Unilateral exercises are an incredibly effective way to develop your strength and increase fat-burning. Popular with personal trainers, competitive athletes and physiotherapists, these types of exercises are quickly making their way into the mainstream.
They involve training individual limbs instead of working both at the same time, which produces heightened effects and faster results. In this article, we’ll run through exactly what unilateral exercises are, how they can aid weight loss, and even include a 3-month training program to help you get started.
How do unilateral exercises help with weight loss?
Unilateral exercises are a form of strength training where you only work one limb, or part of the body at a time. Imagine yourself doing a bicep curl with a dumbbell in your right hand – that’s a basic unilateral exercise. Now, if you were to swap that dumbbell for a barbell and use both arms at the same time, it would become a ‘bilateral’ exercise because you’re working two sides of the body.
Scientific research studies have linked strength training with numerous weight loss benefits, including:
- Increasing lean body mass – unilateral training increases the amount of muscle you have so that your body appears leaner and more toned.
- Increasing muscular strength – as you get stronger, you’ll be able to put more effort into your workouts which allows you to see even better results in a shorter amount of time.
- Increasing resting metabolic rate – the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn when you’re resting. This means that your body is utilising more calories even when you’re watching TV!
- Targeting abdominal fat – strength training has been shown to reduce both visceral fat (which isn’t obvious from the outside but is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and subcutaneous adipose fat (which sits just below the skin and causes us to look overweight).
- Altering body composition independently from diet – one of the most interesting benefits of strength training is that it achieves all of the above regardless of whether you choose to restrict calories.
An added bonus of unilateral exercises
Because unilateral exercises focus on one side of the body at a time, they can also help to address muscular imbalances. Most of us have a ‘dominant’ side of the body which is usually the side that we write or kick with. This side often over-compensates for weakness in our other side, which over time can lead to strain-related injuries. Unilateral training allows you to develop your weaker side, which is why it’s a particular favourite with physiotherapists and personal trainers.
Types of unilateral exercise
Unilateral exercises come in lots of different forms, but if you’re just getting started, there are a few fundamentals you’ll need to know. If you don’t have dumbbells at home or access to a gym, you can use bottles of water or tinned soup instead to perform any of these exercises which require them.
Lunges are a classic unilateral exercise that target the leg muscles and glutes. Keep your head up and shoulders back while you perform this movement to maximise core activation.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and take a large step forward – this is your starting position.
- Bend the front knee and lower your body downward, until your thigh and calf are at a 90-degree angle. Take care not to go beyond this point as it can place excess strain on the knee joint.
- Slowly return to the starting position for one rep, then repeat 8-12 times before swapping legs.
Once you’re comfortable with this exercise you can progress to forward lunges where you start from a standing position and step forward and back with each repetition (intermediate).
To make it even more challenging you can hold dumbbells while you lunge which provides extra resistance (advanced).
2 Single arm chest fly
This exercise targets the pectoral muscles in your chest which act like your natural bra.
- Lie on a bench with your feet resting on the floor and a dumbbell in one hand.
- Raise the dumbbell directly above your shoulder and then slowly lower it out to the side, until it’s in line with your chest.
- Return it to above your shoulder, remembering to keep a slight bend in the elbow as you do so. This is one rep – repeat 8-12 times and then swap sides.
Challenge yourself even more by increasing the weight or lying on a stability ball.
3 Single arm row
The single arm row strengthens the muscles in your shoulders and back. It can also help to improve your posture, especially if you sit hunched over a computer for much of the day.
- Stand with one foot on a box or high step and rest your elbow on it so that your body is bent forward from the hip.
- Take the dumbbell in the other hand and pull the arm upward and backwards, until the dumbbell is level with your waist and your upper arm is horizontal.
- Lower the dumbbell back down for one repetition and repeat 8-12 times, then swap sides.
If you’d like a more challenging variation, increase the weight or perform the motion more slowly (intermediate).
For an even harder version, don’t use a box or step – simply bend your body forward from the hip to engage more core muscles (advanced).
4 Oblique curl
Oblique curls activate the muscles that run down each side of the stomach. They help you with everyday movements like twisting and core stability, but can also contribute to the shape of your waistline and appearance of abs.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor.
- Place your hands on your thighs and lift your torso off the ground, twisting your shoulder towards the opposite knee as you do.
- Slowly lower your torso back to the ground for one repetition. Repeat 8-12 times then swap sides.
Challenge yourself more by placing your hands across your chest (intermediate) or by your forehead with elbows out (advanced).
5 Triceps extension
Triceps extensions are one of the most effective unilateral exercises for arms and can help to minimise the dreaded bingo-wings.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in one hand.
- Lift the dumbbell vertically so that it’s directly above your shoulder joint, keeping your elbow slightly bent – this is your starting position.
- Slowly bend the elbow and lower the dumbbell behind your head, then extend your arm back to the starting position.
- Repeat this 8-12 times and then swap arms.
Challenge yourself even more by increasing the weight or the number of sets you do. You can also make it more difficult by standing on one leg or holding a lunge stance while you do it.
Want to try something different? Discover benefits of power yoga >>
3-month unilateral exercise workout plan
Below is a 3-month structured workout plan that you can use to incorporate unilateral exercises into your routine.
You should aim to do this strength workout 3 times per week, leaving a rest day in between so that your muscles can recover. Doing between 8 and 12 reps won’t ‘bulk you up’ like a bodybuilder but will help you look more toned and enable your body to burn more calories while at rest.
|month 1||month 2||month 3|
|weeks 1-2||weeks 3-4||weeks 5-6||weeks 7-8||weeks 9-10||weeks 11-12|
|*start with a weight or resistance that is manageable but challenging after 10-12 reps||*increase the weight or resistance at the beginning of week 5||*increase the weight or resistance again at the beginning of week 9|
|Lunges||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets|
|Single arm chest fly||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets|
|Single arm row||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||
|Oblique curl||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets|
|Triceps extension||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets||8-10 reps x2 sets||10-12 reps x3 sets|
Incorporating unilateral exercises into your workout routine will help you to increase lean body mass, improve your strength, and boost your resting metabolic rate.
By focusing on one part of the body at a time, you’ll be able to perfect your technique and develop your strength uniformly. Give the program a try and bookmark the page so you can easily refer back to it.
What are your favourite unilateral exercises for weight loss? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
Related: What are plyometric exercises?