10 Best Unilateral Back Exercises To Fix Body Imbalances

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Unilateral Back Exercises

Unilateral back exercises are performed single-sided to fix or prevent muscle imbalances.

To accomplish this, ALWAYS start each set with your weaker side first, then switch to the stronger side.

In this article, we’ll take a looksy at 10 unique unilateral lifts to accommodate or replace your bilateral training routine.

10 Best Unilateral Exercises for Your Back

Note: Be sure to do all the reps on one side at a time for these unilateral exercises, unless specified otherwise.

1. One Arm Dumbbell Row

Target Muscles: Lats, Traps, Rhomboids

Difficulty Level: Beginner

The one-arm dumbbell row is a great unilateral exercise for fixing muscle imbalance.

Many people use it to build strength and size throughout their entire back.

As long as you have a bench or something solid to set your free hand on, it is fairly basic and effective.

Performance Demo

  1. Set your bench to the flat position.
  2. Place your right hand and knee on the bench, keeping your arm straight.
  3. Plant your other leg flat on the floor and maintain a neutral spine.
  4. Grasp one dumbbell in your left hand.
  5. Retract your scapula as you pull the weight up to your hip.
  6. Reverse to the starting position and repeat.
  7. Switch to the right arm.

2. Suitcase Deadlift

Target Muscles: Erector Spinae, Lats, Hamstrings, Glutes, Quads

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

The suitcase deadlift is a rare free-weight lift that can be performed using either a dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance band.

You rarely see this move in the gym, however, you do see its bilateral barbell brother being performed quite a lot.

This variation adds additional instability, requiring your core muscles to work harder to prevent lateral flexion, which also demands more balance.

If you’re looking to enhance your total upper and lower body strength, be sure to try it out.

Performance Demo

  1. Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and the weight by your left side.
  2. Hinge your hips to tilt your upper body forward.
  3. Slightly bend your knees.
  4. Grab the weight in your corresponding hand using a neutral grip.
  5. Stick your opposite arm straight out to the side for better balance.
  6. Deadlift up by pushing your hips forward.
  7. Lower to the ground and repeat for the desired number of reps before alternating sides.

3. One Arm Machine Row

Target Muscles: Lats, Traps, Rhomboids, Spinal Erectors

Difficulty Level: Beginner

The one-arm machine row is super effective for isolating your back muscles.

It’s done from a seated position, and the machine usually has a chest support pad.

Making this an ideal choice for those of you who may have trouble holding your upper body in a static bent-over position.

Using this exercise will allow you to focus on working specific muscles without as much strain on your lumbar spine.

Plus, you’ll be able to use more weight in comparison to the dumbbell row.

You can adjust the angle of your elbow and the height of the seat to hit the upper or mid back.

Having your elbow flared outward will target the upper while keeping it tucked close to your body will target the middle.

Performance Demo

  1. Adjust the seat height so that the pad is secured against your chest.
  2. Sit down and assume an overhand grip on your right side.
  3. Fully straighten your arm and protract your scapula.
  4. From here, pull your right elbow back toward your side, retracting your scapula as you go.
  5. Stop once your upper arm is bent at 90 degrees in correlation with your forearm.
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat for reps.
  7. Switch to the opposite side.

4. D-Handle Lat Pulldown

Target Muscles: Lats, Biceps

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

Using a d-handle for your lat pulldowns will allow you to achieve a greater range of motion to stretch and contract.

It’ll also eliminate the potential mistake of pulling the bar down unevenly to reduce the risk of imbalance.

Plus, you’ll likely notice that maintaining a better grip is easier, with less forearm fatigue.

Try doing these at the beginning of your back workout to get your lats fired up and improve your mind-to-muscle connection before doing bilateral exercises.

Performance Demo

  1. Attach the d-handle to an overhead cable station.
  2. Grab the handle using your right hand with your palm facing you.
  3. Step back far enough so that there’s a 45-degree angle between your body and the cable pulley.
  4. Half kneel so one leg is back and the other leg is up.
  5. Drive your elbow to your hips.
  6. Squeeze your lat at the bottom before re-extending up and repeating.

