Strength training has been shown to be one of the best things we can all do to improve our overall fitness, bodily coordination, body composition, and muscular development. As we age, strength training becomes even more important. It has been shown to improve bone density, boost metabolism, positively impact mood, and improve balance in the elderly. A unilateral workout is a special adaptation of strength training that provides tremendous benefits for both young and old.
In this article we explore the benefits of unilateral workouts, with a special emphasis on the lower body. We will also provide a lower-body-centric unilateral bodyweight workout plan.
- Unilateral Workout Benefits
- Workout Warm-Up
- Strength Training Exercises
- The Lower-Body Unilateral Workout
Unilateral Workout Benefits
Unilateral training involves exercising one limb or side of a muscle at a time, for example, when you train one leg and then follow it with the other leg. But it could also be when you do a dumbbell chest press to work each side of the chest individually.
Unilateral workouts are more common in the upper body than the lower body. That’s because you don’t have any balance issues when you work your biceps or triceps one at a time. However, it is possible to work your legs unilaterally, and there are some great benefits to doing so.
When you work each leg individually, you have to work a lot harder to maintain your balance. As a result, your joint stability is enhanced, as is your neuromuscular coordination and proprioception. When you work each limb individually, you also activate more core involvement in the movement. That’s because the core has to help hold and stabilize the body as you perform the movement. Unilateral lower-body exercises have been shown to strengthen the muscles of the trunk, including the erector spinae of the lower back.
When you work both limbs together, such as when you do squats with a barbell, it is likely that your stronger, more dominant side will take more than 50 percent of the load. This can result in muscle strength and development imbalances. Such imbalances can make a person more at risk of sustaining injury. Working the muscles unilaterally overcomes this deficit and balances out strength and development between the two limbs.
Unilateral exercises are especially important as we age. The age-related strength decline that we all experience is more pronounced in the lower than the upper body. In addition, falls are the major cause of injury in the elderly. Unilateral lower-body training will help to alleviate both of these issues.
Unilateral training is also beneficial when you have an injured limb. Rather than stopping your workouts altogether, exercising the non-injured limb will improve your systemic health, as well as your psychological well-being. And rather than leading to the exercised limb being much bigger and stronger than the injured one, the strength of the worked muscle will reach a genetically determined plateau. Then, when you resume working the injured muscle, its progress will be faster than normal and return to a point of balance more quickly.
Now that we understand just how beneficial unilateral training is, here’s a lower-body-centric unilateral full workout at home that will provide all of those benefits. As with every workout, it should start with a warm-up.
A good warm-up will combine cardiovascular and dynamic stretching components. Start with 3–5 minutes of slow to medium-intensity cardio. If you’re in the gym, you can start walking on the treadmill and build to a medium jog. If you’re working out at home, simply start jogging on the spot. After a minute, start doing high knees for 30 seconds, then jog slowly again, followed by butt kicks.
Perform dynamic lower-body stretches such as air squats, leg swings, and hip drives for 10 reps each.
Strength Training Exercises
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Now hinge at the hip to bring your torso down to a parallel position with the floor. Simultaneously extend your right foot back and your right arm forward. Return to the start position. That is one rep. Do all reps on the right side, then repeat on the left side.
Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Lie on an exercise mat on your back with your knees bent. Place your hands down alongside your body. Now straighten out your left leg and lift it to a 45 degree angle. Next, thrust your hips into the air, holding the top position for a second as you tense your glutes. Lower and repeat. Perform all of your designated reps on one side before repeating on the other side.
Reverse Side Lunge
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. Now step back and to the right with your left foot to perform a reverse lunge. When you come up, switch legs to perform a right leg lunge. That is one rep.
Stand in front of a chair with your feet shoulder-width apart and your straightened left leg off the floor. Place your arms directly out in front of you. Now squat down until you are sitting in the chair. From this position, push through your left thigh to return to an upright position. Keep your left foot off the floor throughout. Perform all reps on one side before returning to the other side.
The Lower-Body Unilateral Workout
Perform your lower-body unilateral workout twice per week, with a gap of at least two days between them. For example, you could do your sessions on Monday and Thursday. On two other days of the week, follow a full body workout plan that involves bilateral lower-body moves.
Lower-Body Unilateral Workout
- Single-Leg Deadlift – 3 x 10 (each leg)
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge – 3 x 10 (each leg)
- Reverse Side Lunge – 3 x 10 (each leg)
- Pistol Squat – 3 x 10 (each leg)