Using our knowledge of latin roots, it can be easily assumed that unilateral translates to “one sided” and bilateral translates to “two sided.” So how does this relate to our training in the gym? Bilateral and unilateral training are exactly what they sound like. Bilateral means training both sides of the body, while unilateral means training one side of the body. The two complement each other, but the proper ratio for your goals and sport has to be found. Our physical therapists at Made 2 Move delved into some research to discover some of the best unilateral and bilateral exercises, as well as when each should be utilized.
Why unilateral training?
In the words of powerlifter and chiropractor Dr. Shallow, "Why squat on two legs when you can't stand on one?” On the importance of unilateral training, Dr. Shallow notes that, “Humans are bipedal creatures whose gait cycle is unilateral; training bilaterally isn't necessarily functional as it pertains to the joints. However, the overall nervous stimulus of training with heavy loads bilaterally can be beneficial for performance. In order to maximize the safety of the joints, one needs to have stability. If an athlete does not have unilateral stability, we shouldn't expect them to display it bilaterally under heavy loads. Thus, the chance of crummy form and risk of injury increases.”
What does Dr. Shallow mean by this? Dr. Shallow is essentially telling us that bilateral movements like the squat and deadlift are important, but building unilateral stability is equally important. Even the simplest of movements: walking, is unilateral in nature. Thus, it is critical to incorporate single leg and arm resistance training and single leg hops into your training.
Both bilateral and unilateral training should be utilized in balanced doses. Most athletes we see at Made 2 Move get a fair amount of bilateral training in. Think the big compound lifts squats, deadlifts, bench press, snatches, and cleans. These are incredibly useful for maintaining fitness and building strength, but unilateral training can have incredible functional carry over to sports and daily life, as most activities we perform are unilateral in nature.
Benefits of Unilateral Training
Makes you stronger in bilateral movements