In recent years, a primary focus of fitness blogs and forums has been the importance of strength and stability as it relates to staying active and protecting your joints. New research, however, combined with some old ideas has highlighted another important factor in remaining injury and pain free – body symmetry. Studies completed by Gray Cook that helped him create the testing and scoring of the Functional Movement Screen, show us that symmetry, or more specifically, the lack of symmetry, is the most significant predictor of remaining injury free. In other words, the more symmetrical you are, the less likely you are to incur injury, regardless of how strong you are.
You can think about it in terms of the tires on your car; if most of the torque provided by your engine was being routed to one side of the car instead of both sides evenly, there would obviously be some serious mechanical issues that would develop over time. Similar effects can be felt in our joints when one side of our body is stronger, more flexible or significantly more coordinated, than the other. The bad news is that most of us have at least a 25 percent discrepancy in strength from one side of our body compared to the other, which over time can lead to a premature and uneven wearing of our joint surfaces.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem, and it comes in the form of unilateral exercises. It sounds simple, but most exercises we do in the gym are done bilaterally, or with both arms/legs working at the same time. Unilateral exercises force you to focus on one arm or leg at a time thereby eliminating the ability for the stronger side to compensate for the weaker side. In addition to giving us the opportunity to create symmetry, unilateral exercises have three other great benefits:
- Increased balance: When only one side of your body is loaded with weight or forced to work through a movement, the rest of your body – and especially the smaller stabilizing muscles – have to kick on in order to keep you from falling over.
- Increased core strength: In addition to the smaller stabilizing muscles in your shoulder or ankle, for example, unilateral exercises force your ‘core’ muscles to fire in ways that they don’t when doing a traditional bilateral exercise. The result of this is improved core strength.
- Increased functional strength: One of the main reasons we are all working out to begin with is so that the things that we all have to do to get through the day are easier and less likely to cause injury. Unilateral exercises are better at developing functional strength – the strength that we actually need and use throughout the day – than bilateral exercises. Think carrying a child, a bag of groceries or kneeling down to get something from the back of a cabinet – none of the activities involve both sides of our bodies working evenly or even at the same time.
So for these reasons and more, include some unilateral exercises into your regular workout routine.