5. One Arm Seated Cable Row

Target Muscles: Lats, Traps, Erector Spinae, Rhomboids

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

The one-arm seated cable row lets your legs act as a base of support while you row the weight horizontally.

This range of motion involves a comfortable retraction and protraction of the scapula for deeper stretches and squeezes in the lats.

I prefer using this variation over the bilateral since there’s less restriction when making angle adjustments mid-set.

Plus, I like being able to rotate the d-handle, which is impossible to do with a straight or v-bar.

When done properly, the spine should be in a neutral position while you hold a tall posture.

Performance Demo

  1. Attach a d-handle to the cable machine.
  2. Sit with your legs extended on the footplates.
  3. Assume a neutral grip on the handle.
  4. Begin with a slight forward lean and your shoulder blade protracted.
  5. Row the cable in a straight line to bring your hand past your thigh.
  6. Be sure to maintain a neutral spine and retract your shoulder blade as you pull.
  7. Reverse to the start and repeat before switching sides.

6. Meadows Row

Target Muscles: Traps, Rhomboids, Rear Delts, Lats, Erector Spinae

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Ironically, I just did this exercise for the second time ever, a week before writing this.

I noticed a heavy amount of lower trap involvement and didn’t need to use a whole of weight.

Be wary if you have sweaty hands as this makes it difficult to grip the barbell sleeve.

Don’t overload the bar at first either.

Start light and focus on getting your stance correct to ensure you feel it equally in your left and right muscles when alternating sides.

Performance Demo

  1. Anchor your barbell to a landmine attachment.
  2. Load weight onto the opposite side.
  3. Assume a staggered stance, facing the bar (Outer leg forward, inner leg back).
  4. Place your free hand on your knee for support.
  5. Grasp the bar sleeve using a pronated grip with your inner hand.
  6. Bend your torso to just above 90 degrees to the floor.
  7. In the starting position allow your arm to stretch toward the floor.
  8. Then, row the bar upward using your elbow.
  9. Lower to the start and repeat.

7. Alternating Lat Pulldown

Target Muscles: Lats, Rear Delts, Traps, Rhomboids

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

The alternating pulldown variation uses a normal straight bar, however, you don’t pull down both sides simultaneously.

Instead, one side stays extended, while bringing the other side down to your chest.

This puts the working lat through a shortened and lengthening contraction, while the non-moving side achieves a static contraction.

Performance Demo

  1. Begin seated in a lat machine with your legs secured and hands extended overhead with an overhand grip, wider than shoulder width.
  2. Stick your chest up and pull your right elbow toward your hip (your left arm may naturally bend as you do this, don’t fight it).
  3. Once your right-hand reaches shoulder height, return it to the start.
  4. Repeat with the opposite arm and continue alternating.

8. Alternating Chest Supported Row

Target Muscles: Lats, Traps, Rhomboids

Difficulty Level: Beginner/Intermediate

Here’s a customizable exercise that requires your chest to be rested on a bench for decreasing leg drive or cheating.

The added support will keep you balanced too, enabling you to completely focus on the unilateral rowing motion without rounding your back or falling forward.

You can change the emphasis from your lats to your upper back by making two small adjustments.

First, by flaring your elbows out.

Second, by aiming the dumbbell at your chest rather than the belly button.

Performance Demo

  1. Set a bench to a 45-degree incline.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand using a neutral grip.
  3. Lay face down on the bench with your legs extended back and toes on the ground.
  4. Row one arm to your hip.
  5. Lower back down, now row with the other arm.
  6. Continue alternating for desired reps.

9. One Arm Landmine Row

Target Muscles: Lats, Erector Spinae, Traps, Rhomboids

Difficulty Level: Intermediate/Advanced

This exercise uses the same equipment as the meadows row.

The only difference is that instead of standing perpendicular, you’ll stand parallel to the barbell.

This places more emphasis on the lats, rather than the traps.

