The great debate: Unilateral vs bilateral rehab exercises
When deciding between unilateral and bilateral rehab exercises, understanding their benefits is essential. Each exercise strengthens your brain and muscles differently, and understanding these factors can help you create the most effective rehab regimen for your recovery. We’ll start with the basics:
Unilateral vs Bilateral Training
A quick lesson on word parts: uni- means one, bi- means two, and lateral means side. So if you put it all together…
Unilateral exercises will utilize one side of the body. Some examples of unilateral exercises are one-arm curls, one-arm presses, one-arm push-ups… You get the idea.
Bilateral exercises will train both sides of your body. Examples of bilateral training exercises are squats, tricep dips, overhead presses, etc.
These examples are perhaps more applicable to the gym and fitness world, so let’s get into how these two types of training apply to rehabilitation.
Unilateral Rehab Exercises
Unilateral rehab exercises will focus on training one side of your body – usually your affected side. Perhaps the most well-known form of unilateral rehab exercise is Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy (CIMT). This type of therapy involves restricting use of your good arm while forcing the use of your impaired arm. This exercise solely focuses on using one side of your body, and unilateral training for rehab doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.
Bilateral Rehab Exercises
Bilateral rehab exercises will focus on using both side of your body, which will help target your affected side in a functional manner. An example of a bilateral exercise involves a device called the rocker machine, where patients use the device to rock their hands back and forth in a synchronous, bilateral fashion. The device is excellent for ‘priming,’ which we’ll get to in a bit.
Which Is Better?
This is the question you’ve been waiting for. Which type of training is better? Well, the answer is that they’re better together. It’s cheesy, but true.
Unilateral and bilateral exercises both activate different parts of your brain. When you use both types of training during your rehab exercise sessions, you’ll activate more areas of your brain and therefore maximize your neuroplastic benefits. The sole purpose of your rehab exercise is to retrain your brain and utilize neuroplasticity to regain movement. Performing uni- and bilateral exercises together will help you do just that.
Brain regions activated during bilateral training. Photo: Jill Whitall et al.
How to Incorporate It into Your Rehab Regimen
A few months ago we wrote an article on priming, which involves using synchronized bilateral training before your regular rehab exercises. According to the study we cited, performing bilateral movements before completing the rest of your rehab routine can help improve hand and arm function by enhancing the part of the brain that regulates movement.
So try performing bilateral movements before your rehab exercises to ‘prime’ your brain for maximum recovery. Then move on to performing the unilateral or bilateral rehab exercises that you’re already doing.
Do you practice unilateral or bilateral movements?
Have you tried using both during your rehabilitation?
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