Unilateral, Bilateral, Contralateral, Ipsilateral…
Unilateral: one side
Bilateral: both sides
Contralateral: opposite sides (ex: right arm/left leg)
Ipsilateral: same side going same direction (ex: dog pulls you while on leash)
I only mention contralateral and ipsilateral as extra information as today I’m going to talk a little about unilateral and bilateral since most people seem to focus mainly on either training unilateral or bilateral exercises. All of the above mentioned types of movements should be practiced in your exercise program, since muscular overdevelopment can happen with repetitive movements. Muscular overdevelopment can be work related, sports related or done out of habit because we all have a ‘dominant’ side.
Examples of repetitive movements/movement patterns:
For the average person:
Brushing teeth, combing hair, drinking coffee, using utensils and other tools, using stairs, bending over to pick things up, driving etc.
For the working person:
Shovelling, raking, sweeping, weed eating, leaf blowing, hammering, drilling, delivering, typing, transferring, cashiers scanning, driving etc.
For the athlete:
Weight lifting, golf swing, skiing, tennis swing, hitting ball, kicking ball, throwing ball, catching ball, rowing, jumping etc.
Whatever we do at home, work or play, are things we might do regularly or even daily for decades, and likely we do these repetitive movements the same way most every time. Have you tried any of these tasks such as brushing your teeth with your non dominant hand? For me it’s impossible to get the job done right. Now if I were to train regularly using my left hand to brush my teeth, eventually I could do the task well. But impatience rules and I just want to get the job done quickly and efficiently. That goes for many jobs/tasks that we need to do either daily or just once in a while. So because I am right handed, my right hand is more coordinated while my left hand may have more strength.
Unilateral exercises place stress only on one limb. One huge benefit of performing unilateral exercises is that it includes major trunk stabilization. One must stabilize the core (core is not just the abs!) in order to not fall over while practicing moving using one limb. Unilateral exercises are more effective to increase intensity of a workout since the focus is on specific muscles, so it takes fewer repetitions to fatigue (please never use fatigue as the goal!). Unilateral movements can be a great way to overcoming strength imbalances between the right and left sides. One drawback is that it takes more time to train both sides separately.
Bilateral movements work both sides of the body, so both limbs share the stress. The exercises can be multi-joint or single-joint movements. You can work several muscles at once or target a single muscle group. A benefit of performing bilateral exercises is that you will be able to lift more weight, which will activate more muscles, including the core muscles. Bilateral exercises are better for increasing overall muscle strength, BUT… could cause unequal muscle weakness. Focusing on balancing and stabilizing is a must to get strong. But you must also lift weight to get strong and you need both limbs to do that.
Unilateral: step up, split squats, lunges, single leg deadlifts, single arm presses and single arm pulls.
Bilateral: squat, deadlift , push ups, presses, pull ups
Contralateral: dead bugs, quadruped alternating lifts
Ipsilateral: reaching behind something, dog pulling on the leash
If you only do unilateral work, you will limit your overall development. Unilateral exercises should be practiced regularly to help with the heavier lifting, to decrease strength imbalances, and to improve overall stability. Unilateral exercises are more joint friendly, use more core activation, and require more stability. If you want to build muscle strength in one limb, then unilateral exercises are for you.
Performing bilateral exercises will produce more force. They are usually easier to learn and less stability is required. If it’s overall muscle strength you want to develop, bilateral movements should be your main focus.
Again, be sure to include both unilateral and bilateral movements in your routine, and don’t forget about contralateral and ipsilateral!
Now go try performing a task with the opposite side that you normally use.
Practice makes permanent
Consistency is key