What is Bilateral Training, and Why Should You Add It to Your Strength Training Routine?

Here's what to know about the advantages of training both sides of your body at once — plus, the best bilateral exercises to add to your workout.

Woman Doing Back Squat
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You might not consider your usual everyday activities to be a form of exercise, but every time you bend over and reach down to tie your shoelaces, push a shopping cart down the grocery store aisle, or get up off the couch, you're doing bilateral movements.

Bilateral training is a form of exercise that works both limbs or sides of the body at once in order to generate more power and strength with the movement. And chances are, bilateral exercises are already a part of your regular workout routine.

"Many popular exercises are bilateral exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and push-ups," explains Matt Scarfo, certified personal trainer and resident training and nutrition expert at Lift Vault. When both limbs or sides of the body are activated, you're able to find stability and grounding in order to sink into the movement and generate power. "For example, it's easy to squat or do a burpee bilaterally, whereas a unilateral burpee requires building balance and staggering your stance so that one leg or arm is worked independently," he adds.

Ready to learn about bilateral training and how it can help you build strength, use more force with bilateral movements, and lower risk of injury and strain? Here's your comprehensive guide to bilateral training.

What is Bilateral Training?

Bilateral training and exercise involves using both limbs or sides of the body simultaneously to contract and strengthen muscles. "This creates force and subsequently moves a given load," explains Leada Malek, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., S.C.S., board-certified sports physical therapist and personal trainer. And while bilateral exercises can target any area of the body, many are lower-body focused to work the larger muscle groups.

"For example, bilateral arm training would include using both arms to complete the movement versus one," says Malek. Similarly, squats, snatches, and deadlifts also work both limbs at once. This is what differentiates bilateral vs. unilateral training, in which you use just one limb or side of the body to complete the movement and work each limb or side independently of the other. Think: an overhead shoulder press with your right arm only would be a unilateral movement, while a barbell chest press would be a bilateral training exercise.

Bilateral training requires less stabilization than unilateral training, since unilateral exercises focus on isolated, individualized work on each side of the body. Because they require less balance and asymmetrical muscle control than unilateral movements, bilateral exercises are particularly beneficial for beginners who need more support, stability, and simplicity. However, bilateral training can benefit advanced athletes with the added challenge of more resistance or training volume.

The Benefits of Bilateral Training

"Bilateral training can help improve strength, hypertrophy, and power, and it can also help keep both [upper and lower] limbs strong, which is especially useful for completing daily tasks that require use of both sides of the body," explains Malek. Think: carrying grocery bags, picking something up off the floor, or reaching overhead to stash your slow cooker on a high shelf.

What's more, bilateral movements can be advantageous for beginners who are just starting to get comfortable with weight training, since you can acclimate to using both sides of your body to generate force. Here are three major benefits of using bilateral training in your workouts.

Improve Strength and Power

Building strength in major muscle groups is an effective way to stay agile and mobile while setting a solid foundation for performing other kinds of movements. "[Bilateral training] can also be helpful from a neurological perspective, especially when learning a new exercise, since the body to perform the movement with both sides of the bod," says Malek.

Plus, using both sides of your body means you can handle heavier loads. The end result? You'll gain strength and power quickly. "Bilateral training offers a means of improving power since you have two limbs working in unison to move the load," explains Malek. "Bilateral training really lets you focus on being as strong as possible, since you can lift more with a bilateral deadlift than a single-leg deadlift, and squat heavier with two feet on the ground instead of one," adds Scarfo.

Research backs this up: A study published in the Journal of Physics: Conference Series found there to be a greater percentage of change and an increase in bilateral strength among participants in the bilateral group compared to both a unilateral training group and a control group. What's more, bilateral exercises that train the back (such as the barbell back squat) have been shown to build strength and power and even enhance running velocity and jump height, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Lower Risk of Injury and Speed Recovery

Staying planted with two points of contact on the ground will keep you safer, so you can work out more regularly and prevent accidents, strains, and injuries. "Bilateral exercises often require less balance than unilateral exercises, which means you can really focus on getting your form right, instead of compromising it or falling over when holding your weight," explains Scarfo. "This benefit is huge for those who practice jumping or explosive exercises such as plyometrics, which have a more significant risk of injury," he adds.

