Unilateral exercises: accessory programming part 5

by Exercise and Injury Prevention

Functional training programs are intended to make your body move well as a whole, not just as individual parts. Unfortunately many programs still lack movements that are helpful in sport and in life. 

Adding unilateral exercises into your training with accessory programs is a great way to improve your strength, neuromuscular coordination, and balance.

This post is part of a series that will help you identify important movement types that you may be missing out on and how to add them to your routine with accessory programs.

Accessory Programming Series

This post is part of our series on accessory programming for functional training programs like Crossfit. Click the links to view other posts in this series:

      1. Anti-Rotation Movements
      2. Rotation Movements
      3. Horizontal Pulling Movements
      4. Lateral Movements
      5. Unilateral Movements – You are here
      6. Building Accessory Programs

Unilateral exercises In accessory programming


Not to be confused with lateral movements, unilateral exercises are performed on one side of the body. Common examples in crossfit include:

      • Pistol squats
      • Dumbbell snatches
      • Step ups 
      • Lunges

These exercises pack a huge bang for the buck. With an offset load, the core musculature needs to work extra hard to keep the spine in a neutral position. 

My biggest beef is that I just don’t see single limb movements often enough. In a perfect world, you’d do unilateral work a couple of times per week. So if it isn’t already in your programming be sure to add it to your accessory program.

Suitcase carries

Suitcase carries are an excellent exercise for shoulder health and core activation. I use them in warm-ups and rehab protocols all the time.

In fact, carries may be the ultimate corrective and performance-enhancing exercise. I can’t think of anything more functional than holding something heavy and walking with it. We all pretty much do it on a daily basis!

This simple single limb movement sets the stage for the rest of your training. Try it and it and any variations you can think of in your warm-up. The rest of your workout will thank you.

Half kneeling press

I love this one. I use it for most of my shoulder rehab clients and athletes struggling with overhead stability.

By pressing with one arm and balancing on the opposite knee you engage more core and hip musculature. 

Opposite limb engagement is a very common pattern that we use all the time. Every step you take requires the opposing upper and lower limbs to work in unison. 

This unilateral exercise builds coordination and a ton of stabilization crossing the core.

Single-arm ring rows

Horizontal pull – Check

Anti-rotation – Check

Instant humility – Double-Check

This single limb exercise is amazing! As you can see it checks a lot of boxes and can help develop immense strength.

The best part is you don’t even really need rings to do it. You can have the same results with a TRX, a barbell anchored to a squat rack, or even just a sturdy nylon strap secured in a doorway.

The anti-rotation component also means it becomes an even more engaging whole body lift. Remember you can change the difficulty by walking away or towards the attachment point.

If I can, I like to add this to accessory programs a couple of times per week.

Shrimp squats – the ultimate lower body unilateral movement

Pistol squats aren’t the only benchmark single leg movement you should hope to master.

The shrimp squat is to bodyweight exercises what the back squat is to barbell movements – A workhorse! This requires excellent range of motion at the ankle, knee, hip, and spine as well as adept control in your whole body. 

Al Kavaldo, THE bodyweight strength training guru and owner of alkavadlo.com kills this demonstration. Doesn’t he make it look effortless?

Add this to your accessory programs to make sure you are balancing out all the barbell work inherent to Crossfit.

Adding Unilateral Exercises to your Programming

The good news is that Unilateral exercises are fairly easy to substitute for their bilateral counterparts.

Single arm dumbbell bench press can easy sub for barbell bench press.

Dumbbell or kettlebells for barbell shoulder press, push press, jerk, etc.

The examples are endless and straightforward.

The bad news is that unilateral exercises make it hard to move heavy weights. 

If you are in the middle of a strength cycle then you may find it hard to sacrifice the barbell.

But if you can’t work these exercises into your normal training then definitely try adding them into an accessory program.

Unilateral exercises will augment the effect of any program that you are currently working on.

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Ian Elwood Headshot for Mission MVMT about page

Ian Elwood, MA, LAT, ATC, CSCS

Ian has been practicing as an Athletic Trainer for over 14 years. More than half of which have been spent with military forces including US Marines and Air Force Pararescue. He loves sharing and is enthusiastic about helping anybody who wants to move better and train pain-free.

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