Contralateral vs. Ipsilateral Exercises
There are various ways to load a given exercise or execute a given movement – successful trainers know how to choose the loading or movement pattern for each activity that best reflects the client’s training goal(s). Common loading patterns include, but are certainly not limited to: bilateral, unilateral, contralateral, ipsilateral, asymmetrical and unfamiliar.
|Front Squat – Bilateral||Step-Up – Unilateral|
Most fitness professionals know the difference and reasons for choosing between bilateral and unilateral exercises – bilateral work allows for greater total loading for greater strength gain potential while unilateral work generally allows for greater ranges of motion and more selective muscle activation (among other differences). Unfamiliar loading involves the trainer simply applying a loading pattern the client is not used to for improvements in neuromuscular coordination and novelty (e.g., single-sided sand-bag squat vs barbell back squat).
When it comes to contralateral vs ipsilateral loading (both are unilateral) the reasons to choose one over the other focuses more on the desired level of stability and muscle recruitment specificity. Contralateral exercises allow for:
contralateral stability as each side of the body will counteract rotational and translator forces created by the movement; making it much easier to maintain proper form.
Ipsilateral exercises are quite the opposite, they allow for:
one side of the body must work intensely to negate rotational and other forces to minimize compensatory movements and maintain form.
Essentially, ipsilateral exercises greatly increase central stability requirements and help develop neuromuscular recruitment specificity as well as the ability to deal with offsetting forces during sports and other dynamic activities. The potential downside to ipsilateral movement is that it may reduce the potential for loading and/or range of motion.
One of the easiest ways to experience the difference in central requirements between a contralateral and ipsilateral movement is to perform the athlete’s plank using both movement patterns. When trying the ipsilateral movement after mastering the contralateral variation - one will quickly and personally recognize the greater difficulty maintain proper form and stability! If you are not familiar with this exercise, see our YouTube video here: https://youtu.be/f3K3mBWfpck
|DB OH Bulgarian Start||DB OH Bulgarian End|
Another exercise example is the Single-Arm Overhead Bulgarian Squat. When performing the movement with the weight in the same hand as the forward leg (ipsilateral), the focus will be on glute activation and minimization of compensatory movements. When the load is on the opposite side of the forward leg (contralateral), central stability and range of motion are challenged.
Summary: contralateral = greater stability and high range of motion potential; ipsilateral = asymmetrical forces increase stability demands and coordinated muscle activation to offset disruptive forces