3 Benefits of Unilateral Exercises for Powerlifting

Have you ever noticed that one side of your body feels a little weaker than the other? One arm is stronger than the other? Or that one leg feels a little bit more stable than the other? What if I told you that this is common. Too often strength athletes and general trainees think this is an abnormal occurrence.

I am here to tell you that it is not, our bodies are actually made to be asymmetrical. To learn more about the asymmetry of the human body check out educator Leo Q. Wan’s Ted- ed on asymmetry below.

Although, the body may appear symmetrical from the outside, internally the picture is much different. Most of our vital organs are arranged asymmetrically, which sets the human body up from the get-go to be slightly asymmetrical.

Another big contributing factor is that strength and mobility asymmetries that form over time due to the way we live our day-to-day. Things such as sitting for long periods, driving, right or left handedness, poor sitting or standing postures, and so forth, can all contribute to asymmetries regarding both strength and mobility.

One way powerlifters can combat asymmetries is by supplementing powerlifting training with unilateral work. Unilateral exercise can be defined as training limbs individually as opposed to training both sides at the same time.

Benefits of Unilateral Work for Powerlifters

1. Create Symmetry + Reduce Injury Risk

We can all agree that the bench, squat, and deadlift are all bilateral exercises that require both sides of the body to create force in order to move weight. When performing bilateral movements, strength can potentially be lost if one side of the body is weaker than the other. Creating a balance in musculature from one side of the body to the other sets the body up to be capable of better technique and overall greater lifts.

Injury risk can also be reduced by including more unilateral exercises in to training. Often, if imbalances become too great, then risk of injury can increase when performing the bench, squat, and deadlift. Programming unilateral exercises such as single leg squats, single leg RDLs, or single arm rows can aid in closing the gap on imbalances in the body from one side to the other.

2. Train Core Stability

Unilateral training also helps strengthen the core. In this form of training, the fact that only one side of the body is being loaded creates an instability in the core. To maintain stability and complete unilateral exercises properly, the anterior, posterior, and lateral core must stabilize. For this reason, unilateral exercises are effective when trying to train core stability.

3. Cross Education

Injuries happen, they are often a part of every strength sport. The key to battling back from injury is staying as conditioned as possible and keeping areas of the body healthily trained. Unilateral exercises can be a great tool when facing any type of injury that only affects one side of the body. For instance, if a powerlifter suffers a full thickness pec tear that requires surgery, they can utilize unilateral exercise while recovering from surgery by continuing to perform pressing movements with the side of the body that has not been affected by the injury (per their physician’s recommendations).

When dealing with injuries, we may be tempted to not train a specific area of the body to avoid injury. For example, thinking that because I am experiencing pain in my left hamstring, I should avoid all exercises targeting leg strength, or the right for that matter. This way of thinking is contraindicative to progress. There is a substantial amount of research that tells us that we should continue training the uninjured side, as this will help maintain more strength than if no training was completed at all.

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The College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada performed research in 2017 to explore this idea. Researchers looked at the muscle sparing effects of the forearm muscle over a period of time. Each participant had there non-dominate forearm casted for the entirety of the study. The conclusion of the experiment was that, greater amount of muscle size and strength was spared in the trained participant groups no matter what the type of muscle contraction trained (eccentric, isometric, concentric). This concept is called Cross Education, which is a neurophysiological phenomenon where an increase in strength is witnessed within an untrained limb following unilateral strength training in the opposite contra-lateral limb.

Unilateral Accessory Exercises Related to the Big Three

Accessory work, sets, and reps will change according to the specific training goal at the time. Although generally, sets and reps will stay within the strength – hypertrophy ranges (5-12 reps). Below is not an all-inclusive list of unilateral exercise, however, these are good examples. Any training implement and variations can be used for these exercises, dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells.

  • Squat: Split squats, forward/ lateral/reverse lunges, pistol squats
  • Bench: Single-arm horizontal press, single arm vertical press, single arm row, single arm pulldown
  • Deadlift: Suitcase deadlift, single leg RDL, single arm farmer carry

In Conclusion

Unilateral exercise can be beneficially incorporated into programming in some form or fashion for all powerlifters. The place in the program unilateral exercises are included will vary from lifter to lifter, but the main thing is that the exercises are included. They can be included in the warm-up, directly in the program as assistance or accessory work, or post training/off days.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @steficohen Instagram page.

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