If you want to build core strength and prevent injury, you’ve got to start including unilateral exercises in your workout routine!
What are unilateral exercises?
They are moves that work each side independently so that your dominant side doesn’t take over. They can be rotational moves where you are twisting and turning or even anti-rotational moves where you try to prevent rotation and stay balanced.
Ever tried to balance on one leg? Feel wobbly and like you want to fall over? Well, balancing on one leg takes a lot of core stability! And it is a great unilateral core exercise!
If you want to build a strong and stable core that will help you prevent injury, lift more and even run faster, then you will want to try these 5 Unilateral Core Exercises.
1. Forearm Plank Bird Dog
This is a great unilateral move to really build core stability. As you do the move, your core will have to fight to stay still and not rotate.
To do the Forearm Plank Bird Dog, set up in a plank position from your forearms and toes with your elbows under your shoulders and your feet about hip-width apart. Placing your feet closer together will make the move more challenging because your core will have to work harder to stay balanced.
Keeping your body in a nice straight line, lift one arm and the opposite leg up off the ground. Reach them as if reaching toward opposite walls. Do not rotate open or let your butt go up in the air. Flex your glutes and engage your core so your low back doesn’t take over as you lift. You want your hips to stay square to the ground and it doesn’t matter how high you lift your leg.
Pause at the top of the lift then lower back down and lift the other arm and leg.
Move slowly and stay balanced. Try alternating sides; however, beginners may need to stay on one side. Do not rush this move or let your core wiggle.
2. Unilaterally-Loaded Single Leg Deadlift
The Single Leg Deadlift is a great balance move to work your glutes, hamstrings, core and back. And you make it even more challenging when you do it with a unilateral load...aka when you hold a weight on only one side!
To do the Unilaterally-Loaded Single Leg Deadlift, stand up nice and tall, balancing on your right leg with your knee slightly bent and your left toe lightly touching the ground. Hold a weight in the opposite hand from your standing leg (in this case, left hand).
Then lift your left leg back toward the wall behind you as you hinge over, keeping your back flat. As you hinge over, lower the weight down toward the ground but do not round over. Keep your hips square to the ground.
Make sure to sit your butt back as you hinge over and not simply lean forward. Your weight should shift slightly toward the heel of your standing leg although you do not want to complete rock backward or you will lose your balance. Your standing knee should also be soft but isn’t going to bend extra as you hinge over. This is not a squat.
Hinge over as far as you can with good form and then drive through that standing heel to come back up to standing. Feel your glutes work to bring you up nice and tall. Squeeze your glutes at the top and repeat, hinging back over on the same leg.
Only tap your other foot down at the top if you need to. Also, do not use the other foot to help you come back up to standing. Slow down the tempo of the movement to make it harder. If you can’t hinge over so that your chest is about parallel to the ground, you may want to use a lighter weight or no weight at all to start.
3. Turkish Hinge
The Turkish Hinge is a great unilateral move to build shoulder stability while working your obliques and glutes. Plus, when working your core you want to work it from as many different angles as you can, which makes the Turkish Hinge a great move to include!
To do the Turkish Hinge, start half kneeling. Hold the weight in the hand of the leg in front (if kneeling with your left leg back and right knee up, you will hold the weight in your right hand). Press the weight up overhead. Then hinge to the side and place your left hand out to the side and a little in back of your left knee.
Don’t place it down too far to the side, but also not right next to your knee. Give yourself some space as you push your right hip out to the side.
Make sure as you hinge over that your front foot stays flat on the ground and your right arm is pointing straight up toward the ceiling. Advanced exercisers will hold a weight in their right hand.
Then from this supported half-kneeling position, you are going to hinge up to half kneeling. You will lift your left hand up and move from the leaning position to half kneeling straight up. Feel your oblique and glute work to help pull you up. Do not let your right arm bend. Keep it straight up toward the ceiling the entire time.
As you hinge to the side, make sure your chest doesn’t collapse forward or round. You want to stay up nice and tall and really feel your right oblique and glute engage to pull you up. You will even feel your left glute working to keep you balanced.
Once you’ve stabilized at the top, lower back down and place your left hand back on the ground and repeat. When you put the hand back down, don’t set it too far way. You want it about where you left knee is.
4. Reverse Lunge to Knee Drive
Lunging is a great way to work each leg independently while building core strength. And when you add in the knee drive at the top, you make your core work even harder to stabilize and balance!
To do the Reverse Lunge to Knee Drive, start standing tall. Then lunge back with your right leg, dropping your back knee toward the ground as you bend your front knee to about 90 degrees. Keep your chest up and sit back in your front heel.
Then drive through your left foot (your front leg) to come back up. Do not touch your right foot down as you stand up, but instead drive your right knee forward and up. Stand tall on your left leg with your right knee up at about hip height.
Lunge back and repeat. Try not to touch your right foot down after you start. Beginners though may need to do a foot tap after the knee drive before the lunge. Add weight to make the move more challenging.
5. Side Plank Adductor Lift
The side plank is a great unilateral core exercise to work your shoulders, back, obliques and glutes. And when you add in the adductor lift, you’ll even work your inner thighs!
To do the Side Plank Adductor Lift, set up on your side with your elbow under your shoulder and your top foot on the bench. Flex your foot on top of the bench and lift up into a side plank from your forearm. You’ll really feel the adductor of the top leg working as you hold the side plank with the other leg touching the ground.
Then holding the side plank position, lift your bottom leg up to touch the bottom of the bench. Do not let your hips sag. Feel your top adductor working to hold you up as your bottom adductor works to lift your leg. Do not rotate toward the ground as you lift.
Slowly lift the leg and then lower it back down. Complete all reps on one side before switching. If this move is too tough, regress to doing the side plank off the ground.
For even more Unilateral Exercises to build core strength and stability, click here!
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.