Let’s talk unilateral exercises. Now, what movements spring to mind when you think of bodyweight training? We’ll rattle some off to get you started.
Some of the top picks are pull-ups, push-ups, squats, jumps, levers, planks, leg lifts, L-sits, handstands and dips. You may notice that all of these are bilateral exercises, meaning both arms, legs, or sides of the body are working together, at once.
This is all well and good, and you can certainly build a strong and functional physique with these movements. However, if we have imbalances between one side of our body and the other, these problems can be masked by only doing bilateral training.
Unilateral training not only exposes these imbalances, it also allows us to work on and eliminate them, which can only improve our skills with the basics
If one side turns out to be weaker than the other (and it almost certainly will), you have two choices. Either you work to the limit of the ‘weaker’ arm or leg, or you work both sides to their limit. We have no preference.
The weaker one will eventually catch up with the stronger once you start focusing on the limbs separately. And it seems silly to do, for example, four one-armed push-ups on each side when your ‘strong’ arm is capable of ten!
MOVEMENTS TO START WITH
1) Walking lunges
This should be a staple of your training already. Do lunges one after another, covering a decent distance. If it’s easy, carry something (or someone), add a jump, try going backwards, or try ‘double-dipping’ your lunges.
2) Archer Push-ups (or Pull-ups)
As you move towards the bottom of your push-up (or the top of your pull-up), move your body over towards one arm, so that at the end of the movement, almost all your weight is over on one side. You can either do all your reps on one side then switch, or alternate.
1) Pistol squats
If you aren’t working on pistol squats, it’s time to get started. Squat on one leg with the other held out straight in front of you. If you struggle, use some support to start with. Doing these off a step can also help, if you struggle to keep the leg up at the bottom of the movement.
2) One-armed push-ups
An absolute classic and absolutely worth your time. A real ‘strength’ move that requires zero equipment. Do them on a raised surface to decrease the difficulty if the full version is too much.
3) One-handed pull-ups
Grab a bar with one hand, then grab that wrist with the opposite hand and do a pull-up. Great for grip strength and working towards our final movement:
4) One-armed pull-ups
The full one-armed pull-up is like a unicorn. It may be beyond most of us, but that’s no reason not to work on it! Start by getting your regular and archer pull-up numbers healthy. We would shoot for 20 pull-ups before you start work on these.
Then work on one-handed pull-ups, then start to work on the lowering phase by pulling up with two hands and lowering with one. Eventually you may get to the full version!
THE TAKE HOME
There is plenty to keep you occupied for years here. Working each side separately, either as part of your regular routine or as a specialized block of training, will do wonders for your bodyweight training game.
Even if it’s just working in one upper- and one lower-body unilateral movement per session, this is a no-lose proposition. And you may be surprised by the improvements in your bilateral training.