When you want to build max strength, you’ll typically aim for bilateral exercises. Those are the moves where both sides of your body are doing the same thing at the same time. Think of your basic compound barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. Even more technically complex barbell moves, like snatches and the clean & press, are also bilateral exercises. These tend to form the majority of your training, because this is where you will get most of your strength gains.
Because you can move so much weight with bilateral lifts, unilateral training can get pushed off the platform. Unilateral moves often get neglected in the quest to build max strength. Mastering unilateral exercises may not be as sexy as a huge squat or deadlift max attempt, but they can get you stronger and improve your performance in and out of the gym. These 15 unilateral exercises are designed to help you balance out any side-to-side dominance that may be keeping you from your next PR.
Best Unilateral Exercises
- Suitcase Carry
- Front-Racked Bulgarian Split Squat
- Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
- Single-Leg Hip Extension Hamstring Curl
- Dumbbell Floor Press
- Single-Leg Deadlift
- Side Lunge
- Meadows Row
- Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
- Unilateral TRX Row
- Reverse Lunge
- Single-Leg Hip Thrust
- Landmine Cossack Squat
- Deadstop Row
- Dumbbell Push Press
Do you tend to carry most of your groceries, your kid, or your gym bag with your dominant hand? Chances are, one of your hands has a better grip than the other. The suitcase carry comes with all the benefits of classic farmer’s carries. But this version will even out grip imbalances between hands.
With the suitcase carry, you’ll only hold weight in one hand at a time. You’ll notice that the weight will pull your torso to one side. That’s called lateral flexion. Your oblique muscles work to prevent this flexion (known as anti-flexion). Anti-flexion is also what’s happening when you brace during moves like the deadlift and squat. With suitcase carries, you can train this mode of bracing your core without overloading your entire body quite as much.
Benefits of the Suitcase Carry
- This move will strengthen your grip on both sides to reduce imbalances.
- Your shoulder stability will improve between sides as you keep the weight stable.
- Suitcase carries throw your body off-balance to help strengthen your lateral core muscles.
How to Do the Suitcase Carry
If possible, start with a weight that’s between about 25 to 50 percent of your body weight. Pick up the weight. Hold the handle firmly. Make sure you’re not tilting to one side or the other. Checking your posture in a mirror can help. Walk slowly in a straight line. Put one foot in front of the other while swinging the opposite arm. Swap hands. Repeat on the other side.
If you were to choose one accessory exercise to improve your barbell squat and deadlift, the front-rack Bulgarian split squat might just be it. This brutal exercise builds leg drive with its large range of motion and huge recruitment of your quads and glutes.
Since you’re loading the weight in front of your body, you’ll build a lot of anterior core strength, too. That’s going to carry over not only into front squats, but also into snatches and other dynamic bilateral movements that require a strong core.
Benefits Of the Front Racked Bulgarian Split Squat
- Bulgarian split squats reduce muscle imbalances between your legs.
- This move helps improve leg drive for squats and deadlifts.
- Using the front-rack variation improves anterior core strength, upper back strength, and posture.
How to Do the Front Racked Bulgarian Split Squat
Clean a pair of kettlebells into the rack position. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Put your back foot on an elevated surface and place a weight plate in front of your big toe. Drop your back knee toward the floor. Maintain a slight forward lean in your torso. Push your front foot through the floor to return to the starting position. Repeat. Keep reps even on both sides.
Using a landmine for overhead presses changes the arc of the press such that you might find the lift more accessible. You’ll grip the fat end of the barbell and press from there, increasing scapular stability and unilateral control. These adjustments help address the shoulder and scapular instability issues that may impact lifters who lack the mobility to go overhead.
By performing this move in the half-kneeling position, you’ll add another level of full-body stability and core strength. All told, this serves as a more joint-friendly option for overhead pressing that improves your balance and strengthens your core.
Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
- This is a more joint-friendly option for folks who have mobility limitations for pressing overhead.
- The half-kneeling position trains core stability, hip mobility, and anti-rotational strength.
- The angle of the press helps increase your scapular stability and control.
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
Get into a half-kneeling position with your knee under your hip. Keep your ankle underneath your knees. Avoid flaring your ribcage. Pick up the barbell on the same side of your downed knee. Hold the bell just in front of your shoulder. Press to lockout by extending your elbow and reaching forward at the end of the movement. Slowly lower back down and repeat.
The single-leg hip extension hamstring curl strengthens your hamstrings both as hip extensors and knee flexors. These movements are crucial for both deadlifts and squats, not to mention moving comfortably in your daily life. You’ll perform this move on an unstable surface — namely, a stability ball. Because of this, your muscles will work harder without the added stress of weight.
