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Back Workouts

Build a Bigger Back With Unilateral Exercises

Get out of your training rut by substituting unilateral exercises for all your favorite back movements to supersize your muscle gains and even help you build a stronger core

For beginners, their biggest enemy when it comes to the gym is just getting there, one reason the dropout rate among newbies is so staggeringly high. But for those of us who frequent the gym and don’t have issues conjuring up the motivation to train there’s a far more sinister enemy, and it haunts even seasoned gym veterans. In a word, it’s complacency. Falling into a comfort zone and doing the same workout, for the same sets and reps as you did last time, and the time before that. Just turn on the autopilot and cruise through your training. If you’ve stopped growing, your strength gains have stalled and your progress has come to a standstill, you might as well lay claim to being an unwanted member of this unnecessarily large group.

Unnecessary because you don’t have to be that floundering guy who trains hard and really isn’t getting anywhere. As a general rule, we here at MMI suggest that you make significant changes to your workout every 6–8 weeks, as the body quickly adapts to a given training stimulus. Whether you change up your exercises, sets and reps, training volume, advanced techniques or rest periods, there are literally hundreds of ways you can tinker with your training to confuse your body and, as they say, keep the muscles guessing. But for God’s sake just don’t keep doing the same things over and over again if you’re not making progress. (Anyone recall the definition of insanity?)

One rather unusual way to throw a wrench into your workout is to substitute one-arm moves for two-arm movements. (Here, we’ll use the words unilateral exercises and bilateral ones.) That may not seem to be much of a big deal, but it is, especially if you consistently do bilateral exercises on a given bodypart workout (say on back day, which is typically heavy on two-arm moves). Here’s why.

“When you use one limb on an exercise, you generate more muscle fiber activity in that muscle than when you perform the same exercise with both arms,” says Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS, MMI’s director of strength and conditioning. “In fact, for most trained bodybuilders, it’s normal to be about 15% stronger on one-arm dumbbell rows (adding together the left and right weight) compared to barbell rows. So, whether you’re on a machine or using dumbbells, try the one-arm version regularly to stimulate further growth.”

Peña points to research that confirms that training one limb at a time forces the recruitment of more muscle fibers and requires more force than when using both limbs together. That’s because a limb working alone requires more effort to move a weight from start to finish than when it’s working in concert with another limb.

Unilateral exercises also offer the benefit of increased core training because the core typically has to work extra hard to maintain form and balance while strengthening your ability to produce intra-abdominal pressure, the pressure necessary to protect your spine during your major lifts like the squat and deadlift.

As an example, Peña mentions the bent-over row. “When you use both arms simultaneously, the equal weight on both sides of your body balances your torso: As you lift the bar, it remains straight and balanced. But when you do the exercise with just one arm, as with dumbbell rows, the lack of counterbalancing weight causes your torso to twist toward one side, forcing you to resist that twisting by contracting your obliques. As you begin to lift the dumbbell with one arm, the momentum generated by the action — along with the pulling of your torso muscles toward your opposite side to resist the pull of the weight — causes your torso to rotate.”

Another consideration is that unilateral work helps you determine muscular imbalances from one side of the body to the other. “When one limb is stronger than the other, it can have a major impact on your overall aesthetic and symmetry. Nobody wants lopsided shoulders or any other lagging bodyparts to throw off the overall look. Unilateral training helps right those wrongs.”

And finally, unilateral training can help correct imbalances, which plays a role in injury prevention in your hips, knees and shoulders. “When one limb is stronger, it can put undue stress and strain on the opposite side of the body. So when you train unilaterally, you can improve the strength and stability of not only muscles but also working joints, tendons and ligaments. Over time, your entire body will become better balanced in terms of strength, symmetry, and the inner workings of the core musculature.”

So for a variety of reasons, namely to keep on building muscle, start looking at your common exercises and thinking of ways to do them differently to help stimulate those muscle fibers in a different manner. The one-sided approach can add a fresh dimension to a stale routine.

Going Unilateral

Integrating one-sided training into your routine

1) Unilateral training tends to lengthen your workout because you have to complete working sets for each side of the body, so go ahead and reduce your number of exercises to accommodate. You’ll still need to take a short rest between sets, but it may not have to be as long as your usual rest period, as the one side has been resting while the opposite side was working.

2) As with any bodypart, be sure to work different exercises and with multiple angles to target the muscles sufficiently.

3) Alternate the order in which you train each side of the body, so each side gets the benefit of being trained first and second.

