One Limb Versus Two…Which is Best For You Beyond 50?

By Fred W. Schafer, MS, CFT

Motivational Monday Quote –
“It is better to light one candle than to sit and curse the darkness”… William Lonsdale Watkinson
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between doing a one armed overhead press versus a two armed press (both pictured below)?

Or the difference between doing a squat with both feet on the ground versus a lunge or one leg squat?

Or a two handed swing versus a one handed swing?
Example of one limb/unilateral

kb horn press II
Example of two limb/bilateral

In most good workout programs you will usually see some of both one limb (arm/leg) or what are also known as “unilateral” exercises and two limb (arm/leg) or what are known as “bilateral” exercises that are basically the same movement.

Why is this?

Is it just to have a little physical and mental variety so that you don’t get bored?

And yes, that is one of the reasons that I include both types of exercises in my own workouts and those I design for others.

But are there other reasons and is there a difference in the results you will get?

The answer is yes, there are differences you should know about if you are interested in getting the best results from your exercise and strength and conditioning movement sessions.

If you would like to look and feel your best and improve your leanness, health measures, energy, flexibility, joint health and function, mobility, balance, youthfulness, strength and endurance, there IS a difference between using unilateral versus bilateral movements.

And if I was forced to choose between them, I would choose unilateral (one limb/sided) movements over bilateral (two limbs/sided) movements more often than not.

However, since you and I are not forced to choose, we should, depending on what kind of shape we are in and how much time we have to train, use both methods.

In just a few minutes I will outline some of the ways both methods benefit you but first I would like to address a few basics.

For those of you who have followed my teachings at all, you already know that I am not a fan of the typical “exercise machines” found in most gyms.

The reason is that they are not truly functional to real life, do not give you the best results and require that you have to be in a gym to do them.

I don’t know about you, but I want to do what will give me the best results at the lowest cost, keep me powerfully active, fit and healthy and give me the freedom to workout virtually anywhere at any time.

And that is why I favor training primarily with my own bodyweight, kettlebells/dumbbells and/or suspension straps.

And, I would highly suggest the same for you tooJ

Furthermore, as you may know, I prefer to use compound movements (more than one joint involved) versus simple (one joint involved) movements as much as possible to get the best and most results in the least amount of time.

I will write more about that topic for you soon in another email.

But for now, let’s quickly get back to the topic of unilateral versus bilateral movements.

Remember, we want to include both types of movements in exercise training sessions (aka workouts). Because both benefit us and are certainly FAR better than not doing themJ

But the primary reason we want to be sure we are including some unilateral one limb movements is that they are more functional to real life movements.

One of the persons that I have learned the most from when it comes to functional strength training is Mike Boyle. Mike has been involved in training athletes at all levels for nearly 30 years.

And this includes many of the world’s best athletes and professional teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the US Women’s Olympic Soccer Team. What makes this even more interesting is that Mike never played a high school sport or has been a great athlete himself.

So…Mike has become somewhat of a strength training geek. He studies what works the best with a fine toothed comb (something I haven’t used in awhile).

And, while Mike always uses compound and bilateral movements with his athletes, he gives the nod to unilateral for moving his athletes to their best results.

Some examples of unilateral compound strength movements include; one arm deadlift, one arm cleans, one arm rows, one arm overhead press, one arm bench or floor press, one leg deadlift and lunges where one leg is doing most of the work.

Think about it. When an athlete is involved in a sport, how often do you see them stopping to squat and catch something with both hands versus lunching and reaching to catch or grab something with one hand?

Not often right? Usually one limb(s) is involved to a greater degree than the other in their movements. It is the same with us as we go through our daily lives.

How do you climb stairs or mountains? By hopping up themJ Not likely!

However, in addition to better mimicking the way that we actually move in life, another primary benefit is that unilateral movements tend to engage the core more. In fact, several trainers I know have their more “de-conditioned” clients avoid any direct “AB” work at first and focus instead on including plenty of unilateral movements with both the arms and legs.

By doing so, the core, (abdominals, lower back, spinal column, hips) get plenty of work.

So here is a quick summary list of why you want to be sure that you are including some unilateral/one limb (compound-two joint) movements in your weekly work-outs as soon as possible.

Benefits of One Limb/Unilateral Movements

  • More functional to real life.
  • Hits all of the stabilizer muscles more, especially the core.
  • Tends to challenge and thus improve balance to a greater degree.
  • You can use a lighter weight and still get good benefit.
  • Can improve endurance and thereby energy capacity more. For example doing one set of 8 lunges alternating left and right leg is actually 16 reps compared to one set of 8 goblet squats (still an awesome exercise!!). In other words, it will cause you to huff and puff a little moreJ
  • Hits the muscles and joints from different angles and usually involves at least minor rotation which increases bone density and function of the spine and thereby improves back health.

Having said that, we also want to be sure to do plenty of bilateral/two limb functional strength movements in our work-outs. Here are just a few reasons why…

Benefits of Two Limb/Bilateral Movements

  • Bilateral movements build overall strength capacity faster. Most people can lift more with two hands versus one hand. For example, I can do a two handed floor press with 70 pound kettlebells in both hands. However, I cannot do a one arm floor press with a 90 pound kettlebell. Thus, with two hands my body is required to move over 140 pounds. With one hand, less than 90 pounds.
  • Because of what was described above, your body will generally elicit a greater “hormonal and chemical response” from bilateral movements. Human growth hormone (keeps us youthful), testosterone (women need too), beta-endorphins and other beneficial compounds are called upon due to a greater overall demand.
  • Bilateral are easier to do for those who are de-conditioned and struggle with balance.
  • Bilateral movements build a strong and good foundation which allows you to eventually do more unilateral movements.
  • Bilateral movements take less time since you don’t have to repeat the movement on both sides. So, on those days when time is tight, bilateral gets it done faster!

So to wrap things up, as you approach your weekly full body functional strength training work-outs, be sure that they are built on a foundation of compound (multi-joint) movements and include both bilateral (both sides/two-limb) and unilateral (one side/one limb) movements.

And, if you have to choose, choose unilateral more oftenJ

Until next time, stay strong! Fred
Fred Schafer, MS, CFT (my blog) (professional speaking)

Related Research to the article above.

K. HÄKKINEN, M. KALLINEN, V. LINNAMO, U-M. PASTINEN, R. U. NEWTON and W. J. KRAEMER Neuromuscular adaptations during bilateral versus unilateral strength training in middle-aged and elderly men and women Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 158

Article first published online: 2 OCT 2003 | DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-201X.1996.523293000.x

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):687-708. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670.

American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. American College of Sports Medicine

Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms

Timothy J. Carroll, Robert D. Herbert, Joanne Munn, Michael Lee, Simon C. Gandevia
Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 November 2006 Vol. 101 no. 5, 1514-1522 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00531.2006