What's one surefire way to make an exercise more challenging? Make it unilateral. Transform a deadlift into a single-leg exercise and it becomes instantly more difficult — and beneficial for your body.
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Although they can be a challenge at first, unilateral exercises definitely don't get enough credit, especially where joint mobility is concerned. By working one side of the body at a time, single-arm and single-leg exercises can be a great way to tailor your workouts to fit your body's abilities, says K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS, author of Fitness Hacks For Over 50.
"Even though you have two shoulders, they likely don't have the exact same levels of mobility and ranges of motion. Same for your hip mobility," she says. "Working one side of the body at a time can help you better observe mobility differences between the two sides of your body, identify what exactly needs work and make sure that, when performing exercises, you're moving in a way that's appropriate for both joints."
To get started with unilateral exercises, add these five moves to your usual mobility training.
1. Single-Leg Reverse Lunge to Knee Drive
- Stand with feet at hip-width apart.
- Shift your weight into your right leg and step your left leg back a few feet.
- Lower the left knee toward the ground and bend the right knee to 90 degrees, keeping the chest up.
- Push off your right heel to return to standing and bring your left leg back tot he start position.
- Before placing he left foot onto the ground, drive the knee up toward your chest.
- Then, place the left foot back down.
- Complete all your reps before switching sides.
This exercise gets your leg moving through its full range of motion, Fetters says. If you want to give yourself a challenge, give a little vertical jump as you drive your knee up. This will add some cardio to the exercise.
2. Single-Arm Bird Dog
- Start on the ground on all fours with your spine in a neutral position. Your hands should stacked under your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips.
- Engage your core and keep your knees rooted. Keep your neck long, gaze on the ground directly below your face.
- On an exhale, raise your left arm up so that it's parallel to the ground.
- Pause for a moment, then bring the arm back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the right arm.
Usually with the bird-dog exercise, you simultaneously raise your opposite arm and leg. This arms-only variation targets shoulder mobility, Fetters says. As you raise your arms, focus on isolating the movement to the shoulders alone, keeping the rest of your body stable.
3. Single-Leg Hip Hinge
- Stand with your feet at hip-width apart. Place your weight in your right leg and bend your right knee slightly.
- Begin to extend your arms straight out in front of you as you hinge at the hips and raise the left leg off the ground straight behind you.
- Hinge forward, keeping a flat back, until your hands, head and left heel are parallel to the ground.
- Pause for a moment here.
- Then, reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
- Once you've completed all your reps, switch sides.
4. Body-Weight Turkish Get-Up
- Start lying on the floor with your right arm reaching up toward the ceiling, left arm along the ground at about a 45-degree angle from your body.
- Bend your right knee and place the right foot flat on the ground. Extend the left leg along the floor at about a 45-degree angle. This is the starting position.
- Then, leading with your right arm, reach up toward the ceiling and raise the torso up off the ground, coming onto your left forearm, pressing into the ground with your right heel.
- Next, straighten the left arm and come up onto your sit bones, keeping the right arm reaching toward the sky.
- Keeping your left palm rooted, press into the right heel and sweep your left leg under you, slightly behind your hips, kneeling onto your left knee.
- Place your weight into your lower body and shift your torso into a lunge position, taking the left arm off the ground and out to your side.
- Then, pressing into the right heel, lead with the extended right arm to come to standing, left arm straight out at your side. This is the end position.
- Reverse this motion step-by-step to return to the starting position.
- Then, repeat on the other side.
The Turkish get-up is a great full-body exercise, but it can be mentally challenging to remember. Take it slowly until you get comfortable with the movement pattern. Then, you can progress the move by adding a dumbbell or kettlebell.
5. One-Arm Overhead Squat
- Start standing tall, feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Raise your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, keeping your left arm at your side. Keep the arms here throughout the whole exercise.
- Sit the hips back and bend the knees. Keep the chest up and shoulders back as you squat toward the ground until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground — or deeper if you have the mobility.
- Then, press into your heels and straighten your legs to return to standing.
- Perform all your reps, then switch arms.