Hamstring strains and tears often result from a lack of eccentric hamstring strength coupled with poor hamstring strength relative to your quadriceps. This exercise addresses those imbalances and therefore can help you become more resilient against injury.
Benefits Of the Single Leg Hip Extension Hamstring Curl
- With this move, you’ll strengthen your hamstrings, hip extensors, and knee flexors.
- The unstable surface will increase stabilization demands to improve your hip and core stability.
- The stability ball mimics the unevenness of road running, so it’s great for runners.
How to Do the Single Leg Hip Extension Hamstring Curl
Put your foot on top of the stability ball. Bend your other leg. Engage your working glute to put your lower back in neutral. Curl the ball towards you. Continue until your foot is flat on the ball. Press your body into a straight line from your hips to your shoulders. Slowly reverse the movements. Lower your hips to the floor. Repeat.
The unilateral dumbbell floor press allows you to change the angle of your shoulders and wrists during the press. This can be helpful if you have shoulder issues that make bench presses challenging. The reduced range of motion limits your shoulder’s external rotation, which can help ease discomfort.
This move puts more focus on your triceps to help build lockout strength for more heavily-loaded pressing movements. Because the dumbbells are harder to stabilize, the lift will also be slower, giving you more time under tension. That extra time can help promote more hypertrophy.
Benefits Of the Dumbbell Floor Press
- With this move, you’ll build unilateral chest and triceps strength to ensure that you’re not promoting strength imbalances during barbell presses.
- Targeting your triceps helps improve lockout strength for more complex pressing exercises.
- This is a beginner- and joint-friendly movement because of the stability and reduced range of motion provided by the floor.
How to Do the Dumbbell Floor Press
Lie on your back with a dumbbell beside you. Roll to the side and grab the dumbbell with both hands. Roll back. Press up with both hands. Take one hand off. Get your feet in your preferred position. Your legs can be extended or your feet can be planted. Slowly lower to the ground until your upper arm touches the floor. Press back up. Reset and repeat for reps.
By cueing yourself to drive your stable foot into the ground, you’ll be preparing to strengthen your heavier compound lifts that require similar drive. You’ll also promote muscular growth and endurance for your glutes and hamstrings. Start with just your bodyweight to master the technique before adding weight.
Benefits Of the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- You’ll increase hypertrophy and endurance of your glutes and hamstrings without overtaxing your body with huge loads.
- This move increases balance and stability for your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back.
- By training within a specific range of motion, you’ll help improve your deadlift lockout.
How to Perform The Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Pick one foot up off the floor. Find balance on your grounded foot. Soften your working knee. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Hinge your hips back. Try not to rotate your working hip upwards. Hinge until your belly button is facing the floor. Stabilize and return to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
Side lunges help develop strength, stability, and balance in the frontal plane — which means side-to-side movement. The exercise improves your ability to go travel from side-to-side, which is especially handy for evading opponents in contact sports and in crowded subway stations.
These also improve your adductor mobility and strength, helping to prevent groin injuries and improving hip mobility. The side lunge can be loaded in various ways to improve the size and strength of your quads and glutes.
Benefits of the Side Lunge
- The side lunge strengthens and mobilizes your entire hip region.
- You’ll improve your lateral movement, which in turn boosts your agility.
- This move strengthens your glutes and adductors, which are important for knee health and hip mobility.
How to Do the Side Lunge
Hold a dumbbell goblet-style, front-racked, or at your sides. Stand tall with your feet together and toes pointed forward. Take a big step to the side with your left leg. Hinge back into your left hip. Keep your right leg straight with your toes pointed forward. Push your left foot into the ground. Return to the starting position. Either alternate sides or do all the reps on one side and repeat on the other.
The Meadows row is the brainchild of former IFBB bodybuilder and coach John Meadows. In it, you’ll assume a staggered stance, perpendicular to a barbell in the landmine base. You’ll then perform what’s essentially a single-arm row.
Compared to other rowing variations, the Meadows row elicits more upper back activation. Be sure to use weight plates with smaller diameters, as most 45-pound plates will hinder your range of motion. This will target the hard-to-reach lower lats for better overall muscle development.
Benefits of the Meadows Row
- You’ll increase your grip and finger strength by holding the fat end of the barbell.
- This move adds size and strength to your upper back and lower lat muscles.
- Performing the Meadows row can help add thickness to your back all around.
How to Do the Meadows Row
Hinge your upper body forward with a staggered stance. Grip the end of the barbell with an overhand grip. Rest your forearm on your forward leg. Drive your elbow behind your body while retracting your shoulder blade. Pull the barbell handle toward your back hip until your elbow is level with your torso. Slowly lower down to the starting position. Repeat for reps.
The half-kneeling Pallof press is as practical as a core exercise gets and gives you a lot of bang for your exercise buck. The half-kneeling position features a narrow base of support, which increases the demand on your core and hip stabilizers.
