Incorporating Unilateral Lifts
By Linda Melone, CSCS Men's Fitness
Question: How many single-limb exercises have you been incorporating into your workouts?
If you said none, it might be time to re-think your approach. Training both sides of your body at once may be good for the ego, but it enables your weaker side to hide behind your dominant side—and ignoring that can set you up for injury. In fact, research shows that strength and coordination differences between limbs can range anywhere from 3 to 25 percent.
“It’s one thing to do a basic squat on a balanced base of support," says Neal I. Pire, MA, CSCS, FACSM, founder of PUSH at Volt Fitness in Glen Rock, NJ. “It’s a whole other thing to perform the same basic movement on one foot. Deep hip and core stabilizers have to fire to keep your unsupported hip from collapsing downward, and stability of this type allows us to walk and climb stairs more efficiently—and reduces injury potential.”
With that in mind, these six training combinations will help you incorporate unilateral exercises into your workouts. You'll want to start with the basic bilateral version of the move, and then follow up directly with the unilateral exercise, says Pire. He also recommends that you consider your goals when determining the best weight to use: aim for 8 to 10 reps (per leg for all) for strength, 4 to 6 reps for power, and 12 to 15 reps for hypertrophy (growth).
COMBO #1. Squats to...Single-Legged Squats
A. Balancing on your right leg, bend your left knee and lift your left foot off the floor.
B. Slowly squat as if you’re about to sit, keeping your right knee pointed forward, in line with your ankle and hip.
C. Return to start, then repeat on other side. Work up to 10 reps on each leg.
COMBO #2. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts to...Single Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
A. Stand on right leg, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in right hand.
B. Keeping right knee slightly bent, perform a stiff-legged deadlift by bending at the hip, extending your free leg behind you for balance.
C. Continue lowering the weight until you are parallel to the ground, and then return to the upright position; repeat for desired number of reps and then switch sides.
COMBO #3. Bench Press to...One-Armed Dumbbell Presses
A. Lie on a flat bench with a dumbbell in your right hand, on top of your right thigh. Using your thigh to help by pushing the dumbbell into place, clean the dumbbell up so that you can hold it in front of you with your arm straight and in line with your shoulder. Use left hand to help position the dumbbell. Rotate your wrist forward so that the palm of your hand is facing towards your feet. This will be your starting position.
B. Slowly lower the weight by bending your elbow and lowering your arm until your wrist is stacked over your elbow and upper arm is parallel to the ground in a chest press position. Keep full control of the dumbbell at all times. (Tip: If needed, use your non-lifting hand for balance, as you may struggle at first.)
C. As you breathe out, push the dumbbell back up, focusing on your pectoral (chest) muscles. Lock your arm in the contracted position, squeeze your chest, hold for a second and slowly return the dumbbell to starting position. Do prescribed amount of reps, then switch arms and repeat.
COMBO #4. Seated Low-Cable Rows to...One-Arm Standing Cable Row
A. Attach a single handle to the pulley cable. Adjust the stack to the desired weight, then position yourself about 3 feet from the cable machine and grasp the handle with your right hand.
B. Take the weight off the stack and bend at the knees slightly. Put your left hand on your left thigh for stability.
C. Starting with an overhand position, begin pulling your arm in towards your side as far as possible, squeezing through the shoulder blades. Slowly lower the weight back down. Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch arms.
COMBO #5. Dumbbell Shoulder Presses to...One-Armed Lateral Raises
A. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in your right hand with arms down at your sides and palms facing in.
B. Keeping your body still, and maintaining a very slightly flexed elbow, slowly raise the dumbbell out to your right side, up to approximately shoulder height.
C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell back to start. Do prescribed number or reps, then repeat with your left arm.
COMBO #6. Cable Trunk Rotations to...Staggered-Stance Single-Arm Rotation
A. In your right hand, hold a single handle attached to the pulley cable. Adjust the stack to the desired weight.
B. Face the cable pulley. Step, lunging sideways out to your right, pulling the handle out while rotating your trunk (similar to a tennis backhand). Return to starting position and repeat on opposite side. That's one rep.