One-Arm Lat Pulldown


What’s The Change? With this hand position, you can pull the handle so that your elbow stays out and away from your body or keep your elbow tight to your side. Why does that matter? With your elbow out wide, emphasis is placed on the upper lat, but with your elbow at your side, more of the movement is at the shoulder blade and middle back instead of the shoulder joint. Here, additional emphasis is placed on the traps, teres major and rhomboid muscles, all of which contribute to middle back development. The D-handle also allows you to slightly twist as you pull.

Do It Right: Sit squarely and snug at the station, grasping the handle with an outstretched arm. Keep your chest up and body upright throughout. Pull the bar by driving your elbow backward as far as possible, turning your torso only slightly toward the working side. Resist the pull of the weight stack on the return.

Power Pointer: Doing these one arm at a time you’ll actually get a longer range of motion over the two-armed version.

One-Arm Straight-Arm Pulldown


What’s The Change? Very little in terms of muscle recruitment, however each side has to carry the entire load; the stronger side isn’t able to compensate for the weaker one.

Do It Right: Attach a D-handle to the cable pulldown station and stand erect about 2 feet back, grasping the handle with your outstretched arm but without locking out your elbow. The handle should be about level with your head. Using your lats and keeping your arm fairly straight, press the bar handle into your outer thigh, holding the peak-contracted position momentarily before releasing.

Power Pointer: Do this single-joint move that hits the lower lats last in your workout with a fairly light weight.

One-Arm Reverse-Grip Pulldown


What’s the Change? While you normally use a shoulder-width grip on this bilateral move, here you’ll pull the handle from about your midline (top position) to just outside your ribcage. The longer range of motion makes the lower lats work harder. You can also slightly twist your hand as you pull.

Do It Right: Sit upright at the pulldown machine, grasping the D-handle with an outstretched arm and underhand grip. Without leaning back, pull the handle into your side, driving your elbow backward as far as possible, squeezing your shoulder blades together and turning your torso only slightly toward the working side. Resist the pull of the weight stack on the return.

Power Pointer: The reverse grip also recruits the biceps, meaning you’ll be stronger than on overhand pulldowns.

One-Arm Low Pulley Row


What’s the Change? Again you have a longer range of motion and the line of pull goes from your midline out to your side. Whether you keep your elbow wide (greater upper lats emphasis) or tight to your side (more lower lats emphasis) is up to you. You can also slightly twist your wrist as you pull for comfort.

Do It Right: Attach the D-handle to the lower pulley and stand back squarely facing the cable using a staggered stance for better balance. Bend your knees, keep your back flat and your chest up, and grasp the handle with the hand opposite your forward foot. Pull the handle strongly into your side, bringing your elbow back as far as possible while turning your torso only slightly toward the working side arm. Lower under control, fully stretching your arm.

Power Pointer: This motion is similar to starting a lawn mover and is the cable alternate for the one-arm dumbbell row.

One-Arm Seated Cable Row


What’s the Change? Here you also have a longer range of motion and can slightly twist your wrist. It’s a little harder to keep your elbow out wide, so with your elbow tight to your side you can better target the lower lats.

Do It Right: Sit erect at the cable row station, feet against the footrest with a slight bend in your knees, a big chest and flat back, with your arm outstretched grasping the handle with a comfortable grip (palm facing in). Keeping forward and backward lean to a minimum, pull the handle strongly into your side, driving your elbow back as far as possible and squeezing your shoulder blades together and turning your torso just slightly toward the working side. Lower under control to full-arm extension.

Power Pointer: Never round your back during lat exercises; keep it flat to protect your spine.

One-Arm Smith-Machine Row


What’s the Change? For one, you won’t stand facing the machine; you’ll stand sideways to it. And while wide-grip bilateral rows are great upper lats moves, in this one your elbow stays tight to your side so that the emphasis is on the lower lats.

Do It Right: Proper body positioning is a bit tricky. Stand sideways to a Smith machine toward the center of the bar. Bend forward with a flat back and place your outside hand on your knee for support. Grasp the Smith-machine bar in your inner hand with a neutral grip, arm extended, near the center of the bar. Push your rear leg slightly under the bar and keep your knees soft for balance. Pull the bar upward by driving your elbow toward the ceiling and squeezing your middle back. Keep your shoulders square and your back flat throughout. Pause a moment at the top before slowly lowering to the start and getting a good stretch at the bottom.

Power Pointer: The bar should travel straight up and down just outside your hip; you may need to lean out just a bit for clearance.

Check out how you can apply these unilateral training concepts to your triceps routine!