9 Great Unilateral Exercises To Help Correct Muscle Imbalances

Many of the most popular strength training exercises are bilateral movements, which means that both sides of your body are performing the same movement at the same time.

For example, the bench press, deadlift, and barbell row are all bilateral exercises.

While there are many strengthening benefits of bilateral exercises, it’s also important to incorporate unilateral exercises into your workout routine. Unilateral leg exercises, for instance, can help you identify and correct muscle imbalances.

But, what are the best unilateral leg exercises and unilateral upper body exercises? How do you structure a workout with unilateral movements?

In this article, we will provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best unilateral leg exercises and unilateral upper body exercises to help you put together a well-rounded strength training program:

Let’s jump in!

Bent over row, a unilateral exercise.

The Best Unilateral Exercises for a Total-Body Workout

Here are some of the best unilateral movements for a total-body workout:

#1: Unilateral TRX Rows

Although most workouts that focus on unilateral moves incorporate primarily unilateral leg exercises or use dumbbells for unilateral upper-body movements, you can also challenge your body with certain unilateral bodyweight exercises.

One of the most difficult unilateral upper-body exercises is the single-arm TRX row.

By performing this suspension row as a unilateral exercise, you not only strengthen your lats, shoulders, and arms but also activate all of the core muscles to help stabilize your spine and prevent rotation of your body.

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral moves:

  1. Take one handle of the TRX strap and loop it through the other so that they form one united handle.
  2. Stand facing the handle and hold it in one hand.
  3. Bracing your core and keeping your body as stiff as a board, lean back and come up onto your heels, allowing your toes to point towards the ceiling. The more upright you are, the easier the exercise will be.
  4. Keep your hips and shoulders squared and parallel to the floor. Do not allow any rotation as you straighten your arm to lower your body towards the floor and then bend your elbow to pull your body back up to the standing position.
  5. Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.

#2: Stability Ball Single-Arm Chest Press

The chest press is one of the key foundational upper-body exercises. Performing this exercise as a unilateral move makes it much harder for your core.

Furthermore, using a stability ball instead of a weight bench requires even more core control because you need to maintain balance and stability on a moving surface. 

Plus, you have to engage your core, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles to maintain your body in a bridge position rather than being supported by a weight bench.

Note that it is advisable to begin with relatively light weights when you are first learning how to do this exercise on a stability ball. Once you have the technique down, you can work on increasing the weight. 

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral exercises:

  1. Sit on a stability ball and then roll out on your back so that the stability ball is only supporting your upper traps, shoulders, neck, and head. 
  2. Bend your knees so that they are at a 90° angle and your feet are flat on the floor. Bridge up your body with your glutes and core engaged.
  3. Hold the dumbbell in one hand with your palm facing your feet. Bring the dumbbell to the starting position of the chest press by your armpit.
  4. Exhale as you press the dumbbell straight up into the air above your body. Brace your core to keep your hips square to the floor, making sure that you are not rotating your body as you press the single weight upward. 
  5. Inhale as you slowly lower the dumbbell back down.
  6. Complete all of your reps, and then switch sides.

#3: Bayesian Curls

The Bayesian curl is a single-arm biceps curl cable exercise that activates the long head of your biceps brachii muscle to help stabilize your arm in shoulder extension.

Additionally, you will get a great range of motion, increasing your time under tension to maximize your biceps hypertrophy and strength gains.

Here are the steps for how to perform this unilateral biceps exercise:

  1. Attach a single handle to the cable and set the pulley at the lowest setting near the ground.
  2. Stand about 3 feet away from the cable machine with your back facing the weight stack.
  3. Stagger your stance so that the right foot is in front of the left by about 12 inches. This helps improve stability by widening your base of support.
  4. When your right foot is the one in front, grab the handle with the right hand. Hold the handle with an underhand grip and allow your arm to extend backward behind you towards the weight stack. This is the starting position.
  5. Slowly curl the handle up towards your shoulder, allowing your torso to lean forward slightly by hinging at the hips. 
  6. At the top position, when your hand is up at your shoulder, slowly curl back down all the way, allowing your arm to again extend backward behind your body in the straightened position before beginning the next rep.
  7. After you have completed all of the reps on one side, switch sides, remembering to switch your stance so that the left foot is in front.

#4: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts

Single-leg Romanian deadlifts are one of the best exercises for strengthening your posterior chain muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back extensors.

By doing a single-leg Romanian deadlift, you will also challenge your balance, which requires greater hip, ankle, and core stability.

You can perform this exercise with a dumbbell or kettlebell. 