Pairing the half-kneeling position with the Pallof press adds to this demand because your stabilizers have to fight additional rotational forces. This exercise will increase your core stability, anti-rotational strength, and improve postural positioning.
Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
- This move will improve your hip mobility and core stability at the same time.
- You’ll increase your anti-rotational strength, which helps neutralize shearing forces on your spine to mitigate injury risk during higher-intensity exercise.
- Better postural awareness can come from this move, as you focus on keeping your spine neutral and your chest up.
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
Loop a light resistance band around a pole or power rack at chest level. Stand perpendicular to the band. Grab it in both hands. Take a few steps sideways until the band is taut. Get into a half-kneeling position. The knee closest to the anchor point should go down. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Extend your arms forward. Do not let your torso or hips twist. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Upper back and lat strength are important factors in keeping a neutral spine during squatting and deadlifting. The unilateral TRX row will build serious upper back strength, correct strength imbalances between sides, and provide core anti-rotation strength.
You can easily modify this exercise by moving your feet closer to the anchor point (less stable) or further away from the anchor point (more stable). The unilateral TRX row will challenge your upper back strength without the need for heavy weights. That’s helpful when your pulling routine is full of heavy lifting that you need a lot of recovery for, but you still want to add volume.
Benefits of the Unilateral TRX Row
- Reducing upper back strength imbalances between sides will lead to more symmetrical muscle development.
- You can easily customize this move by moving your feet closer or further away from the anchor point.
- TRX suspension instability challenges your core and shoulder stabilizers more than implements with more stable bases.
How to Do the Unilateral TRX Row
Loop one TRX handle through another to form one handle. Grip that handle. Place your feet at an intensity that’s appropriate for you. Keep your torso squared with your shoulders down and your chest up. Pull yourself toward the anchor point until your elbow is level with your torso. Slowly lower down. Repeat.
The reverse lunge is the first lunge variation many people learn because you’re simply stepping back. This makes it a hip-dominant exercise. Because of this, the reverse lunge puts less stress on your knees than other lunge variations.
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
- The reverse lunge builds unilateral strength, muscle, and improves single-leg balance, all of which carries over into stronger compound lifts.
- Less stress on your lower back means you can potentially improve your hip mobility without increasing lower back pain.
- You can vary the step back to either emphasize the quads (smaller step back) or glutes and hamstrings (larger step back).
How to do the Reverse Lunge
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Take either a small or large step back with your left foot. Lower your hips until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Track your right knee over your ankle. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. Pause for a second. Push through your right foot. Return to the starting position. You can either alternate sides or do all reps on one side.
Though you do train your glutes during the back squat and deadlift, the hip thrust is closer to an isolation movement for the glutes. Unilaterally homing in on your glutes will carry over to those bigger movements by improving your hip extension lockout strength.
Benefits of the Single-Leg Hip Thrust
- This hip thrust variation will help you build more glute mass, strength, and power.
- Performing this move unilaterally will lead to better muscle development because you won’t be allowing for compensations to over- or under-develop one side.
- Improved unilateral glute strength leads to better stabilization of your core, pelvis, and lower back.
How to Do the Single-Leg Hip Thrust
Sit with your back up against the edge of a bench. With padding across your pelvis, roll a loaded barbell into the crease of your hips. Once the barbell is secure, drive your feet and back towards the bench. Take one foot off the ground. Drive your knee toward your chest. Make sure your shoulder blades are on the bench. Keep your upper body and hips in a straight line. Maintain a steady upper body. Lower your hips toward the ground. Ground your foot down to extend into lockout. Reset and repeat.
The landmine Cossack squat is a squat variation that trains mobility, flexibility, and strength in the frontal plane — all at the same time. The landmine provides an external load and acts as a counterbalance, allowing you to get into position easier.
Strengthening your adductors and gluteus medius goes a long way toward keeping your knees healthy. You’ll also improve the mobility of your entire hip region, which can help with a wide variety of lifts — from squats and deadlifts to snatches.
Benefits of the Landmine Cossack Squat
- This move improves your adductor strength and mobility, which goes a long way toward preventing groin strains.
- Strengthening your gluteus medius is important for better knee health and stability.
- Because you’re moving side-to-side, you’ll improve your movement in the frontal plane. This helps make you more agile.
How to Do the Landmine Cossack Squat
Hold the end of the landmine in the goblet position. Set up your feet in a nice and wide stance. Adjust your starting position to what feels comfortable for you. Shift your weight to one side. Squat down to a full deep squat on that side. Keep both heels on the ground. While squatting, externally rotate your straight leg so that your toes come up off the ground. Keep your heel planted. Return to the starting position. Repeat.
