Lifters who focus only on the big bilateral movements of the squat, press, and deadlift family get strong, but can develop muscle imbalances. The body will always resort to plan B to complete the lift, and that's not always a good thing.
A power imbalance in itself is not a big deal. But over time it can increase the risk of a more shaky technique, which can help increase the risk of injury. Have you ever seen a lifter try to lock out on one side of their body? The defense is down.
Performing unilateral lifts as part of your accessory routine leads to better and stronger bilateral lifts, reduces the risk of injury, and leads to better muscle development.
Here we'll dive into the benefits of unilateral exercises, how to tell if you have a strength imbalance, and four exercises to reduce it.
4 benefits of unilateral exercises
Aside from the benefit of better muscle development, here are four reasons why unilateral exercises are important.
- Reduce muscle imbalances and risk of injury: Due to everyday life and the typical bilateral lift, most people have a dominant side and a non-dominant side. For example, kicking or throwing a ball or carrying groceries in one hand. These strength muscle imbalances can lead to injury, and strengthening them reduces your risk.
- Improved Balance and Core Stability: Unilateral exercises automatically throw you off balance, which activates your core muscles to help keep you balanced. I think we can all agree that staying upright is pretty handy
- Life and sport require one-legged balance: Sports and activities of daily living that involve running require a lot of single leg action. Whether sprinting, throwing, jumping or climbing stairs, both feet are rarely on the ground at the same time.
- Improved Bilateral Buoyancy Performance: Ever heard the phrase, "You are only as strong as your weakest link?" Strengthening your weakness will help you improve your technique and may result in you lifting more weight overall.
How to test for muscle imbalances
Before you start testing, there are some obvious ways to determine strength and muscle imbalances. First, look out for your bilateral lift form. Having trouble latching one side over the other, or does one side feel "easy" and the other side difficult? Second, check the size of the muscle in question. Does one leg or arm look bigger than the other? If you can't tell the measurement, also check if there are size differences.
Here are two more tests to see if your quads are stronger than your hamstrings, and a 5RM unilateral press/test to see if you have any compression or tension imbalances between your arms.
Hamstring to quadriceps strength ratio
Your hamstrings should be about 60 to 75 percent of the strength of the quads. It's not the perfect ratio, but knowing the strength between your quads or hamstrings will point you in the right direction. need for fancy equipment, just access to a leg extension and leg curl machine.
- Work to your maximum of five reps on both machines, testing one leg at a time with good form. Rest three minutes between quad/hamstring tests and rest as needed between attempts. Record numbers and then it's math time.
- Hamstrings divided by leg extension x 100 = hamstring/quads strength ratio
- For example: 60 pounds hamstrings / 90 quads x 100 pounds = 66% hamstring/quads strength ratio.
- If the ratio is less than 60 percent, incorporate more unilateral hip dominance/hamstring exercises into your routine to correct this imbalance.
te: Do this for both the left and right leg.
Push/pull force imbalance
Most of us have a power imbalance between our left and right side due to activities of daily living. Don't feed this imbalance with bilateral barbell exercises. Instead, unilateral training will help turn that weakness back into strength, and your weight lifting will improve as a result.
te: Core strength will be a factor in unilateral upper body work.
- This uses a cable machine, but any one-sided variation with dumbbells will do. For example, dumbbell presses, floor presses, or one-sided rows.
- After warming up, work your way up to your 5RM on the cable, then switch arms and work with good form. Make progress by adding weight 5 to 10 pounds per side at a time, resting as needed. The test stops when you can't lift the weight for five reps on each side (or it's a tremendous struggle). Do this chest press on the cable pulley as well.
- After completing this test, you should find out whether or not you have a power imbalance between your left and right side when pushing, pulling, or both.
4 unilateral exercises to strengthen muscle imbalances
There are many exercises that will work here, but these four will strengthen muscle imbalances between the sides and help you reach your fat loss or hypertrophy goals.