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This Unilateral Workout Will Rebalance Your Body

Unilateral cable machine exercise
(Image credit: Getty Images / Kilito Chan)

If you have ever done unilateral exercises, where you work with one leg or arm at a time, you will probably have noticed that one side of your body is stronger than the other. We tend to have a dominant side of the body that does more work in general life – and that will translate to the gym, where you might be wobblier when standing on one leg than the other, or be able to curl heavier weights with one arm.

“It is common and completely natural to have slight discrepancies in size and strength between the two sides of the body,” says Sean Murphy, global personal training director at Ultimate Performance. “But there are instances, such as following an injury, where this discrepancy can widen and cause problems.”

To help remedy any imbalances in your body give this full-body workout from Murphy a go. It consists of two supersets and one tri-set, and puts the focus on working each side of your body individually. You’ll need dumbbells and access to cable machines and a preacher bench for the exercises, so it’s one for the gym.

The cable machine is a fantastic device for unilateral workouts, so continue using them in your training with our guide to cable machine exercises

Full-Body Muscle-Balancing Workout

1A Bulgarian split squat

Sets 3 Reps 8-10 each side Rest 30sec

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and one stride length away from a platform, facing away from it. If you are performing bodyweight split squats, place your hands on your hips and tuck your elbows in. If using dumbbells, let them hang by your sides with your palms facing. Place the top of one foot on the platform.

Lower your back knee and push your front knee forwards to close the gap between your hamstrings and calf. In the bottom position your front foot should be flat and your back knee bent at 90º just above the floor. Pause for a moment, then push through both feet to reverse the motion and return to the start position.

Start with your weaker leg forwards first and do all your reps on one side, then switch. Take 30 to 60 seconds extra rest when changing sides to let the tiredness in your back leg pass.

1B Single-arm cable row

Sets 3 Reps 8-10 each side Rest 90sec

Attach a D-handle to the adjustable column of a cable machine and position a bench in front of it, offset so that the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand on your working side are in a straight line with the cable throughout the movement. You will need to move the bench when you switch sides.

Bring the bench up to vertical and sit down on it, facing the back rest, with your upper thighs securely positioned around the base of the bench. Sit up as tall as possible and hold the top of the bench with your non-working arm for support. Take hold of the D-handle on your working side with your arm extended in front of you so it’s in line with the cable.

Keeping your torso still, press your shoulder blades down and then draw your elbow back and down in a straight line towards the hip, stopping before your shoulders rotate inwards and your upper back rounds. At the bottom of the rep, pause and focus on contracting your lats and mid-back. Reverse the movement under control. 

2A Cable chest flye

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Rest 30sec

Position a bench between two cable columns, around 1m in front. Sit on the bench facing the cable machine and set the cable to chest height. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, under your knees and flat on the floor. Hold the cable handles with a neutral grip (palms facing), and your arms outstretched in front of you.

Bring your arms out to the sides, keeping a slight bend in the elbow. Focus on moving your arms horizontally away from the midline of your body. Pause, then reverse the motion under control, and return to the set-up position, with arms fully extended.

2B Split-stance dumbbell Romanian deadlift

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 each side Rest 90sec

Stand holding two dumbbells in an overhand grip. Take a step backwards to bring your feet to a staggered position, with your heel elevated on the rear foot.

Drive your hips backwards and hinge forwards at your hip crease. The movement should come entirely from the hips and you should feel a stretch in the hamstring on your front leg. Pause for a moment, then drive your hips forward and squeeze the glutes to return to the start position. Once you have performed all the reps on one side, rest for 30 seconds before moving to the other side.

3A Alternating dumbbell preacher curl

Single-arm dumbbell preacher curl

(Image credit: Viacheslav Peretiatko / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 each side Rest 30sec

Set the bench to a 45-60° angle. Stand behind the bench in a staggered stance. Place your elbow over the bench and push your chest and armpit into it. 

Push your elbow into the bench to tense your biceps, then curl the dumbbell up towards your shoulder, keeping your upper arm still and wrist straight throughout the movement. Think about closing the elbow joint as much as possible rather than moving the dumbbell to the shoulder.

Pause for a moment at the top and focus on contracting the biceps. Reverse the movement under control to return to the start position. Once you have performed all the reps on one side, repeat on the other side.

3B Single-arm triceps cable push-down with rope

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 each side Rest 30sec

Attach one rope to a cable machine at the top of the stack. Align a bench so that it is slightly offset from the stack and set the angle to 70-90°. There should be a straight line from the top of the cable stack to your elbow.

Taking the rope in one hand in a neutral grip, lean your chest into the bench, with your feet on the floor. Extend your elbow down and back in a controlled arcing motion, while keeping your shoulders and wrist fixed. Your upper arm should stay still.

Pause in the extended position for one or two seconds, then reverse the motion under control and return to the start position. Once you have performed all the reps on one side, switch to the other side.

3C Cable lateral raise with cuffs

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 Rest 90sec

Position a bench in the middle of a dual adjustable cable stack, about 1-2m in front and sit on the bench facing the machine. Using either D-handles or wrist cuffs, adjust the height of the cable so that they sit just above your knee. Take the cable on your right-hand side to your left-hand side and vice versa so the cables cross over. Hold the handles/cables 3-5cm away from your sides with the cable parallel to the floor.

Reach your arms to the sides while keeping them parallel to the floor. Try to move your arms  to, or just above, shoulder height, but don’t shrug your shoulders to lift the dumbbells any higher. Pause at the top position and maintain tension, then reverse the motion under control.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.