The 6 Best Unilateral Back Exercises For Strength and Symmetry

The 6 Best Unilateral Back Exercises For Strength and Symmetry

clock-circular-outlinePosted 11 May 2023

An unfortunate reality is that most people who train will have thicker, stronger muscles on their dominant side. For most people, that’s their right-hand side.

There is a way to iron out this imbalance though, with unilateral training.

Unilateral exercises are exercises where both sides of the body are working independently, such as with dumbbells, kettlebells, or cables.

It means there’s no hiding place for the weaker side because both sides must work as hard as each other, improving strength and reducing muscular imbalances, which can help reduce the risk of injury.

With a barbell, for example, both sides of the body are holding the same bar. It means the dominant, stronger side can do more of the work making an existing imbalance even bigger. It’s also one of the reasons many lifters struggle to lift as heavy with dumbbells as they do with a barbell.

What Are Unilateral Back Exercises?

Unilateral back exercises are back exercises where both sides of the back must lift a load independently. They are usually performed with dumbbells, kettlebells, or cables. There are a few unilateral back exercises with a barbell, but they’re less common.

You should perform unilateral back exercises that cover all of the back in the different movement planes. Think horizontal, vertical, and rotational pulls. This way you will train several of the different movement functions your back is capable of, targeting each working muscle effectively through various unilateral back exercises.

Benefits of Unilateral Back Exercises

Unilateral back exercises have several advantages over bilateral back exercises (exercises that use both sides of the body to move a single load).

Here are just three of them…

  • They allow strength imbalances to be worked on, so your weaker side can catch up to the stronger side.

  • They reduce injury risk because you remove the obvious strength and capability discrepancy.

  • You’ll be a better lifter because you’ve removed a weak point in your physiology.

The Best Unilateral Back Exercises

  1. Gorilla Rows

  2. Single Arm Dumbbell Row

  3. Single Arm Cable Row

  4. Dumbbell Snatch Pull

  5. Single Arm Kettlebell Clean

  6. Single Arm Lat Pull Down

In this list of the best unilateral back exercises, I’ve included exercises using dumbbells, kettlebells, and cables. I’ve also included exercises that train the muscles in several different planes of movement for added benefit.

This has the advantage of training your whole back and providing your back muscles with several different unilateral challenges to deal with.

By challenging your back muscles with various unilateral back exercises, it will force a greater response, improving strength and providing more symmetry in the development of your back.

Amongst this list of unilateral back exercises, you’ll certainly find something to add to your back workouts, taking your back strength and development to a whole new level. As a bonus, you’ll see improvements in your physique too!

The best unilateral back exercises…

Gorilla Rows

I love gorilla rows. When doing this exercise, you combine unilateral back training with rotation through the thoracic spine. It’s not only a great back exercise, but also a functional movement that helps to work on rotation, which many people neglect in their training.

I prefer to do these with kettlebells, but dumbbells work just fine too.

Coaching points
  1. Place two kettlebells on the floor.

  2. Bend at the waist and hold them both, keeping your back flat throughout the movement.

  3. Pull one kettlebell right up to your chest, rotating your torso outwards as you do.

  4. Lower the kettlebell down to the floor, then repeat the movement on the other side.

Muscles targeted:
  • Lats

  • Biceps

  • Spinal erectors

  • Obliques

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

I like this exercise because it’s a way of elongating the back muscles by stretching the lats when you’re at the bottom of the movement. By performing this exercise slowly, you increase the time under tension which research shows improves muscle growth.

Again, you can use either kettlebells or dumbbells with this exercise.

Coaching points
  1. Place a heavy dumbbell on the floor and rest your non-lifting hand and the same knee on a bench. This keeps you balanced.

  2. Place your opposite foot on the floor and take hold of the dumbbell in your hand.

  3. Pull the dumbbell up to your torso, squeezing your shoulder blade in as you do.

  4. Lower the dumbbell down to the floor, then repeat.

  5. At the end of the set, switch sides.

Muscles targeted:
  • Lats

  • Biceps

  • Rear delts

Seated Single Arm Cable Row

If you don’t have access to dumbbells or kettlebells, you can perform another unilateral back exercise with the cables. Using a single-arm cable row, you can adjust the angle of the handle and make it a different exercise.

With this exercise keep the weight reasonable, work through a full range of motion, and always control the weight. This will make the exercise more effective.

Coaching points
  1. Set the cable at chest height, so your arm is horizontal at full extension.

