Having a dominant hand, arm, or leg is entirely natural. But profound strength imbalances on your non-dominant side can ruin athletic performance and stifle your functional capacity.
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We talked to CPT and 2016 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year Nick Tumminello to find out how unilateral training can help you harness the power of your dominant side by training up your weaker one.
Your Dominant Side, Explained
“The human body, by nature, is imbalanced,” Tumminello says. “We have the heart on one side of our bodies and one lung that’s larger than the other.” Apart from such obvious anatomical differences, our brains develop as two hemispheres that aren’t necessarily equal. Brain lateralization is the term for each hemisphere’s functional specializations, writes M.K. Holder, PhD, of Indiana University.
Researchers initially surmised that your handedness was opposite of the hemisphere that controls language. Most people are right-handed, and most people’s language specialization exists in the left hemisphere. Despite the correlation, though, plenty of left-handed people still have left-hemisphere language specialization. Geneticists don’t quite understand which genes are indicative of right- or left-handedness (or bias toward a right or left leg, for that matter).
Once you have a dominant side, there’s seldom a practical reason to change it. “Take a right-handed boxer,” Tumminello says. “You don’t need to be able to fight both stances equally well to be a healthy boxer and have longevity in your career. Sometimes you switch your stance just to mess your opponent up, but you’re still a right-handed boxer.”
Why Training Your Non-Dominant Side is Important
Athletes with considerable strength differences might find themselves at greater risk of injury. A 2013 International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study found that female student-athletes with single-leg hop strength differences of ten percent or greater were four times more likely to get an ankle or foot injury.
There’s a day-to-day benefit of training your non-dominant side, too. “One of the things we all want to do is improve our functional capacity,” Tumminello says. “By functional capacity, I mean increasing our range of being able to do tasks. If you have a very low functional capacity, you’re very limited in tasks [that] you’re able to do successfully.”
Gymnasts, Tumminello says, have high functional capacities, because of a diverse training regime. “That’s a good reason to train both sides,” he says. “Sometimes you just want to play frisbee, other days you want to go for a hike, or play tennis.” Being able to move in all directions on multiple sides keeps yours from getting sore or injured when your body gets thrown a curveball.
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How to Balance Out Your Strength
An exercise like the bench press requires both sets of pectorals, shoulders, and triceps to work in concert. It will strengthen your dominant and non-dominant side simultaneously. It won’t, however, help the strength difference. “What I do to address that is a lot of single-side dominant training,” Tumminello says. “Basically, I do more overall sets on the weaker side.”
Tumminello starts his clients on weak-side unilateral exercises, such as Bulgarian split squats or single-arm push-ups. He’ll adjust the weight to the number of reps prescribed for the day (lower reps mean higher weight). He’ll have his client complete a set on the non-dominant side, then the dominant side. “We only do the same amount of reps [that] the weaker side was able to do on the stronger side,” he says.
The rep count doesn’t change, but an additional weak-side set makes the difference. “I might do three sets of Bulgarian split squats on the left if the left is the weaker leg, and two on the right, if it’s the stronger leg,” Tumminello says. That way, both legs get the training stimulus, but the non-dominant one works marginally harder.
Try this method with unilateral exercises, such as split squats, lunges, one-arm push-ups, dumbbell rows, and more to strengthen both sides and improve your functional capacity. Aaptiv’s trainers can guide you every step of the way.