How to Build More Unilateral Strength (Plus a Free Training Program)

During my time getting qualified as a personal trainer, I received a lot of bad advice, a shocking amount in fact. Now I’m sure this has a lot more to do with the particular school I attended and the teachers there than the qualification itself, but I digress. There was one particular ‘piece of wisdom’ that really sticks in my mind, given to me on my very last day, when our teacher feeling emotional gifted us with his “best tip for client retention.”

In hushed tones he lent in and explained to us that the key to retention is simple: do at least one exercise per session that requires your client to throw a med ball to you.

His reasoning was that “that way they need you to be present to do the workout” otherwise you’re just counting reps. I’d like to say that even as an impressionable youngster I had enough self worth to instantly dismiss this out of hand, knowing that I could offer more to my clients than a game of catch, but I didn’t.

And so session after session I came up with ever more imaginative ways to play catch with my first ever client. Thankfully after four sessions he politely informed me if he wanted to throw a ball he’d buy a dog, after that the med balls went away. And I still feel awkward getting them out to this day.  

I did however learn two great takeaways from that particular PT instructor; the first was don’t eat 8 cans of tuna a day, it’s bad for you, and the second has to do with programming. He informed us that whenever he had a new client come to him after plateauing on their current program, he just took whatever they were doing and got them to do the opposite. Take someone who is hammering out some crazy volume with something like German Volume training five days a week. Get them to focus on moving some heavy weight with 5 sets of 2 on big compound lifts and drop them to three days a week. The change will get them out of their rut and you’ll be lauded as a genius.

You can certainly take the flip it approach and apply it specifically to your own programming or that of your clients. Swapping individually for each program, there is another way, you can follow the ultimate opposite program and develop possibly the single most overlooked aspect of strength. And that is unilateral movement.

Unilateral Movement

Unilateral might sound fancy, but it’s not. All it really it just means using one body part at a time, that could be in a lunge or in a single arm shoulder press, it doesn’t have to be something complicated like a turkish get up for you to reap the benefits of moving one sidedly.

We often only train bilaterally or both sides of the body together, like during a barbell bench press doing sets of triples. In the beginning both sides of your body are pulling their weight, but as the sets go on, your body gets tired and one side, your dominant side, will start to pick up the slack. Over time this is going to lead to a whole host of mobility, strength and injury issues that could all have been prevented with a bit of focus on unilateral work. There’s more to training unilaterally than just rectifying imbalances though, as it can also allow you to go heavier with one limb than you ever thought possible as you will find out with movements like the dumbbell snatch.

The Program

This program is remarkably simple and perfect for strength athletes coming off the back of a tough training cycle and/or an equally tough competition.

It’s three days on, four days off, spread over the week as you like. The first day is all left body movements, the second day is all right body movements and the final day is a bilateral full body session. Rest as long as you need to between sets but the single side days should take roughly an hour and the full body one as long as 75 minutes. If you’re finishing in a lot less than that, you’re going too light, and if it’s taking longer, either drop the weight or keep an eye on those rest times.

Follow the program for four to six weeks, adding weight each session, then go back to training your body as an entire unit, just a much better balanced one. And remember to still hit unilateral movements every week even if it’s only as simple as a couple of sets of lunges in your warm ups.

Day One

Exercise Sets Reps Notes
Left Arm Farmers Deadlift 5 3 No straps and done with the farmers walk handle between your legs.
Left Leg RDL 3 12 Use a single dumbbell held in your right arm
Left Leg Lunges 5 20 Use a barbell
Left Arm Dumbbell Snatch 5 5 Brought up explosively and lowered slowly to the shoulder.
Left Arm Farmers Walk 6 20m

Day Two

Exercise Sets Reps Notes
Right Arm Farmers Deadlift 5 3 No straps and done with the farmers walk handle between your legs.
Right Leg RDL 3 12 Use a single dumbbell held in your left arm
Right Leg Lunges 5 20 Use a Barbell
Right Arm Dumbbell Snatch 5 5 Brought up explosively and lowered slowly to the shoulder.
Right Arm Farmers Walk 6 20m


Day Three

Exercise Sets Reps
Trap Bar Deadlift 6 3
Front Squat 5 5
Pull Ups 3 Max
Dumbbell Strict Press 5 10
Dumbbell Bench Press 5 12
Tricep Extension/ Push Down 8 8

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.

Featured image: @kwoodstrongwoman on Instagram