Often, we get into habits that are tough to break. In fact, we barely give them a second thought anymore. We’ll stop at that coffee shop every morning despite the mediocre service. We’ll take a certain route to work day after day, despite the monotonous (or traffic-jammed) scenery. We’ll even root for our hopeless home teams, even though they’ve proven their unwavering dedication to mediocrity long ago. (Sorry, Browns fans.)
Consider it human nature — an ingrained need for “auto pilot.” Perhaps it served our species well when dodging dinosaurs, but these days, getting locked into habitual patterns that guide our daily decisions means we miss opportunities for improvement.
Take the gym, for instance. Likely, you have a list of favorite exercises that you do the same way. Sure, you may occasionally change the reps, sets and weights you hoist. You might even throw an intensity technique in here and there, like finishing a set with negatives or partials. But a dumbbell bench press is always the same — two dumbbells pressed overhead. A dumbbell row is one hand planted, the other holding the weight, pulling it up to your flank.
See Also One-Arm Dumbbell Row
If that’s you, it’s time to break the cycle, and take a slightly different route to muscle growth. The following exercises are done traditionally involving two hands, but can be done with one, which turns them into a unique, unilateral challenge. Going one-handed not only alters the stimulus to the target muscle, but also dramatically changes the activation of the various ancillary muscle groups that chip in for balance and support. Research shows that you can generate up to 20 percent more force in a limb that is working without the benefit of another.
Think of it as a welcome change of scenery on your way to a better physique.
Traditional: One-Arm Dumbbell Row
New: One-Arm Barbell Row
Dumbbells are tailor-made for one hand. The handle is just long enough to accommodate your palm, and the weight on each end is easy to control. But what happens when you switch out a dumbbell for a barbell? Suddenly, your arm and back are working to keep both ends of the bar parallel to the floor as you rep. It’s not something you want to do permanently but barbell one-arm rows done once every two to three months in place of your standard dumbbell rows are just the tweak to keep your back training anything but routine.
How To: Place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench your other foot planted alongside. In your free hand, hold the direct center of a barbell in air, arm hanging straight down toward the floor. Now, pull the bar up toward your flank — your elbow should bend and extend above the plane of your back as you shift your shoulder blade inward for a complete contraction. Then lower the weight along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms. Maintain a pace that allows you to control the weight without too much play in the bar.
New: Single-Arm Pull-Up
Sure, it can be viewed as a bit of a show-off maneuver, akin to one-arm push-ups. That said, incorporating some attempts at a single-arm pull-up can build strength that will translate to every other pulling exercise you do. To start, set a goal of completing 10 reps per arm, and then do as many sets as it takes to get there. You can alternate attempts, which may end up looking like this: Left arm 3 reps, right arm 4 reps; left arm 3 reps, right arm 3 reps; left arm 2 reps, right arm 2 reps; and left arm 2 reps, right arm 1 rep. Over the next few times, try to cut down the number of sets you need to complete the 10.
How To: Grasp a fixed overhead bar with one hand, grasping your wrist with your free hand. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your lats and working biceps to raise your body upward, trying to clear the bar with your chin. Hold the top for a beat and then lower yourself down to the dead-hang, elbow extended position. Can’t do a single rep this way? Work your way up to it by pulling to the top position with both arms and lowering yourself slowly with one. Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with each arm to start, adding reps each week until you reach 10. From there, try full range of motion reps with each arm in the fashion described above.
Traditional: Dumbbell Press
New: Single-Arm Dumbbell Press
A press with two dumbbells provides equilibrium — even if you do alternating presses, holding one dumbbell in the resting hand acts as a natural counterbalance. Drop one of the ’bells, however, and you immediately challenge your core, upper body and even your legs to adjust for the side-to-side weight discrepancy. It can turn a familiar exercise that you’ve done for years into an all-new challenge.
How To: Adjust a bench for your preferred mode of attack — either a flat bench or an incline. Lie face up on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in one hand just outside your shoulder and place the other hand on your hip or hold the bench for support. Powerfully press the dumbbell upward toward the ceiling, stopping just before your elbow locks out, then slowly return the dumbbell to the start and repeat.
Traditional: Dumbbell Lateral Raise
New: One-Arm Barbell Lateral Raise
As with one-arm barbell rows, lateral raises with a bar calls upon a host of ancillary muscles to keep the bar from rocking one way or the other. You can try it with any type of raise, whether to the front, side or bent over for the rear delts.
How To: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your core tight, chest up and shoulders back. Hold a barbell — a preloaded one is best if you have them at your disposal — at your hip with a neutral grip. Without using momentum, raise the bar out to your side in a wide arc, keeping your elbow and hand moving together in the same plane. When your hand reaches shoulder level, hold for a one-count, then slowly lower the barbell down along the same path. If you can perform this with an Olympic barbell, chances are you don’t have much need for one-armed tweaks like this but the variation will still provide for a welcome change – and a righteous spectacle at your gym.
Traditional: Lying Dumbbell Extension
New: Lying One-Arm French Press
If you’ve ever traded out the barbell or EZ-curl bar for a set of dumbbells when doing lying extensions, you know how drastically that changes the feel of the exercise. Suddenly, a stronger triceps can’t compensate for a weaker one. Undoubtedly, you can handle less weight, but heck if your arms don’t feel twice as sore (and large) afterward. This variation kicks it up a notch, putting each arm individually under maximal stress while introducing the need for accessory muscle groups to brace your body during each rep.
How To: Lie face up on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in one hand with your non-working hand on your hip or holding the side of the bench for support. Extend the working arm up toward the ceiling, elbow straight, and then shift it back a 45-degree angle above your head — that will be your start and finish position. Squeeze your triceps as you slowly lower the dumbbell down toward the side of your head. When you reach a 90-degree angle in your elbow, pause for a brief one count, then forcefully extend your arm and press the weight back to the starting position.