5 Unilateral Training Moves for Your Workouts

Jay T. Maryniak has gotten used to the stares. They come whenever he does what looks like a plea for Instagram attention, grabbing a loaded barbell, lying on the floor, then standing and hoisting the barbell overhead with one arm. “It doesn’t bug me,” he says.

That’s because Maryniak, a certified trainer (NASM-CPT, CES), knows what he’s doing. He’s venturing into the world of unilateral training. Unilateral exercises engage primarily one side of your body to move resistance. That’s a changeup from classics such as pushups, deadlifts, and military presses. Those moves make you use your body symmetrically, muscles on both the left and right sides holding similar responsibilities.

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Unilateral-training concepts have been around since the late 1800s. Circus strongmen like Eugen Sandow performed the bent press, which had you lift a heavy weight to your right shoulder, bend to the left, and straighten your right arm with the weight overhead. It challenged more than sheer strength, demanding shoulder flexibility and stability, along with core strength. But that didn’t filter into mainstream workouts, in which bodybuilding moves have long ruled. In most gyms, you’ll see guys doing curls and bench presses, moves that don’t truly challenge your core—or mimic how your body moves in real life.

Take Your Work to One Side

When you lift a weight with just one side of your body, as you might when you hold your five-year-old in one arm, the abdominal and oblique muscles on your “nonworking” side work to stabilize your torso. The same thing happens during unilateral moves like the exercise that leads people to stare at Maryniak: a barbell Turkish getup.

It’s comparable to a dumbbell curl with the weight only in your right arm (a simple example of a unilateral move). “We’re preparing our bodies for the unplanned events that take place in our daily lives,” he says. “And we’re building joint strength that bulletproofs the body.”

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That last part is why Maryniak fell in love with unilateral work three years ago. When he turned 30, he found himself battling minor injuries, many born from constantly lifting heavy. Unilateral moves challenged his stabilizing muscles so much that he often lifted lighter loads.

Most weighted moves, from CrossFit exercises like the snatch to bodybuilding mainstays like the bench press, can be done unilaterally. The more unilateral work you do, says Jeff Cavaliere, C.S.C.S., M.S.P.T., the more athletic you’ll become. Most athletic actions, such as a sprint, don’t let your limbs operate symmetrically. Your body is “cross-wired,” says Cavaliere, left arm and right leg moving together. Training limbs individually hones those cross-wired mechanics. Master those and you’ll move better on the basketball court or soccer field—and maybe draw more attention at the gym, too.

Making Unilateral Moves

Unilateral training has plenty of benefits, but it’s placing new demands on your body. So check your ego at the door. “Since balance and stability are major components here, it’s important to start light and maintain excellent form throughout each rep,” Maryniak says.

Men’s Health Fitness Director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., advises that more advanced lifters should consider using different implements in their training.

“If you’ve already done some unilateral training, take a page out of my book and integrate barbells (yes, seriously) and EZ-curl bars, building body control and strengthening your forearms and shoulders,” he said. “A longer bar shifts the load further away from your hand in both directions, leading the bar to teeter back and forth. You’ll need to slow your reps, piling up muscle-building time under tension and learning body control. Not all exercises can be done this way (skip the bench press), but single-arm barbell rows, curls, and even shoulder presses are worth doing, once you have experience.”

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Not sure where to start? Steal a few of these exercises from Maryniak and inject them into your workouts. Or do them all in order as a full-body workout, resting 60 seconds between sets and 90 seconds between exercises.

1. SINGLE-ARM FRONT RACK CARRY


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Giacomo Fortunato

Stand holding a kettlebell in your right hand at your right shoulder. Keeping your chest tall and your torso as straight as possible, walk. Repeat with the kettlebell in your left hand at your left shoulder.

YOUR GOAL: 20 steps forward and 20 steps backward (4 sets).

2. DEFICIT BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT


Start with your legs shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides. Place your left foot on a bench or step behind you and your right foot on a weight plate or small step. Bend your right knee, lowering your torso until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Pause, then return to the start.

YOUR GOAL: 4 sets of 8 per side.

3. SINGLE-ARM FLOOR PRESS


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Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, a dumbbell in your right hand, held directly over your shoulder. This is the start. Bend at the elbow and shoulder, lowering your upper arm to the floor, then straighten your arm.

YOUR GOAL: 4 sets of 12 per side.

4. KNEELING BOTTOMS-UP PRESS


Start kneeling on your right knee, left foot firmly on the floor. Tightly hold a kettlebell by its handle in your right hand, bell pointed overhead. Engage your core and straighten your right arm, pressing the weight overhead. Lower back to the start.

YOUR GOAL: 4 sets of 8 per side.

5. QUADRUPED ROW


Place your hands and knees on a bench, core tight. Straighten your right leg behind you, squeezing your glutes. Hold a light dumbbell (pro tip: Go lighter than you think) in your left hand, arm hanging naturally. Row the dumbbell toward your rib cage; keep your core tight so you don’t tip to either side. Return to the start.

YOUR GOAL: 4 sets of 10 per side.

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