The deadstop row will come to a full halt on the ground between each rep. You’ll go through a larger range of motion with this single-arm dumbbell row variation, which can lead to greater hypertrophy. Because of the pause on the floor to reset your grip, you’ll be able to go heavier than normal, too.
With this move, you’ll iron out strength imbalances that often exist between your arms. You’ll also be training your core stability.
Benefits of the Deadstop Row
- The pause on the floor gives your joints a quick break and allows you to use a heavier weight.
- Stopping and pausing on the floor takes away your muscle’s stretch reflex, so you’ll work harder on the concentric part of the lift.
- The increased range of motion gives you better muscle- and strength-building potential.
How to Do the Deadstop Row
Place one hand on a weight bench for support. Get into a good hinge position. Grab the dumbbell on the floor. Row it towards your hip. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up. Lower it with control until it reaches the floor. Reset and repeat.
The unilateral dumbbell push press uses a lower-body dip to push the dumbbell overhead. It uses the triple extension of your ankles, knees, and hips, which closely mimics what most overhead athletes do on the field or on the platform.
The lower body dip allows you to lift more weight overhead. Because you’re doing this on both sides with your upper body, you’ll get double the reps and training stimulus for your quads and glutes.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Unilateral Push Press
- This full-body exercise transfers power from your lower body to your upper body, allowing you to lift a lot more weight.
- Because you can take a neutral grip and take advantage of the dumbbells’ freedom of movement, you’ll put less stress on your shoulder joints.
- This move has huge carryover to overhead athletes like Olympic lifters and throwing athletes.
How to Do the Dumbbell Unilateral Push Press
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold one dumbbell in front of your shoulder with a neutral grip. Engage your lats and core. Push your knees forward. Dip down into a quarter squat. Explode up. Press until lockout. Slowly lower the weight back to your shoulder. Reset and repeat.
Benefits of Unilateral Exercises
Strengthening one side at a time will lead to better muscle development, improve your bilateral lifts, and can reduce your risk of getting hurt in the gym. Here are four important benefits of unilateral lifting.
Reduce Muscle Imbalances
Due to activities of daily living and bilateral lifting, almost everybody has a dominant and non-dominant side. When you lift with a barbell, those imbalances tend to carry over and contribute to overcompensating for a lack of strength on either side. If one side is consistently working harder than the other to keep up with a barbell lift, these strength imbalances may lead to injuries. Reducing these imbalances by working unilaterally can reduce these overcompensations and injury risks.
Improved Core Stability
While lifting unilaterally, you automatically throw your body off-balance. This forces your core muscles to engage while keeping you steady. Staying upright and making plays is pretty handy while playing sports. It also comes in clutch on the lifting platform, when you need to maintain a rigid torso throughout dynamic and heavy lifts.
Assist with Sports and Activities of Daily Life
Most sports that involve running and activities of daily living require a lot of single-sided action. Whether it is sprinting, throwing, jumping, or taking the stairs, it’s rare for both feet to be on the ground at the same time when you’re in motion. Training your body in the gym to mimic and strengthen movement patterns that you use daily can help you move from day-to-day with greater comfort and strength.
Bigger Strength Numbers
Reducing muscle imbalances between sides helps improve bilateral lifting technique and one-rep maxes. Keeping your strengths balanced will train your body to move better as a single unit, which you need while trying to clean & jerk max weight. By improving your strength on each side, you’re setting yourself up for better performances with heavier lifts.
How to Program Unilateral Exercises
When it comes to absolute strength and moving the most weight possible, bilateral lifting is king. You can simply load up a lot more during bilateral exercises because your full body is behind each move. That said, you can build muscle and strength across all set and rep ranges, and you will get stronger when lifting unilaterally.
If your sport calls for it, you can certainly train for max attempts with, for example, a unilateral push press. But in general, training very heavy with low reps for unilateral lifts is unnecessary and may even increase your injury risk.
Unilateral exercises like the ones on this list are for evening out imbalances, preventing injury, and for promoting symmetrical muscle development. Therefore, they’re great accessory exercises to be performed after your big strength movement for the day. You can also pair them with a bilateral strength exercise as a form of recovery or to improve a certain aspect of the lift. For example, pair hip mobility-oriented unilateral moves — like the reverse lunge — with the barbell squat.
In general, try training unilaterally in a rep range of six to sixteen reps for two to four sets. This will work well for most strength and performance goals.
Working one side at a time offers a whole host of unique benefits for lifters looking to get stronger without overloading their bodies constantly. You’ll help make yourself more resilient against injury because you’ll be correcting imbalances that can lead to overcompensations and eventual pain. Incorporating unilateral exercises as accessories to your main lifts might be just the tool you need to bust through that lingering plateau.
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