8 Unilateral Exercises to Challenge Your Balance
Last Updated: May 30, 2016
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Most people have a dominant side, so when you do a squat or leg press, the stronger leg naturally takes the lead, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. “The weaker leg will struggle harder to complete the same number of repetitions. So one-legged moves can go far to balance out the right and left sides of the lower body. They keep you honest.” To prevent injury, go easy in the beginning, start with one set and gradually work your way up to three sets, says Olson. “Start your one-legged exercises on the weaker leg, and then work your stronger leg.” Now get balanced with these eight exercises!
BENEFITS OF UNILATERAL EXERCISES
In addition to balancing out both sides of the body, single-leg (unilateral) exercises work the deep lateral stabilizers of the hip and core (i.e., gluteus medius and quadratus lumborum) in ways we can’t duplicate with bilateral moves, says Neal Pire, exercise physiologist at HNH Fitness. “There’s also more carryover to normal ground-based movements like walking, skipping and running than you have with bilateral exercise.” Try adding a few of the following exercises into your regular weight-training regimen for better balance and greater strength.
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Step-ups target the glutes and hamstrings as well as the quadriceps. HOW TO DO THEM: Stand with a 12- to 18-inch plyo box or bench at your right side and your right foot on the box. Step up onto the box with your left foot while straightening the hip and the knee of your right leg. Root through your right heel to lift the rest of your body and raise the left knee until both your left hip and knee reach a 90-degree angle. Step down with the left leg by bending the hip and knee of the right leg. Repeat with the right leg for 10 to 15 repetitions, and then turn to face the opposite direction and perform the entire routine with the left leg.
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BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
This one-legged squat resembles a lunge, except the non-working leg is propped up on a bench for balance. It works the quadriceps and glutes. HOW TO DO IT: Start by standing about two to three feet in front of a flat bench with your back to the bench. Reach one foot back so that your toes rest on the bench. Your other foot should be planted in front of you. Keep your head up, back straight and chest out while performing this exercise. As you inhale, slowly lower your back knee until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. At this point, your knee should be directly over your toes. Lift your knee back to the starting position as you exhale. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions. Switch legs and repeat the movement.
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SINGLE-LEG GLUTE BRIDGE
This exercise may be done either with your feet flat on the floor or up on a bench. It primarily works the glutes and hamstrings. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on the floor with your feet flat and knees bent. Raise one leg off the ground, pulling your knee to your chest. Push through your heel, raising your hips off the ground and extending them upward. Extend as far as possible and pause at the top, then return to the starting position. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions. Switch legs and repeat the movement.
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SINGLE-LEG ROMANIAN DEADLIFT
A unilateral version of a traditional stiff-legged deadlift, this move requires balance and core stability and works the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors (muscles that support and stabilize the spine). HOW TO DO IT: Stand on your right leg while holding a dumbbell at your side in your right hand. Keeping the right knee slightly bent, perform a stiff-legged deadlift by bending at the hip, extending your free leg behind you for balance or resting the top of your foot on a bench. Continue lowering the dumbbell until your upper body is parallel to the ground, and then return to the upright position. Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions. Switch legs and hands and repeat the movement.
SINGLE-LEG HIP POPS
This challenging exercise primarily targets the hamstrings of the supporting leg. “It is a great hamstring exercise both bilaterally and unilaterally, with the additional benefit in the single-legged movement of hip rotators and stabilizers,” says exercise physiologist Neal Pire. HOW TO DO THEM: Start seated on the ground with your legs extended in front of you and your feet flexed. Place your hands on the ground next to your hips with your fingers pointed toward your feet. Raise and hold your left leg just a few inches off the ground. Then push your right heel into the ground, and with the arms extended and supporting your weight on your hands, lift your hips as high as possible in a straight-body position (ankle to knee to hip to shoulder). Lower your hips back to the starting seated position, then quickly and explosively pop them back up. Strive for 10 to 12 reps each side.
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ONE-ARMED LATERAL RAISE
The lateral raise works the deltoid (shoulders) and trapezius (upper-back) muscles. The single-arm version also requires core stability for balance. “Be sure the naturally weaker side does all the work on its own,” says exercise science professor Michele Olson. “Over time, you’ll soon see and feel a better strength balance between the two sides of your body.” HOW TO DO IT: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell with a neutral grip (palm facing toward the body). Move the dumbbell to the front of your thigh, keeping your elbow slightly bent, a position you want to hold throughout the exercise. Raise the dumbbell up and out to the side, elbow and upper arms rising together ahead of the forearm, hand and dumbbell. Do not jerk or swing the dumbbell upward. Bring the dumbbell up so that it’s nearly level with shoulders. Return slowly to the starting position and repeat for 10 to 15 reps before switching sides.
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OVERHEAD UNILATERAL PRESS
This shoulder move mainly recruits the deltoids and trapezius as well as some triceps. As with any single-arm movement, it requires more core stability than the two-armed version to hold yourself upright. HOW TO DO IT: Sit on a bench or stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight. Hold a dumbbell at shoulder level with your arm at a right angle, palm facing forward, thumb pointing toward your ear. Bring the dumbbell up over your head by extending your elbow and straightening your arm. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat 10 to 15 times. Switch arms and repeat.
ONE-ARMED DUMBBELL ROW
This one-sided back exercise targets the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids and forearm flexors, including the biceps muscles. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement to stabilize and support your back. HOW TO DO IT: Grab a dumbbell with your palm facing the side of your body. Place the other hand and knee on a bench; keep your back flat throughout the move. Start the movement by lifting the elbow as high as possible next to the body with the elbow bent. Maximize contraction by rotating your torso slightly at the end of the row. Perform 10 to 15 rows, then switch arms.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you ever incorporated one-armed or one-legged exercises into your workout routine? Which ones are your favorite? Which ones of these moves were new to you? Which unilateral moves will you try? Let us know in the comment section below!
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