Here are the steps to perform this unilateral leg exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up and proud, shoulders retracted, arms at your side, and a kettlebell or dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Bring your left arm out to your side for balance and engage your core and glutes.
  3. Bend your left knee (the one on your standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your hamstrings and glutes while you lift your right leg off the floor.
  4. Contract your glutes and hinge from your hips to bring your torso towards the floor, keeping your gaze on the floor to prevent hyperextending your neck. Keep your back straight. You do not want to be rounding your back or bending from your back; the hinging should all come from your hips. Your right leg should extend behind you as a counterbalance.
  5. Reach the weight in your right hand down towards your left foot until you feel enough of a stretch in the hamstrings of your supporting leg.
  6. Engage your core and glutes to press through your heel to come back up, extending your hips until they are fully locked out. If you need to regain your balance, you can touch your right foot back down to the floor; otherwise, keep it lifted and move into your next rep.
  7. After you have completed all of the reps on one side, switch sides.

#5: Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry

One of the best unilateral exercises for total-body functional strength is single-arm farmer’s carry.

The unilateral nature of the exercise requires much more core activation and stability than when performing the exercise with a weight in both hands.

Use the heaviest dumbbell or kettlebell you can manage safely. 

Grip the handle of the weighted implement as hard as possible, as this is an excellent exercise to improve grip strength

Here is how to perform this unilateral strength training exercise:

  1. Stand upright with good posture, chest up, shoulders back and down, holding a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand with both arms down by your sides.
  2. Keeping your core tight, back straight, and your shoulders even, walk forward for 15 paces or 30 meters or so.
  3. Turn around and walk back.
  4. Switch arms and repeat.
  5. Complete down-and-back kettlebell carries per side.

#6: Side Plank With Thoracic Rotations

The side plank with a rotation is a great unilateral exercise to target your obliques, hip stabilizers, glutes, and abs. 

Feel free to forgo the dumbbell if you’re a beginner. Otherwise, use a 10-20 pound weight to increase the intensity of the core exercise.

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral exercises:

  1. Lie on one side with your elbow stacked under your shoulder and feet stacked on top of one another. 
  2. Lift your hips off the ground and extend your top arm straight up towards the ceiling, holding a dumbbell. You should be in a side plank position.
  3. Slowly rotate your pelvis towards the floor while reaching your extended arm underneath your body, bringing the dumbbell to tap your shoulder blade. 
  4. While maintaining your balance, rotate back to the starting position, lifting the dumbbell back up into the air.
  5. After you have completed all of the reps on one side, switch sides.

#7: Side Lunge With Medicine Ball Press

You’ll work your hips, quads, glutes, and adductors in this exercise. 

By pressing a medicine ball or weight in and out from your chest as you lunge, you will further challenge your shoulders and abs.

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral exercises:

  1. Stand upright, holding a medicine ball or kettlebell in at your sternum (leave space so the weight is not making contact with your chest).
  2. Step your right leg out to the side, shifting your weight towards that side as you bend the right knee. Keep your left knee straight.
  3. As you shift your weight into the right leg, press the medicine ball or kettlebell straight out in front of your body.
  4. Engage your glutes to press back up into a standing position and bring the weight back in.
  5. Switch sides.

#8: Forward Lunge with Rotation

This unilateral leg exercise strengthens your quads, hips, glutes, hamstrings, and core. Use a medicine ball, dumbbell, or kettlebell for added resistance.

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral exercises:

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight in your two hands parallel to the floor with your arms fully extended straight in front of your body.
  2. Step your right foot forward and drop into a lunge, bending each knee 90° while simultaneously rotating your trunk and arms to the right by engaging your obliques. Be sure to keep your arms straight the whole time, and your back knee should hover just above the ground without touching it.
  3. Step back into an upright position while rotating the medicine ball or weight back to the starting position.
  4. Alternate legs.

#9: Single-Arm Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows

The bent-over row exercise is a classic back-strengthening exercise for the lats.

Here are the steps to this one of our unilateral exercises:

  1. Stagger your stance and brace your body by placing the non-working arm on the end of a weight bench. Make sure to keep your core tight and your shoulders and hips square. 
  2. Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat, neutral spine.
  3. Reach down and grab the dumbbell with one hand with your palm facing inward.
  4. Pull the weight up to the side of your ribs by bending your elbows and retracting and dropping your shoulder blades, maintaining the hinge at your hips throughout the exercise.
  5. Pause at the top position for a full breath.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbell back down until your elbows are fully extended.
  7. Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.

Try to perform 2-3 sets of each exercise. Aim for 2-6 reps using a weight that’s at least 85% of your 1RM if your goal is to increase strength and 8-12 reps using a weight that’s 65-85% of your 1RM if your goal is to build muscle mass.

To learn more about identifying and correcting muscle imbalances, check out our guide here.

Bayesian curl.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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