In Spartan Notes, a Spartan Fit franchise, we cut through the clutter to give you the most important need-to-know info on a particular subject. Today’s topic: unilateral exercises.
Many of the essential strength training exercises — squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and shoulder presses, for instance — are bilateral. That means you use both sides of your body to execute them.
But athletes who only focus on bilateral training are missing out on a huge opportunity to get stronger, become more versatile as an athlete, and perform better, according to Sam Stauffer, Director of Training at Spartan. This is a pretty common weak spot in most athletes, he adds. “Even in my own experience, I was brought up learning staple bilateral exercises.” Unfortunately, focusing only on bilateral training just doesn’t cut it if you want to become a well-rounded athlete and minimize your risk of injury.
To get started with unilateral training, here’s what you need to know:
What are Unilateral Exercises?
In contrast to bilateral exercises, unilateral exercises are performed using only one side of the body, Stauffer explains.
Some examples of unilateral exercises include:
- Reverse lunges
- Single-arm bench and shoulder presses
- Single-leg squats
Why are Unilateral Exercises Important?
1. They Help Correct Imbalances.
Most people have muscular imbalances or asymmetries of some kind. For instance, you may have one arm or leg that’s stronger than the other. In some cases with high-level athletes, this type of asymmetry is seen as desirable and might be trained for on purpose, Stauffer says. For example, it’s expected for football quarterbacks to have asymmetry between their dominant throwing arm and their non-dominant arm.
“Spartan OCR is a more unique sport because you don’t need to have that gap or asymmetry, which is really exciting,” Stauffer says. “That’s what we stand behind: fixing those imbalances, mobility issues, and overactive muscles.”
By working each side of your body separately, the muscles have a chance to get stronger without help from the other side, thus helping to correct imbalances.
2. They Reduce Risk of Injury.
Imbalances lead to injury. “Your central nervous system has one thing on its mind, and that is to survive,” Stauffer says. “When you have an asymmetry, that means your body has to make up for what that side or limb or muscle is not doing,” Stauffer says.
A common example is that when people have weak or tight glutes, the lower back steps in to take on the burden. That effect can be magnified when it’s primarily happening on one side, throwing the whole body out of whack. “That might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a domino effect, and as they fall, the dominos get bigger,” Stauffer says. “You start that cumulative injury cycle, and once you’re in it, it’s really tough to get out of.”
3. They Help Increase Strength and Performance.
Unilateral strength is incredibly important regardless of what sport you’re into. “When it comes to Spartan, most of our obstacles can be classified as requiring unilateral strength and skill: Monkey Bars, Multi Rig, Twister, Z-wall, Olympus, Helix, Beater, just to name a few. All of these obstacles require you to be strong and competent with one limb at a time.”
4. They Reinforce your Stabilizers and Balance.
“The ability to balance and stabilize is crucial because while Spartan doesn't look very weight-bearing or forceful, it is,” Stauffer notes. “You’re jumping off over walls, landing off of rigs that are high up off the ground, and for the most part, landing in a staggered step, which is basically unilateral. You need to be able to absorb that load correctly.”
What’s the Best Way to Incorporate Unilateral Work Into My Training?
If you’re using the Spartan FIT app, the work is already done for you. “Almost all of our workouts in the app have at least one unilateral exercise in them,” Stauffer says.
If you’re creating your own workouts, it’s important to break down your training plan by movement pattern, Stauffer says. The major movement patterns to focus on are knee dominant, hip dominant, upper body push, and upper body pull. Within each of these, you want to make sure you’re hitting both unilateral and bilateral exercises each week. And of course, you’ll want to throw in some core work, too.
How Often Should I Train Unilateral Strength?
“If you strength train three times per week, unilateral exercises should be in every single workout,” Stauffer advises.