Training Ambidexterity – For Athleticism, Creativity, and Symmetry

By on March 26, 2021

If you want to become the best, most functional, most performant version of yourself; train your ambidexterity.

Ambidexterity, or cross dominance, is the ability to move both limbs with equal control, strength, and precision. This is a spectrum, with people being more or less ambidextrous in any number of activities. It is also something that can be trained.

However, very few people actively train for ambidexterity. This, I feel, is a big mistake. Let me make a case for it.

A Brief History of Training Ambidexterity

I am far from the first guy to recommend training ambidexterity.

Training ambidexterity

In the early twentieth century, this was the mission statement of the Ambidextral Culture Society, established by John Jackson. His goal was to promote “two-braindness” and wrote that:

“Each hand shall be absolutely independent of the other in the production of any kind of work whatever…if required, one hand shall be writing an original letter, and the other shall be playing the piano, with no diminution of the power of concentration.”

John Jackson

Lofty aims, indeed!

Note that mixed-handedness and ambidexterity are different: the former describes a person who prefers different hands depending on the task.

Why Become Ambidextrous

Becoming ambidextrous has a vast number of immediate, tangible benefits. A fighter, for example, can benefit from being able to throw equally powerful blows from either arm or leg. An artist benefits from being able to reach different angles without smudging paint where they’ve already been. A bodybuilder can develop greater muscular symmetry. A footballer can kick from either leg. A traceur can jump from either. A dancer can move with greater full-body control.

The “lefty advantage” may explain the disproportionate number of high performing left-handed players in sports.

In fact, the “lefty advantage” may explain the disproportionate number of high performing left-handed players in sports. It has even been suggested that the reason we still have lefties is that they enjoy a competitive advantage in combat: this is the “fighting hypothesis” (reference). It is  also backed up by the fact that animal species that rely on cooperation tend to trend more to a single side.

Being ambidextrous gives you a spare arm should you injure your dominant one. It also makes multitasking easier in many scenarios. Ambidexterity reduces the number of accidents that occur due to uncoordinated movement.

Southpaw

Even your physical attractiveness may be linked to your handedness! It has been suggested that the side we consider to be our “good side” is normally our dominant side. That’s because we have greater control over the facial muscles on that side!

But this is just scratching the surface of how and why ambidexterity is so valuable.

Proprioception

The other thing to remember is that muscles are not just used for force production. Muscles are also sensory organs that provide information about our bodies and the world around us. Proprioception is our sense of our body in space and this is formed from muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs – sensing units in the muscles that convey information about muscle length and contraction. That, in turn, lets us know the position of each joint and the amount of resistance each is under. We combine this with other sensory information in order to paint a picture of ourselves.

Childish movements Shaolin

Ambidexterity, as far as it would mean increasing dexterity on the non-dominant side, should also improve our ability to feel movement in those areas. This gives you a more detailed picture of your body in space. This could, theoretically, improve balance and graceful movement across the board.

Symmetry

Any bodybuilder knows the importance of muscle symmetry. This has immediate aesthetic benefits but the effects on performance and health are perhaps even MORE important.

Muscle symmetry

Imagine that you are running a 10k and one leg is slightly stronger and more coordinated than the other. The result could be that when you push off the weaker leg, you actually travel a few centimetres less than the other side. That might sound like not a lot, but now consider how that adds up over the course of all those steps. And consider how that can impact on your overall time and effort.

More to the point, if you lack symmetry and you always place more weight on one leg than the other, this could quickly lead to a range of imbalances that negatively impact your running or walking gait. That could in turn lead to knee, hip, or back pain down the road. If you have a number of pains down one side of the body, you may need to address this imbalance.

Intermanual Transfer of Skill

Studies suggest that learning a skill with one hand can actually provide some benefit to the other hand. This works both ways, meaning that if you practice a skill with your non-dominant hand, you’ll actually improve with your dominant hand (study, study)! In all likelihood, the added focus and attention that you are giving to the movement pattern helps you to further refine the movement on both sides.

This is not all that surprising to those familiar with the cross-education effect of strength training: where unilateral training of one limb actually provides some strength gains in the untrained contralateral limb!

Ambidexterity on the Brain

The real advantage of ambidexterity training comes from the very process of learning a challenging new motor skill – or set of motor skills.

I’ve talked at length about the importance of motor learning to keep the brain flexible and powerful. After all, the sheer amount of information processing that occurs during movement exceeds anything we might accomplish sitting in-front of a book. This very process of attending to information and learning is what encourages plasticity. It challenges the brain to keep it learning (study).

Intermanual Transfer of Skill

The problem is that, at a certain age, many of us stop learning new motor skills, navigating new places, or reacting to new stimuli. Andrew Huberman suggests that learning skills like hand-balancing can be fantastic for tapping into the brain’s plastic potential. See his podcast on “Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster.”

But it’s not the inversions themselves that are valuable but their novelty. This is a significant learning challenge for the brain that activates plasticity throughout. An easier option? Fine hand movements involving the non-dominant hand!

