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The PROBLEM With Unilateral Training

(2 min read – 600 words) #shorts

Unilateral training is a great way to level out any glaring imbalances between two limbs, and is also just a phenomenal progression option for those without access to heavy (enough) weights and/or looking to progress without taxing the nervous system, spine and joints as much.

I’ve used unilateral training to great effect with a wealth of clients and in my own training. I’ve seen people have 8 or more step ups on one side and not be able to do a single rep on the other side.


With my own body, my external rotation on my right arm was always pretty strong and capable, yet my left side would have trouble pushing a door open at that angle.

Deadly serious again.

I could do 10 or so reps on my right side but my left wasn’t even able to do one rep with good form! Admittedly this was in the midst of injury but even post-injury, I still had a stark difference.

The fix for cases like these?

Unilateral training.

And just to clarify, I know full well you and I will never be ‘fully balanced’. The unicorn is fictional so we’ll have to just enjoy the fantasy in the knowledge that we’ll always have some kind of bias towards one side.

But with that said, it’s good to strive to be within a rough ballpark or else your bilateral strength will suffer/plateau and you’ll be at a much greater risk of injury.

So, what’s the PROBLEM then?

The problem is knowing when and when not to use unilateral training. When used effectively (usually doing twice the volume on the ‘weak’ side versus the ‘good’ side), it should take anywhere from 6-12 weeks for the ‘weak’ side to catch up to the ‘good’ side.

If you let this go on too long and over-obsess over the ‘weak’ side, you risk the ‘good’ side becoming weaker and developing less than ideal movement patterns.

The simple fix here is to check in with the ‘good’ side often and make sure the technique is as high as possible and the training volume is moderate. I’ve experimented with multiple approaches here and found it’s easy to neglect the ‘good’ side altogether for longer than you need, especially in the cases of extreme differences initially. But the detraining can happen faster than you think, so you’ve got to walk the tightrope a little and get the balance right.

A simple and very obvious way to tell is comparing the strength/performance of the once weak side to the once strong side: are they level? And if the strength markers are, how about the sensory markers; muscle activation, exertion and mobility?

These are things you want to be analysing regularly when doing unilateral training, then once you find things levelling out nicely it’s time to level out the volume between sides along with it – or even stop unilateral training for the next phase altogether & go back to bilateral training for a while.

Doing this will give you a chance to integrate the new strength from the once weak side, with the existing strength of the once overly dominant side.

Working in phases like this works wonders for your big lifts as well. I’ve seen deadlift, squat, overhead press & pull up numbers go up quite drastically just from this training approach alone.

So, in summary, don’t slip into the mindset that your weak side will always be weak, even if it has been that way for decades. Proper unilateral training will raise the strength faster than you think and when it does, check the expiry date and realise things have levelled off and it’s time to put the work to new use.

The journey never stops, you just keep modifying accordingly.

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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