Unilateral Vs Bilateral Training and Why You Should Give a Damn

Since strength training is inherently linked to our bodies, there are a lot of medical terms and fancy terms involved with strength training. There are two different types of strength training exercises, unilateral or one-sided and bilateral or two-sided. Let’s break down the difference between unilateral and bilateral strength training and what you should know about both types of training.

Why Care About Strength Training?

Aside from the obvious, “you get strong by training your muscles” understanding the complexities of strength training helps you create a balanced, impactful workout routine. This all starts with joint stability. Without joint stability, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you leave yourself open to getting seriously injured. 

So how do you create a strength workout routine that promotes joint stability? You’ll want a balanced workout routine that incorporates both unilateral and bilateral strength-building exercises.


What is Unilateral Strength Training?

Unilateral strength training refers to working out one side of the body at a time. For example, doing a one-armed curl. Unilateral strength training enables you to focus on one side of the body and promotes equal strength across the body. Since you’re targeting one specific side, your joints work towards stabilization. The result is strong, healthy joints that aid in injury prevention. 

Most physical therapy or PT is unilateral strength training. This type of training is an essential part of any strength training workout, especially if you’ve ever been injured. When you’re injured, your joints never fully recover. However, you can gain 95-percent of your effective joint stability back if you maintain a steady unilateral training regime.

What is Bilateral Strength Training?

Bilateral strength training refers to workout out both sides of your muscles at the same time. An example would be a leg press where you use a machine to press both of your legs at the same time. You’re able to lift more weight this way, which helps to build max strength.

However, bilateral training doesn’t train your body evenly. When you utilize both sides of your body for an exercise, one side inevitably works harder than the other. This effect is especially compounded if you’ve had an injury on one side of your body. The result is unequal strength building and de-stabilized joints. Although bilateral training is important for increasing your max strength, it shouldn’t be your sole focus.

Which Type of Strength Training Should I Do?

The answer is both. First, you want to build up your joint stabilization before you work on your max strength. Otherwise, you’re opening yourself up to a potential injury and no one wants to get hurt. Unilateral training puts the same amount of weight on both sides, equally (since you work one side at a time. The result forces your joints to stabilize in an equal fashion.

If you rely heavily on weight machines, make sure you dedicate at least one day to free weights or unilateral exercises with weight machines.

Think about periodization or utilizing periods of time to build strength in a sustainable, healthy way. One way to do this is to spend four to six weeks focusing stabilizing with unilateral training and then four to six weeks building strength with bilateral training. The result is a balanced strength building over time.

What Is the Best Type of Strength Training for Injuries?

If you’ve been injured, either currently or in the past, the game changes a bit. It’s important to build back that important joint stability in a healthy, sustainable way. Even if you aren’t seeing a physical therapist anymore, dedicate at least one day to physical therapy exercises in order to upkeep joint stability. Essentially you’re encouraging the re-build of neurological connections between your joints, brain, and muscles. This, in turn, creates more joint stabilization over time.

Continuing with physical therapy is especially important if you obtained a stress injury due to a recurring problem or you underwent surgery. Continuing to engage with physical therapy encourages continued maintenance of your joints and the tiny muscle groups that support them.

Overall, the key to maintaining a healthy workout routine is to seek a balance for both unilateral and bilateral workouts. To learn how to create a balanced workout routine, and ensure you’re doing exercises in a healthy, safe way, hire a personal trainer.