Every dad who’s tried to balance a baby in one arm while loading laundry with the other has learned a hard truth: one side of his body is stronger than the other. Besides making switching your baby’s position from one side to another a challenge, muscle asymmetries can lead to a greater risk of injuries. Bilateral exercises — the typical two-sided squats and bench presses the big guys at the gym do — aren’t just masking imbalances (the stronger side compensates for the weaker), but they’re also less effective than unilateral (one-sided) exercises. In fact, unilateral exercises improve not just the muscles of the side being worked, but those of the opposite side, as well. Most importantly, unilateral training brings your weaknesses to light, giving you the opportunity to correct the imbalances.
To offset your imbalances, here are eight unilateral exercises to expose and address muscle disparities according to Bruce Kelly, owner and personal trainer at Fitness Together in Media, PA. Perform 10-12 reps of each exercise on one side, then switch sides.
Why: As opposed to traditional barbell squats, split squats help develop strength without loading the spine with weight. “Weighted squats are problematic for a lot of people,” Kelly says. “At a certain point, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth putting a heavy bar on your back and doing something drastic to yourself as opposed to unloading the spine and doing a similar exercise.”
How to Do Them: Position yourself in a staggered stance with one foot forward. Squat by bending your knees, allowing the heel of your back foot to rise and your back knee to nearly touch the floor. Return to the starting position by pushing down with your front heel and extending your front leg. Repeat. (Optional: Hold dumbbells in each hand with your arms at your sides throughout the exercise)
Avoid: Folding of the upper body. “Don’t let your torso go forward as opposed to keeping it as upright as possible,” Kelly says. “Collapsing forward could be due to tightness in the hip flexors.”
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (aka Bulgarian Split Squats)
Why: These challenge your balance without being balance-specific exercises. “These work on multiple planes: there’s extension and flexion, but you’re also working the frontal plane (side-to-side).” Optional: Hold dumbbells in each hand with your arms at your sides throughout the exercise.
How to Do Them: With a bench or chair behind you, position yourself in a staggered stance with your rear foot elevated. Squat with your front leg, keeping your front knee in line with your front foot. Return to the starting position by pushing down with your front heel and extending your front leg. Repeat.
Avoid: Leaning forward, working with too much weight in each hand, and not using proper form. “Place a foam pad beneath the rear knee as a target to encourage range of motion and protect your knee from banging,” Kelly says. “Technique always takes precedence over load.”
Single Leg Deadlifts
Why: These are hip hinge movements in which the pelvis moves horizontally as opposed to vertically. “This is a pattern a lot of people struggle with, but it’s essential for getting into an athletic position, from football to baseball to basketball,” Kelly says. “They work the glutes and hip extensors, the most powerful muscles in your body. And they will give you a well-developed butt.”
How to Do Them: Stand on one leg with your standing leg’s knee slightly bent. Pivot at the hip, extending your raised leg behind you, until your torso is parallel to the floor. Return to the starting position, keeping your raised foot off the floor. Repeat. (Optional: Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in the hand on the side of your planted foot. While bending forward, allow the weight to almost but not quite touch the floor.)
Avoid: Moving in a squat pattern. “Don’t drop your pelvis down—move your butt back,” Kelly says. “You should not feel these in your quads.”
Why: These side-to-side movements are as important as the more common forward-back movements. “Too often we’re stuck in the sagittal plane,” Kelly says. “It’s partially why there are so many groin strains in pro athletics.”
How to Do Them: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Step to one side, shifting your weight to your moving leg and moving your hips back as you bend your knee to lower your body down and keeping the leg on your opposite side straight. Step back to the starting position by pushing off the heel of the foot of your bent leg. Repeat. (Optional: Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands in front of your chest as you perform the exercise.)
Avoid: Not shifting enough weight to working leg. “Don’t half-ass these,” Kelly says. “Commit to 70% or more of your weight moving to your squatting leg. Your non-working leg is just for balance.”
One Arm Rows
Why: These work the functional muscles of the back and lats. “There are muscles for show and there are muscles for go,” Kelly says. “These work the muscles that help you move.”
How to Do Them: Position yourself with one knee and one hand (on the same side as the knee) on a bench, leaning your torso forward until it is nearly parallel to the floor. With the non-supporting hand, lift a dumbbell off the floor. Pull the weight towards the side of your chest by moving your elbow straight up. Lower the weight down without placing it back on the floor. Repeat.
Avoid: Rounding the lower back, rotating the torso. “Set up in a sound position to begin and maintain it throughout the exercise,” Kelly says. “Brace yourself with you supporting arm and engage your trunk. Rotating while pulling shows you are not in control of the exercise, possibly because you’re lifting too much weight.”
One Arm Press
Why: One-armed upper-body exercises work your core, too. “Put the hand of your non-working side on your midsection to see what your obliques are doing,” Kelly says. “You’re bracing against falling over.”
How to Do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bring a dumbbell in one hand up to shoulder height with your palm facing forward. Lift the dumbbell up by extending your arm. Slowly lower the weight to the starting position. Repeat.
Avoid: Leaning or listing to one side. “Press overhead from a firm foundation,” Kelly says. “Your shoulders should be level. You can’t do these without your core braced.”
Turkish Get Ups
Why: These will tell you a lot about how well you move and whether one side is weaker than the other. “It’s an unbelievable exercise in terms of bang for your buck,” Kelly says. “Your body is moving around a vertical pillar of your arm with a kettlebell in it. You need mobility in your hips and shoulders to do these well. You’ll see whether you can do the same amount of weight on both sides—maybe you can’t keep your arm vertical the whole time, or one side has mobility issues.”
How to Do Them: Okay, here goes. Lie on your back with your legs out straight and a kettlebell next to your right shoulder. Roll onto your right side and grip the kettlebell’s handle with your right hand. Roll back onto your back. Press the kettlebell straight up, away from your chest. Bend your right leg to place your foot flat on the floor. Straighten your left arm to your side, then roll up onto your left forearm. Press your right foot into the floor, then press onto your left hand by straightening your left arm. Lift your hips as high as you can, pressing down through your left hand, left heel, and right foot. Slide your left leg back and under you, coming into a kneeling position with your left hand on the floor. Lift your left hand off the floor. Step with your right foot to stand, bringing your left foot even with your right. Reverse to return to the starting position by stepping your left foot back, then placing your left hand on the floor, bridging up, swinging your left leg through to straight in front of you, sitting with support from your left hand, relaxing onto your forearm, and finally rolling onto your back and lowering the kettlebell down. Repeat.
Avoid: Poor form and incorrect movements. “There are instructional videos on StrongFirst and on sites within the kettlebell community,” Kelly says. “Learn the fundamentals.”
One Arm Kettlebell Swings
Why: These train power and conditioning. “This is an explosive hip hinge,” Kelly says. “The non-working arm is for balance and rhythm.”
How to Do Them: Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell under you. Move your hips back and bend your knees, keeping your back straight. Grab the kettlebell with one hand and swing it back between your legs. Swing the kettlebell forward by quickly standing up, driving your hips forward. Move your hips back and bend your knees again, letting the kettlebell swing back between your legs. Repeat.
Avoid: Using too heavy a weight, squatting rather than hinging at the hip. “You have to snap your hips,” Kelly says. “You shouldn’t be able to lift the weight with your shoulder, it’s a swing. That’s the beauty of it: when the bell is coming down, you have to decelerate and then accelerate it in the other direction.”