How to smash training barriers with single-arm exercises

Strength Sensei CP

The concept of structural balance in strength training is that every muscle is in balance with other muscles. I’ve discussed how this single-limb training can improve structural balance in the lower body, but it also helps break training plateaus in building bigger and stronger biceps and triceps.

To be clear, structural balance does not just refer to balance between the agonist/antagonist muscle pairs, which for arms would mean the biceps and triceps. It also relates to pairs of limbs, so the biceps/triceps of your right arm compared to your left biceps/triceps. This is where unilateral training comes in.

In addition to structural balance, neurophysiology research has found that unilateral training is superior to bilateral training for recruiting high threshold motor units. This advantage is especially important for those who want to use heavier poundages in arm exercises. I’ve also found that unilateral work enables you to focus better.

In designing arm workouts, you should perform unilateral work before bilateral work. Because single-limb exercises such as a dumbbell concentration curl are less likely to “lock” the elbow joint into a position, they tend to be easier on the joint and serve as a good warm-up for bilateral exercises such as a two-arm barbell curl. Note that I said “two-arm.”

Unilateral arm exercises tend to be easier on the elbow because they are less likely to lock the elbow joint into position.


The barbell can be used for many unilateral arm exercises. One of my favorites is the one-arm barbell Scott curl, which is a challenging exercise for the supinators of the elbows (note: supination is palm up, pronation is palm up).

Here is an example of an arm workout that focuses on unilateral exercises to develop arms as strong as they look:

A1. Seated DB French Press, 5 x 5-7, 21X0, rest 75 seconds

A2. Unilateral Seated 45-Degree DB Scott Curl, Neutral Grip, 5 x 5-7, 50X0, rest 100 seconds

B1. BB Floor Bench Press, 4 x 7-9, 2210, rest 75 seconds

B2. Seated DB Zottman Curl, 4 x 6-8, 40X0, rest 75 seconds

Of course, don’t get locked into this one workout. After about six training sessions, experiment with other unilateral exercises to establish new levels of arm strength and size.

— Photos by Miloš Šarčev
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