Bilateral training not only prevents injuries but also supports a faster recovery. "Bilateral training is especially key after getting an injury, where you need to re-train the body and re-learn a movement to get back into the swing of things with the same level of strength you're accustomed to," explains Malek. Because bilateral movements provide stability and balance, they offer a way to ease back into training with basic, simple movements after recovering from an injury. That way, you don't overwhelm or strain your muscles with too great a challenge before your body is ready to perform safely and with good form.

Bilateral exercises may also speed injury recovery by improving joint capabilities, like mobility and strength. In one study, bilateral training with resistance and plyometric exercise improved recovery by increasing gait speed, bilateral propulsion, and hip excursion, as well as joint power in the lower body muscles, according to an article in Spinal Cord.

Assist In Daily Movement

Bilateral training can make mundane tasks and daily movement less burdensome by improving mobility, flexibility, and strength. "It can also be helpful in keeping both limbs strong (upper or lower extremity), which is especially useful as we complete day-to-day tasks with both sides of our body," explains Malek.

Basic daily mobility functions include pushing a stroller, getting out of bed or standing up after sitting in a chair or car, or pressing your suitcase into an overhead compartment on an airplane — all of which require bilateral training exercises.

"To train your upper body to lift and carry heavier weight [in real life], try an overhead press with a barbell, which helps build your shoulders," says Scarfo. "Push-ups are great for building your chest, biceps and triceps, but they also provide an added full-body boost that comes from stabilizing your core," he adds. Translation: You won't have to stop every block to rest while carrying your heavy Trader Joe's grocery bags back home.

The Best Bilateral Training Exercises

Squats, deadlifts, push-ups and calf raises are staple exercises that target major muscle groups within the lower body (aka your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles). "They are great to include if you are trying to target leg strength or maintain healthy hips and knees," says Malek. Craving a challenge? You can change certain variables in order to make bilateral exercises tougher, such as by altering tempo, exercise volume, and number of sets and reps performed, as well as varying your intensity level, she adds.

Ideally, you'd incorporate bilateral training exercises a few times a week as a stepping stone for building muscle and maintaining strength, according to Malek. "I would argue everyone can benefit from at least some form of all three of the bilateral exercises [listed below], and you can program them as you see appropriate," adds Scarfo.


Squats can be done without weight or with added weights and certain equipment, such as a kettlebell and a barbell for a goblet squat or back squat, respectively. "Adding weights helps increase the challenge and targets areas of the body more efficiently and directly," explains Malek. For example, a back squat requires more stabilization from the core muscles to control the weight.

"This motion is a very functional exercise we need every time we get up and down from a seated position in a chair in order to stand up," she continues. Squatting also builds strength in the lower body and works those larger muscle groups to assist in functional movements and preventing injury.


"Deadlifts can be done with dumbbells, barbells, or even resistance bands and require both hips to hinge to support glute and hamstring function in order to bring the body back to an upright position," explains Malek.

Maintaining a healthy and strong deadlift can help you increase mobility and strength in your posterior chain. "[Deadlifts will] also help build a more resilient body, particularly around the spine and hips," she notes.

Calf Raises

Double-leg calf raises are an excellent exercise to build strength in the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. "It's important for this muscle group (ankle plantar flexors) to be strong, as we need them to help propel us forward as we walk or run," explains Malek. You can add weight and equipment to increase resistance for an added challenge. Grab a barbell, cable machine, a set of dumbbells or a kettlebell, for example.

Other strength-building bilateral training moves to add to your workout include:

The Best Bilateral Training Workouts

Ready to add bilateral training workouts to your strength training routine? Pro tip: When you're looking for a bilateral strength training routine, avoid workouts with terms like "split," "side," and "one-legged/single leg," in their title, as they represent unilateral training exercises. Try these workouts to build strength and stability with bilateral movements:

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