  2. Use the single grip handle on the exercise.

  3. Start the exercise with your arm fully extended and the lat stretched. Keep the back straight, with a slight forward tilt.

  4. Drive your feet into the footpegs of the machine as you pull your arm back.

  5. As you bring the handle towards you, move your core into a more upright position.

  6. At the end of the set, switch sides.

Muscles targeted:
  • Lats

  • Biceps

  • Rear delts

Dumbbell Snatch Pull

This is a way to target the upper back with a vertical pull, rather than the horizontal pulls we’ve used so far. It’s also a unilateral lower back exercise in the sense that it involves a hip hinge at the start of the exercise.

Not only is this a great back exercise, but it also helps to activate the rear deltoids and the traps. Most back exercises are latissimus dorsi specific, so this is a nice change.

Coaching points

  • Take hold of the dumbbell with an overhand (palms facing towards you) grip.

  • Keep your back straight, drive with your legs, and pull directly upwards.

  • Pull the elbow up high and wide but squeeze the shoulder blade of the lifting arm in towards the middle.

  • Emphasize the elbow traveling upwards and keeping the dumbbell close to the body.

  • Lower the dumbbell under control and repeat.

Muscles targeted:

  • Lower back

  • Trapezius

  • Rear delts

  • Glutes

  • Legs

Single Arm Kettlebell Clean

This is another unilateral lower back exercise that also places some emphasis on the upper back. Just like the snatch pull, it’s a way to train the back without putting all the emphasis on the latissimus dorsi muscle. It also has excellent sports carry over too, developing coordination, speed, and power.

The kettlebell clean will also train the hamstrings and glues too, making it a really effective exercise.

Coaching points
  1. Hold the kettlebell with an overhand grip, keeping it between your legs at around knee height.

  2. Keep your back straight, and hinge at the hips by pushing them back.

  3. Drive your hips back forwards and use the momentum to help you lift the kettlebell to chest height.

  4. As you lift the kettlebell towards your chest, rotate your arm, so the kettlebell sits on the back of your forearm and the elbow crease.

  5. Complete the lift with your arm high and bent, and the kettlebell resting on the top of it.

  6. Return to the starting point and repeat.

Muscles targeted:
  • Lower back

  • Trapezius

  • Rear delts

  • Glutes

  • Hamstring

  • Biceps

Single Arm Lat Pulldown

This is an excellent unilateral back exercise and works especially well in this lineup because it’s a vertical pull from high to low. In my opinion, it’s one of the best unilateral back exercises, because it allows you to lift heavy and the cable and seat help you to maintain excellent control throughout the movement.

For the best results, use the single handle and perform the lift using a neutral grip.

Coaching points

  1. Sit on the machine with an upright posture.

  2. Take hold of the handle with a secure, neutral (palm facing inwards) grip.

  3. Slowly pull the handle down towards your torso. When you reach your chest, pause, and squeeze your shoulder blade in.

  4. Slowly and smoothly return the handle back to the start position.

Muscles targeted:

  • Lats

  • Biceps

  • Rear delts

How to Include Unilateral Back Exercises in Your Back Workouts

First, I’d make sure you’re including a range of movement patterns in your exercise list. What I mean by this is you don’t want to only use horizontal pulling movements for example.

By including exercises that involve different movement patterns you’re training more of the muscles in your back, for example, a pull-up, row, and clean movement help collectively to target each of the back muscles.

Depending on what your training looks like, I would use the exercises differently. For example, if you performed a split routine with a dedicated back day, I’d do all these exercises on that day, coupled with some heavy compound movements.

If you follow a full-body protocol, I’d split them up and use two of them each across three different workouts. Just make sure you perform them all to get the most benefit – don’t just use your favorites on repeat.

Stick to a set and reps’ range that suits your current training and goals.

Unilateral back exercises – the training takeaways

If you want to iron out your strength and muscle imbalances, the best way to do this is with unilateral back exercises. They’ll provide you with a new challenge and turn you into a better, more capable lifter with lower injury risk.

Add these exercises to your workout and your strength and physique will thank you!

. . .

Steve Hoyles received his degree in Sports Science from Swansea University. Since then he has spent his entire career working in the fitness industry - personal training and coaching thousands of clients. He now owns MyGym, a strength and conditioning gym in Stockport and works as a fitness copywriter.

Steve HoylesBy Steve Hoyles

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