By Greg Merritt Flex
“One” has a bad rep. “One-dimensional.” “One-sided.” “One-trick pony.” We’re constantly told that “one” lacks depth and that “two” is twice as good as its fellow integer.
Stop the number bashing. In bodybuilding — the ultimate individualistic sport — there are times when training the left or right side of paired muscles separately is better than training them together. Generally, working one side provides for the freest range of motion, and it allows you to focus more on the targeted area.
Here, we rehabilitate the reputation of “one” with 10 unilateral exercises you probably aren’t doing so you can take a “one-sided” approach for better gains.
The main advantage of one-leg presses is that they require you to slow the movement down and focus less on packing as many plates as possible on a machine (as happens too often for short and/or bounced reps) and more on getting a maximum stretch at a controlled pace. Jay Cutler often includes one-leg presses in his quad routine for this reason. Go for a full movement, bringing your knee to your chest each time, and you’ll feel this one in your glutes and upper quads.
Too many bodybuilders pump out lying leg curls without properly stressing their hamstrings. By doing lying one-leg curls slowly, you can truly feel each rep working the targeted muscles on the back of the working leg. You can also more easily point your toes in to better stress the inner hams (semitendinosus) or out to focus more on the outer hams (biceps femoris).
One-arm dumbbell rows are commonly performed, and one-arm cable or machine rows are effective variations. A less conventional upper-back exercise is one-arm pulldowns. Attach a handle to an overhead cable at a lat pulldown station and grab it with one hand. Your wrist can be in any position, and it can move throughout the lift — for example, start with an overhand grip and supinate to an underhand grip at maximum contraction. This freedom also allows you to pull the handle all the way down to your side, bringing your elbow back in the process for a maximum contraction. This unique lift fully stretches each lat and is one we recommend every bodybuilder try.
Phil Heath likes to include one-arm pec-deck flyes in his chest routine. With these, your range of motion can be longer at contraction because you can pull your arm past the point where the pads or your hands — depending on the type of pec deck you use — would meet if you were performing flyes with both arms simultaneously. This lengthier movement focuses more on the inner chest. Using a flye machine is the safest and most effective way to target your left and right pecs individually.
When doing alternate dumbbell shoulder presses, keep one dumbbell in the starting position (approximately ear level) while you press the other dumbbell up to near lockout and then return it to the starting position. Then press the other dumbbell up. Repeat the alternating pattern. For an excellent pump with lighter dumbbells, you can also hold one weight in either the starting position or the lockout position while you do all the presses (10-12 reps) with your other hand. Then switch sides. Repeat with each arm without rest (the rest period for one side is the time it takes to work the other side) until you’ve done three or four sets on each side.
You may have performed one-arm pushdowns before, but you may not have taken advantage of the less-restrictive range of motion they can provide. A good way to do this is to stand with an overhead cable near your left shoulder. Take an underhand grip on a D-handle with your right hand and, while keeping your elbow steady, pull the handle down and across your body. At contraction, your clenched right fist should be facing your right hip. In this way, pushdowns function somewhat like kickbacks, but with even greater emphasis on the contractions. Do a set, then switch arms. These work the lateral head, but also emphasize the medial head more than regular pushdowns do.
You may have also done one-arm cable curls, but as with one-arm pushdowns, try going from one side to the other. Begin by holding a D-handle at your right side and curl it up to directly in front of your left pec. By taking a thumbs-up grip, you can turn these into hammer curls, placing a greater emphasis on your brachialis and outer biceps head. Do all the reps in a set for your right biceps before switching to your left biceps.
If you train forearms at all, you’ve probably done the old barbell favorites. One-arm dumbbell wrist curls provide the widest range of wrist motion. You can tilt the dumbbell to the inner side by lifting your thumb more or to the outer side by lifting your pinkie more. You can also more easily alter the stress by doing them, for example, with your arm angled down on a preacher bench or angled up on an incline bench. Include this exercise in at least every other forearm workout.
An effective lift that was once a mainstay in bodybuilding routines but is seldom performed today is the one-leg standing calf raise. Rest the toes of one foot on the edge of a block, curl the opposite leg up behind you, and hold a dumbbell with one hand and something to balance yourself (such as a vertical bar) with the other. Focus on getting a maximum stretch and contraction. Calves are typically trained with bulky machines, but raising up on one foot at a time allows you to work your lower legs in a home gym or in no gym at all. You can even do these without a dumbbell for high reps on a stairway step or anywhere there’s enough elevation.
The two sides of the front abs are so close together they almost always work in tandem. For that reason, when it comes to training abs unilaterally, it’s much easier to hit either the left or right oblique than to try to train just the left or right side of the rectus abdominis. Lying side oblique crunches are done like a standard ab crunch, with the crucial difference being that you lie on your side, not your back. Put your legs on top of each other, keep your knees bent, the working-side hand behind your head, and crunch up as far as possible in a limited movement.
These 10 unilateral exercises allow you to isolate the targeted muscles and focus on the fullest, freest range of motion. You can use more weight and spend less time training both sides simultaneously, but heavier and faster aren’t necessarily better.
Try these unique lifts in your routine, at least on occasion, because your route to a bigger, better physique needs to include both two-lane highways and one-way streets.
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