When posing for a picture do you favour one side of your face over the other?
According to a study published in Psychological Science, we assess someone’s face within 100 milliseconds of meeting them. It seems putting your best cheek forward isn’t just about vanity, it’s common sense.
How about below the neck? Are you in the habit of putting your best foot forward? Chances are your best foot, or hand for that matter, will reveal your dominant side (right-handed people make up 90 percent of the population, 9 per cent are lefties, the rest are ambidextrous).
Unlike your selfie, however, you don’t necessarily want to continually play to your strong side. Switching things up forces your brain and muscle to forge new pathways, enhancing coordination and developing functional stability.
Many popular, foundational gym exercises such as squats, bench presses and chin-ups are great muscle builders, but to a large degree these movements are specific to the gym (you don’t often bench press in real life). That said, there is definite functional value in introducing instability and in forcing left and right sides to work independently.
Take a look at these common bilateral exercises and some unilateral options that add variety and balance to your routine.
Squats or lunges
Traditional back squats (squats performed with a bar on your back) are a great, full body conditioning exercise that translates to many daily activities. For some, however, loading your spine can be prohibitive, especially when using heavy weights.
Lunges on the other hand can be performed with relatively light weight and without a rack. For many exercisers, body weight will do. In addition they are much less stable, as the exerciser must rely mostly on the strength of one leg.
Basically, lunges are a one-legged squat. Start with one knee on the ground and the other at 90 degrees (foot flat on the floor). Stand up in a vertical plane and lower yourself again (don’t rock onto the heel of your hind foot). For balance, clasp your hands or a weight in front of your chest.
Increase difficulty by removing your shoes or placing you back foot on a bench. Shoes provide a surprising degree of stability, and an elevated back leg can make the move quite challenging.
Chest press or single-arm press
Chest presses strengthen your pushing muscles — pecs, anterior delts, triceps. These muscles are important, to say the least, but potentially overdone. Without an element of flexibility, opposition or stabilization, these anterior muscles can contribute negatively to posture and shoulder integrity.
Heading to the chest press machine in the gym is a good start but there are drawbacks. It’s a great teaching tool, as the element of risk has been removed, but so has the need for joint stabilization. The chest press can result in bigger pecs but potentially imbalanced shoulders.
Switching to a bench press adds a degree of stabilization and forces each arm to experience some independence. Again, the joint tends to be steadied by the bench.
One-arm push-ups (think of the original Rocky) may be the answer, as they promote unilateral movement and joint stability — however they are pretty tough! A happy medium may be one-arm dumbbell presses (which are still supported to some degree by the bench) or standing cable presses. Both bring the core into play and enhance joint stability.
Chin-ups or single-arm cable pull downs
Chin-ups are a great upper body exercise — assuming you have the strength to do them properly. If not, you may be reinforcing a potentially dysfunctional movement pattern that could lead to shoulder or elbow injury.
Single-arm cable pulls are a great alternative that enables you to progressively build unilateral muscle and back strength.
Start by sitting on the ground with a cable in hand and arm fully extended (use your opposite hand for stability). Your scapula (shoulder blade) should be rotated away from your spine (like reaching for a glass on the top shelf that’s just out of reach). Initiate the movement by squeezing your scapula in a downward, internal rotation. Continue by bending your elbow and following through. Keep your chest high throughout (don’t fold or crunch). Initiating this movement by bending your arm fires your bicep, not your back.
When planning your routine, don’t feel pressured into adopting popular bi-lateral exercises. There are many other options in the gym that may better suit your needs. In fact, focusing on lifting bigger weights with traditional exercises can distract the lifter, leading to poor mechanics and imbalance.
Most bilateral exercises have a unilateral alternative. For enhanced stability, better function and great results, mix things up with single side movements.