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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

Work One Arm and Watch the Other Get Stronger Without Doing a Thing

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

The contralateral (opposite side of the body) strength training effect is when you workout one side of the body and the opposite side, that’s just hanging out chillin’, reaps some benefits.  Meta-analysis shows that an individual may gain up to “half the increase of strength of the trained side” in their nonworking side.  This is pretty amazing, no? Well, I think it is.  Think about it, the next time you injure your shoulder or ankle you can still go to the gym and train the uninjured side and not lose too much ground. But don’t get your hopes up too high, while you may notice increases in strength lean muscle mass adaptation is insignificant.

There are many theories why one-sided training increases strength in the non-working side but the precise physiological mechanisms that underlie the effect are still unknown.  Smart scientists think the gains are likely due to neuromuscular adaptations and an increase in the neural drive to the untrained side. Which basically means the nervous system pathways to the muscle are improved.

In this study below from the University of South Wales, 10 participants did only right-handed wrist exercises for 4 weeks and 10 others stood in as the control group (which did not exercise either wrist).  The experimental group showed improvement in wrist strength in both the right hand and the untrained left hand whereas the control showed no significant change.  Many peer-reviewed papers have shown similar results of the contralateral strength training effect.

Unilateral (one-sided) training is often the ugly stepchild of many workout routines, especially for the bigger muscles.  When was the last time you did 1 arm dumbbell chest presses? Or a 1 leg weighted deadlift? (This is one of the best butt exercises).  I think many people don’t utilize single-sided exercises because it takes more time to complete.  One could argue that one side is mostly resting when the other is working,  so you can switch sides without a rest period and finish at the same time.  Besides, I always feel like I am wasting my time resting in between sets when I could be working.

Now here is where it gets really interesting, research has shown there is something called a “bilateral deficit” present in many people.  Meaning, the total amount of weight the right and left limbs can lift is less than the total sum for the individual limbs combined. Furthermore, integrated muscle tests (using EMGs) suggest the prime movers in bilateral work are less active!

Bilateral Deficit Example:

2 Arm Barbell Curl: 90lbs. (90lbs. total) 1 Arm Dumbbell Curl 50lbs. (100lbs. total)

Studies show some trained individuals are immune to the bilateral deficit and most Olympic weightlifters have a bilateral increase in strength (probably due to the specificity principle – all their lifts are bilateral).  There is, however, an argument to be made that unilateral training is better than bilateral work.  Before you go down that muddy road, you need to ask yourself what does “better” mean and will unilateral workouts meet your specific goals.  If you are like most people, you will benefit more from a hybrid training style integrating both modalities.  In certain situations, unilateral work may be needed to correct imbalances and strengthen weak links.

Doug Joachim – NYC



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