Getting Fit, One Arm at a Time

When you lift your purse or briefcase, do you have the exact same weight stabilizing you on the opposite side? When you open or close a door, pick up a book, a frying pan, a glass of water, a can of paint or for that matter, perform anything with one arm, you’ll always be “loaded” on one side and stabilizing on the other.

When we train in the gym, we normally perform exercises with both hands on a balanced bar or machine. When using dumbbells, both dumbbells will be the same weight. Although most textbooks will recommend performing multi-joint or compound lifts such as the squat, bench press, dead lift, military press, rows and curls. Maybe we could expand these “functional” lifts to include a different set of exercises.

Training with one limb at a time is referred to as unilateral or ipsilateral training. Normally, dumbbells are held in each hand. Some machines (Hammer Strength) allow you to push or pull with one arm at a time. There are many ways of accomplishing this. You can keep one arm stationary while the other moves or move both arms at the same time. Either way, you’ll still have the other hand “loaded” or “anchored” with the same amount of weight.

I would like provoke an alternative mind set and suggest you try performing these exercises with your clients or for yourself, using only one “loaded” arm at a time.

There are many reasons for this.

  • It forces your trunk stabilizers to wake up.

  • These “open-chain” exercises allow you to train in multiple planes of motion.

  • Neural input to the muscles is enhanced.

  • Greater force production is obtained.

  • Training of one limb will neurologically enhance the activity and voluntary strength in the other limb.(1)

  • Avoid overuse or an unwanted mechanical wear pattern. (2)

Try these exercises once a week. Remember, only hold the weight in one hand. You must train very lightly because of the lack of passive stabilization normally offered be the weight on the other side. Start with a weight 50% lighter than you normally use. Cables or dumbbells can be used.

  1. Incline dumbbell bench presses

  2. Incline dumbbell front deltoid raises

  3. Dumbbell presses

  4. Lateral raises

  5. Dumbbell bent over rows

  6. Dumbbell curls

  7. Tricep kickbacks

For an extra challenge perform exercises 1 – 4 on a Swiss ball.

Don’t limit yourself to the normal motions performed in the generic exercises. These new motions are not designed for hypertrophic gains. They are designed to prepare and improve daily “function.”

For example, when performing lateral raises, begin normally, then start moving your arm a few degrees at a time towards the front of you.

Try these techniques with incline dumbbell presses on a Swiss ball .

Take care not to violate any joint structure or function and remember to maintain spinal alignment at all times. I think you’ll enjoy the possibilities and variety this type of training can offer.

Good luck!

  1. BioMechanical Basis of Human Movement: Hamill, Joseph and Knutzen, Kathleen; William and Wilkens

  2. Resistance Trainer Specialist Manual: Purvis, Tom; 7th edition