10 Unilateral Exercises for Better Overall Strength

by Evelyn Valdez

When it comes to strength training, there are many ways to optimize your workout experience to make sure you’re giving your muscles what they need to grow bigger and stronger. You can try different types of strength training depending on your specific goals, learn how to use a bunch of different types of equipment to keep your muscles constantly adapting, and add a variety of new exercises to your routine – such as unilateral exercises!

Many exercises are exclusively unilateral and allow you to give one side of your body a more dedicated workout, limiting the number of working muscles during the exercise so that you can focus on a small number of muscles at once and give them the workout that they need. But you can also turn regular bilateral training exercises into unilateral ones! It all depends on what you want to do on a certain day. 

If you feel like you have a muscle imbalance that you need to fix, or you simply want to train your muscles to be strong on their own instead of having to depend on several supporting muscles, consider adding a couple of unilateral movements to your routine! We’ve split our favorite ones into two categories – upper and lower body – so you can choose your favorite ones to improve your performance and overall strength next time you’re at the gym.

Upper body unilateral exercises

Dreaming of a bigger back, or maybe toned arms that look really good in a tank top? These unilateral upper-body exercises will help you achieve that while building your strength, balance, and coordination at the same time!

Single-arm push press

This movement is very similar to the classic (single-hand) overhead press, except it’s a more powerful variation that adds an element of explosivity to it. It targets your shoulder muscles with additional activation of your core and legs throughout the full range of motion, allowing you to develop bigger muscles while also improving your speed and overall stability.

How to do it:

  1. Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in your right hand. Flex your elbow and lift the dumbbell to shoulder height with a neutral grip, so that your palm is facing to the left.
  2. Bend your knees slightly and begin the movement by explosively pushing the dumbbell upward, extending your right arm and your legs at the same time.
  3. At the top of the movement, the weight should be over your head with your right arm extended upward without locking it. Pause for a moment, then return to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Single-arm hammer curls

While all variations of the biceps curl are great for building bigger muscles, hammer curls excel at this by allowing your arm to lift a heavier weight thanks to the neutral grip. It works the elbow flexors, which are the biceps brachii, brachioradialis, and brachialis, helping you improve elbow flexibility and overall arm strength.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a dumbbell in your right hand and stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your hand should be in a neutral position with your closed palm facing your body.
  2. Begin the movement by curling the weight up until it almost reaches your shoulder. Make sure to keep your arm down and close to your body, only flexing your elbow.
  3. Squeeze your biceps at the top, then lower the weight back down and repeat the movement.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Single-arm cable row

If you want an effective unilateral exercise that really gives your back a good burn, try this single-arm rowing movement on a cable machine. The machine offers constant tension for your muscles to fight against, particularly those in your upper and middle back, as well as your deltoids and triceps, helping your build a stronger upper body in no time.

How to do it: 

  1. Find a cable machine and attach a D-handle to it at lower-chest level, then grab the handle with your right hand. Take a few steps away from the machine while facing it until your arm is extended without locking it and the cable is straight and parallel to the floor.
  2. Assume a half-squat position by slightly bending your knees and begin the movement by rowing the cable back with your right arm. Drive your elbow back while keeping your back straight and your knees bent until your right hand is near your chest and your arm is in line with your torso.
  3. Hold this position while squeezing your muscles, then extend your arm again and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Single-arm dumbbell chest press

Your pecs make up a huge part of your upper body physique, so you definitely need to spend some time working on them if you want a bigger and stronger body! This exercise is a variation of the bench press and it targets your pectorals as well as your deltoids and triceps muscles.

How to do it:

  1. With a dumbbell in your right hand, find a bench and lie your back on it with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Rotate your right shoulder so that your arm is perpendicular to you, and lift your forearm with the weight in the air in an overhand grip, forming a 90-degree angle.
  2. Begin the movement by pressing the dumbbell up, straightening your arm without locking it until it forms a perpendicular line with the floor and the weight is up in the air and above your shoulder.
  3. Squeeze your muscles in this position without losing your balance, then slowly lower the weight and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Side plank crunch

This upper-body list wouldn’t be complete without a good unilateral core exercise, and the side plank crunch is the perfect candidate. It combines a plank and a crunch into a single ab strengthening exercise that also recruits your back, leg, and arm muscles, making it a full-body exercise that focuses on core stability and strength.