This is a form of learning that requires a huge amount of concentration, large amounts of error connection, and likely lots of synaptic pruning.

Motor Cortex Development

This could also potentially strengthen the motor cortex at-large. This strategy is employed by the Arrowsmith School, where learning-challenged students use tracing exercises to see widespread improvements in their language production (written AND spoken) by practicing manual tracing tasks. Could similar training with the non-dominant hand improve verbal fluency for everyone?

Motor neuroscientist Professor Amy Bastian says:

“The more variety of things you do in the fine motor domain, the more variety of hand movements you make, will improve your dexterity.”

Prof. Amy Bastian

You’ve already learned to write, most likely. Writing with your non-dominant hand presents a new challenge.

Creativity

Finally, we should note that many people believe ambidexterity comes with heightened creativity and problem solving. This comes partly from the anecdotal evidence that famously ambidextrous individuals such as Da Vinci, Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Tesla were all known for their genius-levels of creativity. The ambidexterity of these individuals has been called into question at times (though a recent study suggests that Da Vinci really was, in fact, ambidextrous). Moreover, this is a very small sample size; I could point to many more notable individuals that were not cross-dominant!

Davinci ambidexterity

Some suggest that ambidexterity may correlate with lower brain lateralization. That is to say that the brain’s structures are less neatly organized on either side of the brain and are more dispersed across both hemispheres; resulting in brains that are more symmetrical among the ambidextrous population. This may also result in a thicker corpus callosum – the bundle of nerves that bridges the hemispheres. Posthumous autopsies of Einstein’s brain reveal that he did, in fact, possess a thicker-than-average corpus callosum.

See also: How to Think Like Einstein

With more information travelling more freely around the brain, it is possible that there is greater potential for novel connections to form between ideas.

Left-handers, who make up approximately 10% of the population as opposed to the 1% of truly ambidextrous individuals, also tend to have less brain lateralization. This is likely due to the increased need for ambidexterity in a “right hand world.”

More Brain Differences

A change in lateralization could also result in other cognitive differences. One study found that those with left-handed relatives (deemed to be “weaker handed” and, therefore, more ambidextrous) actually had better episodic memories (memories for events). Those same individuals also demonstrated poorer semantic memory.

Lateralization of Brain in Ambidextrous Individuals
Image concept of neurons from the human brain.

The study author suggests this difference stems from the fact that episodic memories are coded across multiple brain areas, whereas semantic memories require just one hemisphere. Being able to pull information from across the brain is useful for episodic recall but the cross-talk may result in unwanted “interference” when it comes to semantic information, hampering speed and accuracy.

See also: Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci – Learning From Legends

Note that the link between weak-handedness and a thicker corpus callosum is far from proven, however.

Could Training Ambidexterity be Harmful?

Perhaps, then, a more symmetrical brain is not always optimal? After all, we see lateralization in most vertebrates, suggesting an evolutionary advantage. This may be a more efficient way to organize the brain, while handedness might help to streamline motor learning.

Perinatal Development of Ambidexterity

Indeed, there are many that have suggested ambidexterity is actually a sign of brain damage – and that training for it could therefore be harmful. I believe the latter statement to be mistakenly extrapolated from the former.

It is true that there is a greater incidence of various cognitive disturbances in ambidextrous individuals. A number of studies link ambidexterity to poorer IQ scores, ADHD, schizophrenia, and more (study, study). Interestingly, both ADHD and schizophrenia are linked with creativity, whereas IQ tests benefit from rapid processing of information.

However, this correlation is unlikely to be causative. That is to say that, in some cases, ambidexterity is a symptom of development issues and not the reverse. There is evidence for this, as we see in a review of the literature conducted by Johanna Barbara Sattler:

“Systematic investigations of the second group of subjects always revealed perinatal cerebral disturbances. This paper discusses the thesis that insufficient oxygen supply to the brain in the perinatal period of life mainly affects the function of the dominant cerebral hemisphere that is responsible for the congenital handedness.”

Johanna Barbara Sattler

Why Ambidexterity Training is Safe

Even if increased brain symmetry results in a less “organized” brain, it is highly unlikely that training for ambidexterity later in life would result in the migration of entire functional brain regions. We would not likely see the brain become significantly more symmetrical, as we simply lack that kind of plasticity in adulthood. That said, we might be able to thicken the corpus callosum in order to improve communication between hemispheres. And we might also see improvements in the motor cortex and cerebellum.

There is more to a well-organized brain that lateralization, too. There are more and less efficient ways for dendrites to span large areas of the brain, with the ideal structure being described as a mathematical “small world network.” This means there should be maximum interconnectivity between neurons with the shortest possible distance between any two nodes.

See also: This Amazing Feature of the Brain Let’s Us Process Information Even More Efficiently: Dendritic Computation

We now know that even the dendrites – the tendrils that reach out from the soma of a neuron to connect to others – are capable of their own processing. Check out my recent post on dendritic computation for more on how that works.

