The One-Sided Workout

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Photograph by The Voorhes

If you spend a lot of time at the gym, it’s easy to get into a rut. You press, push, and pull, but you’re phoning it in. And if your brain isn’t fully engaged, your muscles probably aren’t, either. This mind-muscle connection — body awareness, in fitness parlance — is critical to performance. One way to improve it is with a method called asymmetrical bar training, or ABT.

With ABT, you work with an unevenly loaded bar — say, bench-pressing with 25 pounds on one end and none on the other. “It makes you more aware of your body,” says Todd Whelan, a personal trainer at Crunch gym in New York City. “Say you are doing a chest press. If you add weight to just one side of the barbell, you’ll feel that side of your chest lighting up. Then when you go back to the regular chest press, you’re more aware of that contraction.”

What’s more, because asymmetrical moves require both strength and balance, you fire up more muscles — especially those in the core. A study from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that exercisers who performed ABT moves engaged 25 percent more of the small, supportive muscles along their spines compared with those doing traditional moves. Trainers also use ABT to correct body imbalances — the difference in strength among your legs, glutes, lats, shoulders — that make you weaker, slower, and more prone to injury.

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ABT is a lot easier to do wrong than to do right. Use too much weight, or lift with improper form, and you greatly increase the chance of hurting yourself (and maybe the guy next to you if the weight slides off the end of the bar). A good rule of thumb is never to exceed 25 percent of your one-rep maximum — so if you can bench 200 pounds, put no more than 50 pounds on one side for an ABT set (and you may want to start with a lot less). Always work with a partner, in case you lose balance and break form midmove.

Bench Press
Load a barbell with a 25-pound plate on one side, feet flat on floor (1), upper back pressed into bench, and abs engaged (2). Lower bar to chest, keeping it level. Push back up for one rep. Do 10 reps, then switch the loaded side and repeat.

Squat Row
Load a bar with one 10-pound plate; stand holding bar at thighs. Pull bar up to chest, squeezing shoulder blades together and tightening abs (1); lower into a squat, chest up and back flat (2). As you stand, extend arms to return bar to start position for one rep. Do 10 reps; switch sides.

Wood Chop
Load one 10-pound plate on a barbell, the empty end pressed against a wall. Hold the loaded end above head, left hand over right, feet staggered with the left forward to stabilize you (1). Without twisting, lower bar across body to the left, engaging abs to stay upright (2), and return to start. Do 10 reps, then switch hand and foot positions and repeat on your opposite side.

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