If you’re an advanced lifter, then unilateral training is a technique you can employ to jump start some new gains in size and strength. Unilateral training is simply training one limb or one side at a time. Your nervous system concentrates harder when you’re focused on one limb instead of two.
The problem is that most people don’t know how to fully exploit unilateral training. Most people perform unilateral training after a heavy bilateral movement (for example, barbell curls followed by dumbbell concentration curls). In addition, most people use higher reps on the unilateral movement, thus employing a form of heavy/light training.
The heavy/light method is great training method, but it is not the same as unilateral training. To employ unilateral training, follow these rules:
- Choose a unilateral movement for a body part.
- Perform 3-4 sets of this movement with heavier weight so that your reps fall anywhere from 4-6.
- A full range of motion should be completed with each rep and under strict control.
- Follow the unilateral movement with a bilateral movement for that body part and with the same set and rep design.
Performing the unilateral movement first before a bilateral movement has a very different training effect than performing it after. The unilateral movement will wake up your neural connection to that muscle, but you must perform heavier weight at lower reps.
I only recommend unilateral training for advanced trainees. I find that beginners need to stick with bilateral movements, because they have yet to develop the balance and coordination for these various exercises. An advanced trainee has developed muscle imbalances, which can be alleviated somewhat with unilateral training. Plus, an advanced lifter has a greater mind and muscle connection and can fully exploit the unilateral movements much better. Here are some guidelines that I follow when training clients:
- Beginning lifters should engage in predominantly bilateral training.
- Intermediate lifters can incorporate more unilateral movements by engaging in heavy/light training.
- Advanced lifters should exploit unilateral movements prior to bilateral movements.
Not every single limb exercise is ideal for unilateral training. Some are better than others, because of the concentration involved with these exercises. The following are exercises that are ideal for unilateral training. Use them before a bilateral movement for the same body part, and you will further the hypertrophy in the muscles targeted.
“Pistols” or one-legged squats are excellent unilateral movements to wake up the quads. The reason is that performing them takes tremendous concentration. These require a lot of practice and flexibility, but once you’re able to do them, pistols will leave you quite sore in the quads. To perform pistols, lower yourself on one leg while extending the other leg out in front of you. Sounds easy enough. If you don’t concentrate, however, then you’ll fall on your ass. Keep these points in mind when performing pistols:
- Extend your arms out in front of you to counterbalance your torso as you squat down.
- Round your torso and back over the knee of the leg doing the squatting. By curling your torso over your knee as you squat to the bottom, your center of gravity stays directly over your base, which is your foot. This will help you avoid tipping over.
- If you cannot do pistols, then perform lunges or reverse lunges, which work well as unilateral movements.
- Follow up with 3-4 sets of back squats.
Shoulders: One-Arm Barbell Press
One-arm barbell movements require a lot of concentration, because your hand has to grip the bar tightly at its center and move it smoothly. The one-arm barbell press is simply performing a barbell military press with one hand. Grasp the bar at its center and press it overhead under complete control. Make sure the bar stays parallel to the floor at all times.
You will find your entire body, everything from your hands, your arms, your shoulders, your lats and your abs will tense up in order to move the weight and press it overhead. After a few sets of the one-arm barbell press, follow up with a few sets of the clean and press.
Biceps: One-Arm Barbell Curls
One-arm barbell movements are great for the biceps as well. One-arm barbell curls can be done standing or over a preacher bench. The same rules apply with regard to exercise form: grasp the center of the bar with one hand and curl the bar while keeping the bar parallel to the floor at all times.
Back: Mixed Grip Chin-ups
Most people don’t have a gymnastics background and cannot do a one-arm pull-up. The next best thing is to perform mixed grip chin-ups. Mixed grip chin-ups allow you to add more resistance to the side using the supinated grip. To perform this variation, place your hands about shoulder-width apart on a pull-up bar, but with one hand pronated (overhand) and the other supinated (underhand). When you perform the chin-up, you will concentrate on contracting the side with the supinated grip. Rest for one minute before switching grips. Perform 3-4 sets for both arms by reversing the grips on each alternating set. Afterwards, perform 3-4 sets of regular two-handed pull-ups.
Hamstrings: Standing Leg Curls
If you have access to a standing leg curl machine, then by all means use it. Your biceps femoris are composed of primarily fast-twitch muscle fiber, and they respond extremely well to heavy unilateral training. The key to making standing leg curls work is to perform 3-5 reps in an explosive manner. Don’t go for high reps or lighter weight. Do 4 sets and then follow up with some Romanian deadlifts.