Bilateral or Unilateral Exercises: Which Are Better?

STACK Expert Rick Scarpulla weighs the advantages and disadvantages of unilateral versus bilateral exercises.

I find it slightly humorous how things go in phases when it comes to strength training and conditioning. It seems that a few people start the drum-beating and before you know it, you have a bandwagon and everyone is jumping on it.

In this instance, I am referring to unilateral leg work. Yes, it is beneficial, and yes, I utilize it. But if you only do unilateral work, you will greatly limit your overall development.

The big compound barbell lifts some coaches try to avoid seem to be the ones that are most beneficial for athletes. If you want big strength, the barbell is a great tool to help you build exactly that. I have news for you—nothing builds strength like big, heavy compound movements. Which exercise is called the king of all exercises? It's the Back Squat, and for good reason.

My philosophy is to use many types of training to develop a complete and balanced athlete. We enjoy doing strongman exercises, like yokes, carries and logs. We do Olympic lifts and even some CrossFit movements. We also do hurdles and ladders with lots of jumping.

It just makes sense to use all available exercises and not limit our athletes to one style of training. We also have a very good success rate with that approach. Here are a few of its benefits:

  • You can handle much more weight when performing bilateral movements. Although it may sound right, you can't do a 300-pound Single-Leg Squat even if you can squat 600 pounds. Nothing builds absolute strength like heavy bilateral movements. Load a barbell and do some heavy triples or even singles, forcing you to use every ounce of strength to complete the reps. That is very different from doing a single-leg movement.
  • Some drills can't be done with a unilateral approach. Take the strongman exercises. Ever try a one-legged Yoke Walk or Farmer's Carry? How about Sled Pushes or Pulls on one leg? They are called "strongman" exercises for a reason.
  • Unilateral exercise are perfect for accessory work. We use them frequently to complement our big lifts, to eliminate strength imbalances and to train the body to produce strength off one leg. They also improve overall stability.

Here's the template we follow:

  • Primary Compound Lift: Do sets of 3 reps of Back Squats, adding weight until you can't do 3. Then do a single or double.
  • Posterior chain work: We like the Reverse Hyper, but you can also do RDLs. Mix up the RDLs by performing them on one leg every other week.
  • Hamstring Movement: Do a hamstring-dominant exercise such as Band Curls. We do high reps here, e.g., 20-25.
  • Jumping Exercise: We finish with a jumping exercise such as Box Jumps or Broad Jump. These can be done unilaterally, as well.

Keep your volume in check and don't go overboard. If done correctly, four exercises are sufficient to develop most athletes. Hit the moves with intensity and focus, and you will see solid gains. Balance is key to setting up a proper training routine. Using only unilateral work may not be your best option.

Read more about unilateral and bilateral exercises.

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