In short, we might be able to have our cake and eat it too by training for ambidexterity in adulthood.

Ambidexterity Drills – How to Train It

Most people looking to improve their ambidexterity will begin by writing with their non-dominant hand. This is a great starting point and can help to develop fine motor control that will almost certainly transfer to other tasks – to some extent.

In fact, an interesting demonstration of this comes from young children. Our health visitor told us that our daughter, Emmy, would be able to brush her own teeth only once she had started writing at school. It’s the process of writing that develops the coordination and control needed to create those small circles with the brush.

Training Ambidexterity with Reaction Ball

Speaking of which, we can also practice brushing with the non-dominant hand. Likewise, we can swap our cutlery over, or even make a point of using the phone on the other side. Each of these offers a unique learning opportunity that may strengthen the motor cortex, increase whole brain connectivity, and improve control over the non-dominant side.

We’ve already seen that the Arrowsmith School uses similar strategies to help improve the verbal fluency of their pupils.

Skills That Train Ambidexterity

Other inherently ambidextrous practices, such as learning to play the piano, can also have similar effects (study). Musicians that use both hands have been shown to have thicker corpus callosums – although this is only true for male musicians (study). This is perhaps due to the fact that women typically have more connectivity between hemispheres by default. Rock climbing, too, may offer some benefits (study).

For boosting creativity and more, all these options should prove highly effective.

Tree climbing fascia

But transfer across all skills is not a given. For example: notice that if you swap hands with a guitar, both hands have a more difficult time. Using the fret board with the dominant hand now becomes difficult, even though this is a task that requires dexterity.

Similarly, one study found that our non-dominant hands are actually superior when it comes to holding things steady (study). This makes a lot of sense, given that we so often hold something in one hand and manipulate it with the other. The image of a bow and arrow comes to mind.

Our non-dominant hands are actually superior when it comes to holding things steady

This also suggests that through practice, we have improved different types of skill on each hand. This suggests we need a broader approach.

Unfortunately, very few studies appear to test for this intra-manual transfer of skill. This study, that showed rapid improvements in left-handed writing from less than 200 minutes of training, also found little-to-no benefit for non-dominant foot control.

Specificity in Ambidexterity Training

Many of us are so lacking in ambidexterity that any additional training will benefit us “to an extent.” But just as practicing cursive with your dominant hand is only going to improve your right hook to a certain degree, so too can we get more benefit with specific training on the left side. In other words: if you want to get better at punching with your left hand, you should practice punching with your left hand.

Keep in mind that this is a whole-body movement that involves coordination of the shoulders, fists, hips, and more. Right now, you probably lack the necessary motor maps to engage all those motor units in the right sequence and with the same explosiveness you enjoy on your dominant side. You, likewise, also probably struggle to achieve the “reciprocal inhibition” that ensures antagonistic muscles will relax during the movement.

Ambidexterity Martial Arts

This is as much about strength as it is about dexterity: the ability to recruit larger motor units as needed. This a crucial adaptation in any form of strength training. This is how dance is able to develop a form of ambidexterity, too (study).

Functional Training for Ambidexterity

Likewise, functional movement patterns like cable chops, cable punchouts, and one-handed push ups can strengthen these areas. Similarly, unilateral movements that involve jumping from one leg, or lifting on one side (and bracing the core on the other) have huge benefit. Apart from anything else, unilateral exercise might let you accelerate neural adaptation through the muscular cross-education effect and previously mentioned intermanual transfer of skill.

Your left arm gets some benefit from curling with your right.

Seeing as your left arm gets some benefit from curling with your right, you’ll effectively be training it twice this way. Favoring unilateral exercise will also encourage symmetrical muscle development and strength. This is not only aesthetically pleasing, but could prevent compensatory motor patterns.

Contralateral Movements

See also: Quadrupedal Movement: The Bear Crawl Exercise Explained

Finally, though, we should also practice movements that train both sides simultaneously. I’ve spoken recently about movements like crawls and their contralateral nature challenges us to exert strength and control between hemispheres. This cross-lateral movement helps to develop the corpus callosum in infancy and can be used just the same way in adulthood.

In fact, any complex movement that requires communication between the two sides of the body may offer these benefits. Other options include juggling, the aforementioned-climbing, Tai Chi, yoga, certain type of martial arts, etc. We can also use more complex movements in strength training; creating hybrid movements that require strength to be exerted on different vectors simultaneously.

Bear crawl exercise

This could not only develop strength and control, but also spatial awareness and more.

There are several studies that show left-handedness and ambidexterity are linked with improved spatial ability (study). One study, in particular, found that spatial ability was positively correlated with the degree of ambidexterity – those most strongly right OR left handed were found to have the poorest ability (study). (Other studies, interestingly, find that this effect is strongest in men.)

This should come as no huge surprise given everything we’ve discussed here!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. M. S. says:

    Martial Arts Notation (the innovative e-book series available on Amazon) is an easy body movement notation system that will make you as ambidextrous as a jazz drummer.

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