There is a huge debate going on between unilateral and bilateral exercises. Before we dive into which exercise approach works best, let's take a look at what unilateral and bilateral exercises are. Bilateral exercises are movements that requires more than one limb to produce force at the same time. For example, the barbell bench press and back squat are perfect examples of a bilateral exercise. While unilateral exercises are movements that relies on one limb to produce force. Example exercises include single leg squat, single-arm dumbbell press, and etc.
Bilateral exercises have several benefits:
- Force production - Bilateral movement exercises allows peak force production which helps improve overall muscle strength.
- More stability when performing a bilateral movement –Bilateral movements by nature are more stable than their unilateral counterpart simply because the centre of gravity is balanced among both limbs.
- Shorter learning curve of bilateral movements - Bilateral movements have a shorter learning curve compared to unilateral movements.
Some notable benefits of unilateral exercise movements are:
- Eliminating strength imbalances - Exercises that involves unilateral movement allow the body to work on the weaker limb, which helps reduce strength/muscle imbalances and compensations.
- Less stability when performing a unilateral movement – Since unilateral means using only one side, there is a shift in balance and as a result the body is required to engage the core more to maintain equilibrium.
- Greater intensity – In order to maintain equilibrium, the body has to fully utilise stabiliser muscles and thus promotes more muscle fiber recruitment which would put greater stress to the muscle.
The downside of bilateral exercises would be that when an entire training program is based on it, it would promote muscle compensation, which would eventually lead to greater strength imbalances while programming a training program to be fully unilateral specific would hinder the body to produce maximal force.
In conclusion, there is no perfect approach. It is important to mix both of these exercises into your training program to take full advantage of the benefits from both movements. This allows athletes to move better and stronger. The Optimum Performance Training (OPT) Model allows trainers to cycle both unilateral and bilateral exercise movements when programming a training program. In the stabilisation phase, unilateral exercises are included most of the time to improve proprioception of the body and to reduce strength imbalances. In the strength phase, both unilateral and bilateral exercises are used in this phase. In the power phase, bilateral exercises are focused in this phase to improve on the body's ability to produce maximal force in a short amount of time.
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