If you’re looking to up your workout game, it’s time to boost the balance and stability requirements. Not only will this improve your coordination, but it’s one of the most functional ways to elevate core endurance and proper recruitment of stabilizing muscles. Beyond this, adding a single-arm or single-leg component (also known as a unilateral exercise) will add a layer of novelty to popular movements such as the chest press or squat. This is your one-stop shop to elevating the fun factor of your workouts!
While stability or balance exercises can be difficult to execute, they’re incredibly easy to create. This is the true definition of a great progression option — one that is productive yet accessible to nearly all populations. Below are 3 examples of how you can flip your favorite exercise into a completely new experience within seconds. My hope is that you take the themes that are present here and apply them to any movement in your regime, as long as it’s safe and realistic for where you’re at.
Without further ado, let’s dive into your new progression strategy. Here’s to new and exciting workouts that will take your athleticism and functionality to the next level!
3 Unilateral Exercises To Add to Your Workouts
Before we begin, it’s important to recognize that adding a balance component comes with risks. If you struggle with vertigo and/or vestibular disorders, please refer to your health professional before trying the movements below. Additionally, if you’re new to the gym, please begin by training with bilateral exercises that offer more stability before taking the jump into unilateral work. The #1 priority here is safety, so know your limits and play within them.
1) Single-Leg Deadlift
Application: 10–15 reps / side (2 sets)
Cues: Before you begin, tighten your core and picture stacking the ribs over your pelvis. Next, plant one foot and hinge the hips until your back leg extends back behind you. All the while, keep the back + neck neutral and core engaged. Once you’ve reached the lowest point that you can control, extend the hips and fire up your glutes to return to the starting position. If you’re using weight, ensure it stays close to your legs throughout to protect the back.
We commonly overtrain the quadriceps while forgetting about the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, etc…). This is a fantastic exercise to restore some balance in your legs and it’s even proven to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings!
Modifications: To increase difficulty, you can add more weight, shift the weight throughout the movement (see photo above), or start on a step-up to increase the required range of motion. To regress, take away the weights and start by supporting yourself with a hand on the wall or utilizing TRX handles.
2) Split Squat
Application: 10–15 reps / side (2 sets)
Cues: Step back until your back toes are resting comfortably on the step or stair. Next, lower down while keeping the majority of your weight on the front (planted leg). Ensure your feet are far enough apart that you can fully lunge while keeping the front knees tracking over the toes. If your hip flexors are feeling too stretched, step in slightly. If there was only one lower-body strength exercise you could choose, I’d strongly recommend this one based on its unique balance, stability, and strength requirements. Any time we can be utilizing a single-leg with resistance training is a big win.
Progression: If you’re looking to increase the intensity, consider adding height to the step, moving to a bench, increasing reps, and/or adding dumbbells. To regress, lower the step or move close to a wall so your hand can rest against it for balance until you get more comfortable.
3) Single-Arm Plank
Application: 30s — 1min/side
Cues: Set yourself in a plank position with the feet slightly wider than shoulder-width. This will allow you to have a solid base when you lift one arm off of the floor. Next, hold for 30s-1min while keeping the hips and shoulders as level as possible. You may find it most natural to tuck the elevated arm behind your back. This movement is an anti-rotation exercise at its finest and is surprisingly whole-body in nature. If you’re looking for a quick burn, this exercise will deliver in every way!
Progressions/Modifications: If you want something more dynamic than an isometric hold, try doing plank shoulder taps instead. Due to the continuous reps, you’ll be especially challenged to keep stable throughout the trunk. Just remember to keep those hips low and level! Other modifications include pass-through planks and renegade rows.
Spoiler alert, we are not robots…nor should we train that way. If we get too caught up in stable, ordinary movements such as squats and presses, we’ll miss out on the vast benefits that come with unilateral work. By adding this dynamic approach, not only will your coordination improve, but you’ll be setting yourself up for injury prevention far down the road.
Let this be a reminder that balance training should never be thrown to the wayside. It’s far too critical to athletic performance and activities of daily life. Furthermore, it will provide an important facelift to the movements you’re getting bored with. It’s time to drop the standard lifts every once in a while and focus on balance — it will improve the safety, longevity, and quality of your life.