in your back pocket’ position.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown: another exercise for controlling the shoulder blades. It’s almost like scapula control is really important. Give this a go – the extra range and stabiliser-demands will feel funky, but they’re worth developing.
Single Arm Shoulder Press: a dumbbell press with one arm is a great thing, and balances up the vertical pulling you’d get with a single arm lat pulldown. They make for a great superset, if you’re short on time and want to improve both sides together.
Get out of your sagittal plane, balance up your strengths, and get a pump all at once. There’s no reason to live your life without great unilateral accessory exercises.
If you’re already doing accessory work for the muscles and movements we’ve mentioned, it’s good to ask why. Getting more results from the same amount of time and work is one of the best tweaks you can make to your own training – and unilateral exercises offer a great way to do just that.
Get outside of your comfort zone, progress some of these movements and see how they work out for you. You’re welcome, in advance!