Unilateral vs Bilateral Movements
Unilateral vs bilateral movements and their training applications to become a better athlete
Unilateral vs bilateral movements, which ones should you be doing? The terms unilateral and bilateral mean one limb and two limbs. If you are a regular gym user it is likely you have performed bilateral movements like squatting, rowing, pressing and deadlifting. The unilateral variations of these movements are often less common because less load can be lifted and nobody wants to take a step backwards, right? Doing these unilateral variations can help you build more muscle, create stability and improve your strength as well as improve your performance on game day.
Unilateral movements can be great for building muscle, sorting out left and right imbalances, training stability for balance and training sport specific movements for the athlete. Here are the typical bilateral movements that are common within strength and conditioning and a unilateral variation for each of the lifts.
THE VIDEO: Unilateral vs Bilateral Movements
The Back Squat
The king of leg strength movements. The back squat is the go to strength exercise for building strength and muscle in the legs, hips and engaging your core. It allows for the most weight to be lifted out of all the squat variations and requires the least technical skill.
The Split Squat
The split squat is a lower body strength variation which, when performed correctly puts even pressure through the front and back foot. This puts emphasis onto the front quadricep, glute and hamstring whilst, the rear leg works hard to stabilise the body. In this split position, you may feel slightly compromised and off balance. Because of this we can train our lower body stability without ever toughing a Bosu ball. This split position also mimics many of the positions you may find yourself in during a sport. Deceleration and change of direction require the strength and control of one leg. The split squat is a great way to train for this.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
The RDL is one of the best movements for creating strength in the hips, hamstrings and the back. The movement allows for a large range of movement around the hip and a reasonably large load can be lifted using the barbell. Although, it may be unnatural to beginner lifters, the movement isolates the hips and hamstrings which, are the prime movers during the hip extension we see during sporting tasks like sprinting and jumping.
The Single Leg Dumbbell RDL
The single leg dumbbell RDL requires a great amount of balance and stability from the lower body and the trunk. An advanced movement to perform but when done correctly the gains in strength and control of the trunk and lower limbs can drastically improve your performance. Hamstrings are one of the biggest injury sites in field sports due to weakness and imbalances between left and right sides. Training with the single leg RDL can level out these imbalances and create the strength and control to bulletproof your hamstrings.
The Overhead Press
The overhead press is a vertical pressing movement with a barbell. The barbell allows the most weight to be lifted and provides stability between the limbs. Attempting to “tear the bar apart” creates tension through the upper body which, is equal on left and right sides. If you are looking to improve your overhead pressing strength, the overhead press is the movement you should use.
Single Arm Dumbbell Press
The use of a single arm causes instability and more room for error during the lift when compared to barbell variation. The single arm dumbbell press trains stability, proprioception, co-ordination and strength in the limb as well as making your core work hard to stabilise your torso. Research shows greater muscle activation in the secondary muscles involved to perform the movement than in the bilateral equivalent. This variation can be done seated or standing and is a great addition into an upper body training session.
The Bent Over Row
Horizontal pulling movements are crucial for any sports that require an arm swing during running, sports that involve grappling and any kind of throwing movements. Building a strong and powerful upper back will create a faster arm swing, tighter holds and a stable platform for the shoulder whilst throwing. The Barbell bent over row is the gold standard for bilateral rowing. This allows the highest load to be lifted with speed, precision and control.
The Single Arm Dumbbell Row
Horizontal pulling movements are important during many sporting tasks but they are rarely performed with both arms. Adding a unilateral pulling variation into your training will create strength and stability around your shoulder, strengthen your upper back and make your core work overtime to stay stable. There are many variations of this lift but this one is performed with the free hand unsupported so that the core hast to develop anti-rotational strength at the same time.
Both unilateral and bilateral movements have their place in your training programme. If you are looking to show off in the gym and lift the most amount of weight possible, stick to only the bilateral movements and put more weight on the bar. If you are looking to build additional muscle, have more control, better stability, level out imbalances, become more robust and perform better during your sport, swapping a bilateral variation for one of these unilateral movements will make you a better athlete.