Performance Demo

  1. Secure the bar to a landmine attachment.
  2. Load the other end with small weight plates for an increased range of motion.
  3. Stand with the barbell on your right side.
  4. Assume a staggered stance.
  5. Hinge your hips to bend forward
  6. Grab the knurling part with your palm facing inward.
  7. Place your left hand on the knee of your front foot.
  8. Drive your elbow up and back toward your hip, squeezing at the top.
  9. Lower to the start and repeat.
  10. Switch sides.

10. D-Handle Straight Arm Pulldown

Target Muscles: Lats, Chest, Triceps

Difficulty Level: Intermediate

The difference between the regular and straight-arm d-handle pulldown is shoulder positioning and stance.

This version takes the strain off your rotator cuff.

Instead, the chest, triceps, and core will be more involved to assist the motion.

Performance Demo

  1. Position a cable pulley to the highest setting.
  2. Stand facing sideways to it with a distance of 1.5x arm length.
  3. Grab the handle with your arm straight.
  4. Pull the resistance toward your upper thigh with an arc motion.
  5. Stop and squeeze once the d-handle is 1-2 inches away from your leg.
  6. Release to the start until your arm is parallel to the floor.
  7. Repeat for reps and change arms.

Who Should Perform Unilateral Back Exercises?

Anyone looking to improve physical performance, reduce back pain, and prevent postural misalignment should take advantage of unilateral back exercises.

What’s more, is that if an individual limb gets injured, such as your arm, you may be able to slightly increase its strength by working out the uninjured one alone.

This is known as the contralateral strength training effect and can be utilized as a way to minimize muscle atrophy in the weakened area.

Here’s who can reap these benefits:

  • Experienced Athletes
  • Fitness Enthusiasts
  • Beginners
  • People rehabbing from injury under the supervision of a medical professional

The Importance of Unilateral Training for Your Back

Relying too heavily on bilateral exercises may cause body mechanic issues over time.

That’s why it’s important to mix things up by doing unilateral exercises.

For example, your right lat is stronger than your left.

Barbell rows alone won’t fix the muscle imbalance.

Your right lat’s gonna lift the majority of the load every time.

Single arm rows, on the other hand, will fix it when used consistently, with proper form.

Unilateral Back and Biceps Workout

This workout’s worth checking out to give you an idea of creating a unilateral training regimen.

  1. D-Handle Lat Pulldown: 2 sets x 10-12 reps
  2. Suitcase Deadlifts: 5 x 6-12
  3. Meadows Row: 4 x 8-10
  4. D-Handle Straight Arm Pulldown: 3 x 10-15
  5. One Arm Machine Curl: 3 x 10-20 (each arm)

FAQ About Unilateral Back Exercises

How Do You Strengthen One Side of Your Back?

You can strengthen one side of your back with the one-arm dumbbell row:

– Place one knee and hand on a flat bench.

– Plant your other foot on the ground.

– Bend your torso forward.

– Grab the dumbbell in your free hand.

– Row the weight to your hip.

– Lower your arm and repeat.

What Are Examples of Unilateral Exercises?

Good examples of unilateral exercises include:

– Standing Leg Curls
– D-handle Pulldowns
– One Leg Calf Raises
– One Leg Presses
– Unilateral Pec Deck
– Reverse Lunge
– Unilateral Seated Leg Curls
– One Leg Extensions
– Dumbbell Biceps Curls

Are Unilateral Exercises Worth It?

Yes, unilateral exercises are worth it because a muscle hit unilaterally will improve mind-to-muscle connection, minimize muscle imbalances, and promote core strength.

What Are the Best Unilateral Trap Exercises

The best unilateral trap exercises are:

– One Arm Shrugs
– One Arm Shoulder Press
– One Arm Face Pull

Concluding Remarks on Unilateral Back Exercises

Training unilaterally is among the best approaches to use for working through single-sided injuries or imbalances.

Whether your goal is to improve back and core strength or substitute your bilateral movements, they can help.

Most of the unilateral back exercises I have discussed here can be executed using basic pieces of equipment that you’d find in most gyms.

Be sure to give them a go!




Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!