This time of year, many of you are re-evaluating your fitness goals, or mapping out a plan for this phase of your winter conditioning to ensure a fruitful spring. To put it bluntly, you’re busting your butt now so it’ll look good come warmer weather, right? Well, I’m no different. Now, granted, I’m full speed ahead in my training for competition season, so my efforts are very focused on specific results. My approach is likely to be very similar to yours, or at least close to what yours should be, and it’s at this point that I can think of nothing else more timely than training for symmetry.
Typically, when we think of symmetry we think first of aesthetic balance. Does my right side match my left? Do I look as good “going” as I do “coming?” The reality is, regardless of whether your primary fitness goals center on increased mass, weight loss or strength gains, we should all want to achieve balance in our bodies. In my experience, one of the most overlooked allies in the pursuit of balance, or symmetry, is Iso-lateral training: the technique of employing just one side of the body, or just one of a pair muscles at a time.
The first thing we should consider is that, as humans, we are not perfectly symmetrical beings. Though it may only be slight, we naturally vary from one side of our bodies to the other in terms of muscle mass, strength and flexibility, in ways we may or may not even recognize. To illustrate that point, try to touch your finger tips together behind your back by reaching behind your head with your right arm and up along your middle back with your left. If you are right-handed, you can probably touch them together, or come close. Now switch the left and right, with the left reaching back behind the head. Did you even come close?
For most, this clearly demonstrates the differences in degree of flexibility between your right and left shoulder girdles. Similar differences generally hold true for strength between your dominant and non-dominant sides as well. One way to shrink that margin of variance between sides is through iso-lateral training. Since my area of expertise is sculpting, I tend to recruit iso-lateral movements for developing visual symmetry. Keep in mind, however, that balanced strength and flexibility should naturally develop by virtue of your training, as each is interdependent, one affecting the others. Also, this discussion isn’t focused so much on specific exercises as it is about getting you to think differently about the exercises that are currently in your arsenal.
Increased range of motion stimulates greater amounts of muscle
It’s safe to say that the biggest benefit of training iso-laterally is that single-sided exercises tend to allow for greater ranges of motion. Think about a dumbbell press, for instance. When working bilaterally (two-sided), the dumbbells meet each other at the top of the press, limiting your range of motion to that degree. The same is not true when performed iso-laterally. While the bottom of the motion isn’t affected in an iso-lateral execution, you’ll find that in the absence of the second dumbbell, you have greater clearance to extend completely over the center of the chest, allowing the single dumbbell to occupy the space that two dumbbells would have to share when working bilaterally. Not only can you get a deeper “squeeze” in the muscle by allowing it flex in a fully extended position, but also the broader the range over which a muscle is stimulated, the greater the number of fibers that must be recruited to execute the movement. What’s more, iso-lateral movements demand greater recruitment of stabilizers for balance. You can actually see how these statements in action through another simple demonstration.
Standing upright in front of a mirror, extend one of your arms directly in front of you, parallel to the floor. Flex your pectoral. You should be able to get a good squeeze. Now, try to flex even harder. You should find that your natural tendency is to want to move the arm in toward the center of your body, so that it is now angled slightly across your body rather than straight out. Translated into your workout with live weight, that little bit of extra flex added to your each of your reps can add up to a significant degree of increased stimulation.
Of course, you can’t perform every exercise iso-laterally, but be creative and explore what’s available beyond the dumbbell row we all know and love. How about single arm bent-over reverse flies for rear delts? Single-leg suspension squats or machine presses? Why not a one-armed pull up on a pull up assist machine?
Most likely, you’ll have to reduce your weight or increase your assistance, but the muscular dividends far outweigh the ego deflation!
CPT NCSF, IFBB Physique Pro