How to do it:

  1. Lay down on the floor and turn to your left side, placing your left elbow on the floor and lifting your upper body. Your left arm should be perpendicular to the floor and your feet stacked on top of each other.
  2. Keeping your body in a straight line, begin the movement by driving your right leg up and your left elbow down so that they meet as if you were crunching.
  3. Squeeze your abs in this position while maintaining your balance for a moment, then go back to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Lower body unilateral exercises

Nice toned legs are a great thing to achieve, but improving your leg strength with these unilateral exercises will help you perform all kinds of other lower and even upper body exercises with ease!

Pistol squats

This single-legged squatting variation is very challenging because not only you’ll need to manage your body weight with one leg, but you’ll also need to keep your balance with the other leg extended in front of you. It’s a great movement to build your major leg muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, plus the hip adductors and core muscles.

How to do it:

  1. First, stand straight with your feet hip-width apart and shift your weight to your left leg.
  2. Begin the movement by lifting your right foot off the floor and bending your left knee, slowly going down while you keep your right leg up. Lower yourself until your left thigh is parallel to the floor and your right leg is extended in front of you, almost parallel to the floor.
  3. Squeeze your muscles in this position and make sure to keep your stability on your left foot. Slowly go back up to full hip extension while you lower your right foot back to the floor and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Cable glute kickback

As the name indicates, this exercise works your glutes with a cable machine, helping you build a booty with a very simple but effective movement! It targets all three gluteal heads while also activating your hamstrings, calves, quads, and abs. This cable exercise requires a pair of ankle straps to perform it safely, so if you don’t have any, check out our high-quality and very comfortable UPPPER Ankle Straps!

How to do it: 

  1. Set the cable pulley on the lowest setting so that it’s at foot level and attach an ankle strap to it. Face the machine and wrap the attachment around your right ankle, holding onto the machine for support.
  2. Slightly bend your right knee for extra stability and begin by kicking your right foot back, pulling the pulley away from the machine. Go back as far as your can without losing your form or arching your back.
  3. At the top of the movement, hold the position for a moment while your squeeze your muscles, then lower your foot and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Single-leg Romanian deadlift

This killer leg exercise uses your hip as a hinge to go up and down with a kettlebell. The single leg already makes it unilateral training, but you can take it one step further and use only one arm instead of two to hold the weight. The primary movers are the hamstrings and glutes, but it also targets your abs, obliques, lats, and the erector spinae, turning it into a lower-body movement that’s also great for your upper body workouts.

How to do it:

  1. Find a kettlebell and hold it by the handle in your right hand while you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, so that the weight rests on the side of your right thigh.
  2. Shift your body weight to the right side, slightly bending your right knee for stability, and begin the movement by bringing your upper body down, hinging at the hips, and lifting your left foot off the floor and back. As you lower yourself, let the kettlebell go down like an anchor, keeping your right arm straight down throughout the movement.
  3. When your torso and left leg are in line and parallel to the floor and your right arm is pointing down with the weight, hold for a second and then go back up and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Bulgarian split squat

Your quads are a huge muscle group at the front of your thighs that need enough love to grow and help you get those toned legs you’re dreaming of, and the Bulgarian split squats are perfect for that! Besides your quads, this movement also targets your other major leg muscles such as your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, plus some help from your hips and abs.

How to do it:

  1. First, find a bench or a chair to act as an elevated surface. At a comfortable distance from the bench, turn around and lift your right foot up and back so that your toes rest on the bench while keeping your front foot on the floor for balance.
  2. Begin the movement by bending your left knee and going down into a squat position, making sure you’re keeping your back straight without taking your right foot off the bench. You can place your hands on your hips or in front of you for stability.
  3. When your left thigh is parallel to the floor, squeeze your working muscles, then go back up and repeat.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Single-leg elevated calf raises

Your calves are used in countless leg exercises, but they’re not usually the protagonists, which is why you should definitely add this movement to your routine! Not only will your calves have a killer workout, but you’ll also help improve your ankle mobility by getting on your toes and dropping your heels repeatedly throughout the exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Find a low surface where you can stand and place the ball of your right foot on the edge of it so that the heel is hanging off the surface. Make sure you have something to grab onto in case you lose your stability.
  2. With your left knee slightly bent so that your left foot is in the air, begin the movement by lifting your right heel until you’re standing on your toes. Hold for a moment, then drop your heel as far down as you can without losing stability.
  3. Continue this up-and-down movement for the desired reps, keeping your working calf engaged throughout the movement.
  4. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

These are only a few of the best unilateral exercises, but there are so many more that you can try so you can build better functional strength and a more sculpted body! You can even take a look at your current routine and see if any bilateral exercises can be performed unilaterally, so you can still enjoy your favorite movements while giving your muscles a newer challenge.

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