Sports Injury Prevention: What are the benefits of single-limb exercise vs. bilateral exercise?

Single-limb exercises mean that the individual moves with one limb vs. two limbs—for example, a single-arm curl vs. a double-arm curl. There are many advantages to unilateral exercise training that I will highlight in this article.

Benefits of unilateral exercise:
1. Increase motor unit recruitment: There is more significant muscle firing during the unilateral exercise.

2. Improved postural and core stabilization: Doing a unilateral upper or lower extremity exercise increases the muscle activity of the core (glut medius, glut max, internal/external obliques, transversus abdominis, and scapular stabilizers). The core muscle must contract to counteract the weight and movement on the involved side (side of lift) by holding and moving the weight on one side of the body. For example, during a single-leg stand with a single arm curl, the non-involved hips and trunk must stabilize the body to stay upright and not fall over. Unilateral activity can be a functional alternative to optimize the stabilization of the lumbar spine, abdominals, and core. Unilateral exercise provides alternative movement patterns for isolated core activities such as planks, side planks, and crunches.

3. Addresses asymmetries in muscle strength: Often due to unilateral sports activity, developmental limb dominance, or injury, there is weakness, motor control, or endurance deficits of one limb. Unilateral training helps to normalize strength from side to side optimizing body symmetry in these deficits.

4. Optimizing strength of the limb movements: During a unilateral exercise, there is increased mental focus on the movement, which allows an increase in maximum voluntary contraction of the movement pattern.

5. Increase sports-specific training and transfer: Most sports activities are performed in a unilateral fashion. For example, in running, only one leg is on the ground at a time. Kicking, throwing, or hitting sports require unilateral activity. Critical phases of athletic performance generally occur on one leg (e.g., jumping, sprinting, change of direction (COD). Hence, unilateral resistance training offers greater movement specificity for sports than bilateral exercises.

Unilateral exercise can be a great alternative to typical bilateral exercise in improving function and enhancing sports performance.

Dr. John Mishock has created a home exercise program.

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