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Home / Brunch / Fit and fine: Unilateral vs bilateral exercises

Fit and fine: Unilateral vs bilateral exercises

In unilateral exercises, you can increase the load without loading the rest of the body, thus decreasing chances of injuries

brunch Updated: Jan 12, 2020, 00:08 IST
Kamal Singh CSCS
Kamal Singh CSCS
Hindustan Times
Exercises which utilise both the limbs simultaneously are preferred for strength or gaining muscle mass
Exercises which utilise both the limbs simultaneously are preferred for strength or gaining muscle mass (Shutterstock)

To lift the maximum amount of weight for strength or gaining muscle mass, exercises which utilise both the limbs simultaneously are preferred. The reasons for doing bilateral exercises are many – least of which is the ingrained way of doing things – “we have always done it like this”.

Most trainers tend to push people to stick to bilateral exercises like deadlifts and bench presses as it is  easy to show progress
Most trainers tend to push people to stick to bilateral exercises like deadlifts and bench presses as it is easy to show progress

Most trainers tend to push their clients to stick to bilateral exercises like the squats, deadlifts, bench presses or overhead presses as it is fairly “easy” to load them and thus show progress. But most people are not aware of what is known as the “Bilateral deficit”.

Bilateral deficit and why should it concern you?

As a formal definition - sum of force production from each limb individually is greater than the force production of both limbs together, e.g. if you can deadlift 50 kgs, then you would be able to single leg deadlift 30 kgs with ease. For argument’s sake, in a bilateral deadlift, each leg is being loaded with 25 kgs while doing it unilaterally each leg is lifting 30 kgs! An instant jump of 5 kgs which leads to increased muscle mass and strength.

In single leg exercises,  you can decrease the chance of injury to a large extent
In single leg exercises, you can decrease the chance of injury to a large extent ( Shutterstock )

This is one of the reasons why single leg exercises are so important – you can increase the load without loading the rest of the body, thus decreasing chances of injuries. Please understand that in most of the lower body exercises like the squat and the deadlift, the legs are way stronger than the core/torso. The core’s ability to stabilise while doing heavy squats or deadlifts is the limiting factor in progressing these exercises. So you can reduce the absolute load but still improve strength and muscle mass by working one leg at a time. That’s a win win in my book.

And there is more

Unilateral are great for those recovering from any injury. I use different types of lower body exercises for my clients who have back pain. We can load the lower body with quite a bit of load without flaring up pain or even a re-injury. These exercises go a long way in rehabbing and empowering the back pained trainee.

Improve balance and strengthen the smaller muscles

In the senior population, falls are a major cause of injury. A wonderful side effect of using unilateral exercises for the lower body is the improvement of balance. You do not need bosu balls or wobble boards to improve balance. Just take away one leg and see the improvements in balance very quickly while also strengthening the muscles. Nothing is more functional than this type of training. My (b)older clients mostly use single leg exercises.

When you do single leg exercises, the smaller glute muscles have to work overtime to stabilise the working leg leading to a better overall development of all the Glute muscles
When you do single leg exercises, the smaller glute muscles have to work overtime to stabilise the working leg leading to a better overall development of all the Glute muscles ( Shutterstock )

Also when you do single leg exercises, the smaller glute muscles – glute medius and glute minor have to work overtime to stabilise the working leg and this leads to a better overall development of all the Glute muscles. Thus if your glute muscles are big and strong, goodbye back and knee pain.

And the upper body?

Most of the focus has been on lower body single limb training but it works pretty well for the upper body too. If you don’t believe me, try a single dumbbell bench press or even better, one arm push up! Intuitively people do single limb training while working on the arms. It is not uncommon to see one arm dumbbell curl or one arm dumbbell tricep extension. The upper back also gets worked by single arm dumbbell rows.

The upper back also gets worked by single arm dumbbell rows
The upper back also gets worked by single arm dumbbell rows ( Shutterstock )

A number of hypotheses have been put up explaining why we can lift more with unilateral training - that it is neural or brain does not like to use both sides of the body at the same time etc. Whatever may be the reasons, the advantages are clear for everyone to see. So step away from focusing on the bilateral exercises and see your gains rocket upwards.

Author bio: Kamal Singh is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who has been coaching for 15 years

From HT Brunch, January 12, 2020

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