The Best Unilateral Mass Builders
Taking a one-sided approach to training can supersize your gains and build a stronger core
By Lee Boyce
Thanks to the pioneers of bodybuilding training – and other notable figures like Arnold, Ferrigno, Cutler, Levrone and Coleman – there are certain “norms” that have become typical of the bodybuilding world. One such norm is that jacked people at the gym always quickly come to associate with one another while the pencil necks are relegated to the role of spotter, motivator, groupie.
Another norm I’ve noticed is that traditional barbell training – you know, squats, bench press, deadlifts, bent-over rows, the whole kit n’ caboodle – has become viewed as the pinnacle of training. As a result, other training methods like unilateral training are often viewed as insufficient, only half-effective, and, let’s face it, not man enough. I disagree and here’s why.
The Benefits of Unilateral Training
People get it all wrong when they hear me endorse unilateral training. I’m not a bandwagon jumper who thinks that by doing unilateral exercises you’ll magically add a plate to your squat, bench, or deads. However, I can say for certain that unilateral training does offer certain unique benefits.
Unilateral exercises are great for exposing weak links. Because I’m a “weak links kind of guy”, anything that exploits range of motion, activates otherwise dormant stabilizers and precludes cheating is a good thing in my books. A workout that emphasizes an extended ROM and activation of stabilizers like I mentioned above can be a humbling experience in terms of weight lifted. However, it can also result in packing on a ton of muscle that was just waiting to be stimulated.
Most unilateral exercises can also double as great exercises for working the core, namely abdominals and lower back. Therefore, incorporating them into your routines can improve the quality of your big lifts when you return to them.
The Top 5 Unilateral Exercises for Size
When it comes to strictly adding size, we have to be a bit more careful with our selections. Certain unilateral movements can become more cardio demanding than anything else, and don’t involve enough load or direct stimulation to promote muscle growth. Lucky for you, I have painstakingly trudged through countless unilateral movements to find my top five mass builders.
Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat
I just love this exercise. The ROM and amount of glute isolation one can achieve is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t take nearly as much weight as one would think to reach a 10-rep max on this exercise. You’re probably thinking that maneuvering into a one-legged squat can be awkward when carrying heavy dumbbells. One of the advantages to this exercise is that the quads respond well to high rep training, so even if you up the reps and use slightly lighter dumbbells, your legs will still get a hell of a burn and a hell of a growth response from these bad boys.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
To me, this is the king of upper back exercises. You can put your scapula through a little bit more ROM due to the fact that the arms aren’t corralled to a fixed place on a barbell. The freedom your elbow has means the exercise can take a greater toll on the lats, which act on the humerus’ position relative to the body. Much like with the rear leg elevated split squats, high reps on this exercise are great for the slow-twitch postural muscles of the upper back. Since they’re geared for endurance much more so than other muscles, high rep training can go a long way in helping them develop size.
Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski, a weight training icon, has always implemented the one-arm dumbbell row and his own variation (“Kroc Rows”) into his back training for thickness. He loves doing sets of 20 to 30 reps with the heaviest dumbbell he can get his hands on. Check out the video below!
Since we’re on the topic of back training, this is another awesome exercise for developing the lats. The position of the arm and torso relative to the cable is what makes this exercise so different from a regular pulldown. This movement is essentially the same as pulling the weight from directly over the head, and not with the hands out in the conventional “Y” position. Since the lats have to pull through a greater range of motion, they can really benefit from a movement like this. If you’re a guy who has a hard time feeling a good lat pump on back day, throw some of these into your routine and kiss that problem goodbye. Here’s a demonstration:
Single-Leg Barbell Deadlift
This is another “no-cheating” exercise. It’s good to still have some exposure to barbell training when going through a unilateral exercise phase. This is a great choice because it also incorporates one of the prime movement patterns in a deadlift. To do it, position the working leg right in the center of the bar. You can keep the other foot lightly on the ground behind, or leave the leg off the ground. Keeping the body’s mechanics the same as you would otherwise, deadlift the bar with a straight back, and get ready for your glutes and hamstrings to be rocked the next morning. It’s okay to use a slower tempo to keep your balance.
One-Arm Shoulder Press
Whether you perform this seated or standing, a one-arm shoulder press is no joke. The amount of stability the obliques need to provide in order to maintain the single overhead load is astonishing. The deltoids also need to work overtime to control the weight. For bodybuilding purposes, I’d recommend the seated variation. Help train the fast-twitch muscle fibers by throwing in a super slow negative with a strong, explosive positive rep. If you’re really looking for a challenge, finish your reps just shy of lockout in order to maintain constant tension on the deltoid. Remember not to finish each rep directly above the head. Keep the weight over the deltoid muscle the entire time.
That’s All, Folks!
Maybe this list seems a little too Men’s Health, but the point I’m trying to make is that changing things up can go a long way in your quest for size. Whether you want to admit it or not, each one of these exercises humbles even the strongest lifters out there, and the only reason you’re not doing them is because you know that! Scrap that mentality and do what’s best for your muscles and joints. Your body will thank you.
Lee Boyce is a sought after strength coach based in Toronto, ON. His work has been featured in many major magazines including Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, and TNATION. He’s a former university level sprinter and long jumper and works with clients for strength, size, conditioning and sport performance. To contact him, visit his website www.leeboycetraining.com, and follow him on Twitter @coachleeboyce and Facebook.