6 Unilateral Exercises That Will Turn Your Limbs to Wobbly Mush
Meet your new worst enemy: one-legged squats.
Believe it or not, a close examination in the gym mirror might reveal that one arm is a little more like Popeye, while the other resembles his slightly-smaller, much-more-envious cousin. And even if the visual disparity isn’t quite as stark, most people do have a dominant side of their body—which, if unaddressed, can lead to problematic strength imbalances for habitual gymgoers.
Unilateral exercises—movements that work one arm or one leg at a time—can help to narrow these gaps. “Unilateral exercises help to stabilize the body by training the often-overlooked deep muscles of the hip and core that are essential for generating power and preventing injury,” says Stephen Stockhausen, PT, DPT, OCS, and owner of ptadventures.com. And since they help to develop balance, they can be especially beneficial those who play multidirectional sports like soccer, basketball, or football.
Chances are that you’ll find yourself doing a fair amount of wobbling when exercising one limb at a time. The bad news is that you look silly. The good news is that it’s working. As your brain struggles to maintain your body’s position, it is constantly sending signals to the muscles that surround the core, hips, and ankles. All that quivering is the manifestation of these micro-corrections as it learns to maintain balance.
One word of caution: “Don’t be surprised if you can’t lift or press as much with one leg or one arm. Because of the extra neural challenge, it is not uncommon to be able to lift far less than half the weight that you could lift with two limbs,” says Stockhausen. Merely dividing your usual load in half before throwing yourself headlong into a set is a great way to get frustrated and/or hurt. Start small, and start with these six movements.
What: What it sounds like, honestly. Stand on one leg, airborne calf tucked behind your thigh. Keep your eyes closed, with hips and shoulders level. Do two sets for between 30 and 60 seconds.
Why: Do this as a brief warm-up, priming the joints and muscles for the more difficult exercises (unilateral and otherwise) to come. Keep an eye out for drooping hips or shoulders, which may indicate weakness and are common predictors for injury.
What: Stand on one leg, keeping your hips level, and drop it low. The airborne leg goes out in front of you. Focus on sticking your buttocks out behind you, as if you were sitting on a stool. Perform two sets of 20 reps on each side.
Why: A good substitute for squats, this exercise focuses on the deep stabilizing muscles of the hip. In the two-legged version, the stronger limb does most of the work, preventing the weaker limb from having the chance to catch up. Isolating each leg keeps things a little more equitable.
What: On one leg—yes, this will be a theme—hinge forward by flexing at the hip. While keeping the chest and non-standing leg in a straight line, raise your arms out from your sides like an airplane. Lean forward until your chest and back leg are parallel to the ground, or as close to parallel as you can get. Hold for five seconds before returning to a two-legged stand. Perform two sets of 10 reps on each side.
Why: Swap out the hip abduction machine for this exercise, which trains the glutes in a more functional, athletic position.
What: On one leg, hop 4 to 6 inches off the ground, keeping your knee centered over your foot. (In other words, don’t go anywhere.) Focus on landing quietly by sticking your butt out on impact. Your knee should bend, but it should not dip toward either side of your body. Try two sets of 20 reps on each side.
Why: Perform mini-hops instead of the leg press to develop explosive quad strength.
One-armed cable row
What: With the cable set to shoulder height, stand facing the weight stack in an athletic stance, with a slight bend in the knees. Pull the cable with one arm, bringing your thumb to your armpit, and keep your chest and hips facing forward, since they will want to twist as you pull. Try two sets of between 10 and 15 reps on each side.
Why: Since the unilateral version of this exercise requires less weight, it’s a great option when you’re feeling fatigued. Bracing yourself against the cable stack also activates the core and oblique muscles.
Diagonal balance test
What: Standing on one leg (again), bend the base knee and extend the opposite foot as far forward as possible. Have a partner mark your reach on the ground. Repeat this same technique, but reaching your foot diagonally back and to the left, and then back and to the right.
Why: This is a useful metric for measuring your balance—and, hopefully, for gauging your progress in improving it.