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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
April 07, 2022
Let us start off by saying that muscle imbalances are very common and usually not a big deal. Everyone has some degree of asymmetry and a dominant side. The issue comes when the muscle imbalance affects the way you move, look and feel. If you have a considerable muscle imbalance, it can cause problems down the line and you could really hurt yourself when lifting heavy too. The good news is you can fix muscles imbalances, or at least reduce them to the point of it being a non-issue for you. This is what we are going to teach you here.
This article will cover the following:
The most common thought of a muscle imbalance is when a muscle on one side of the body is not symmetrical or as strong as the other side. However, muscle imbalances can also describe a set of muscles that are too strong, too weak, or lack the flexibility of an opposing muscle group.
If you have a muscle imbalance on one side, you may notice:
In regards to having imbalances between other muscle groups, such as a muscle imbalance between your hamstrings and quads or your chest and back, this can cause all types of problems, like muscle strains, joint stress, or poor posture.
Again, muscle imbalances are common, and everyone has them to some degree, so let's not get worried. Let's just do our best to reduce them.
Muscle imbalances can happen in a variety of ways, such as:
Even sports can cause muscle imbalances, such as a tennis or golf player who hits off one side of their bodies all the time. Or, a boxer who so often trains with rounded shoulders and a forward head position.
Another common cause and issue with muscle imbalances is overuse of a muscle through poor exercise planning OR daily work. As every joint has opposing muscles attached to them, if the muscles on one side of the joint like the biceps become short due to overuse it may cause the triceps to become weak from lack of use. This is an imbalance of opposing muscles, and it can actually cause more issues than even having an imbalance of sides.
Muscle imbalances are common and are not usually a big deal...until they are. The main issue with muscle imbalances is they can cause injury, joint pain or poor movement mechanics and posture. If you lift heavy weights in the gym, muscle imbalances become even more of an issue.
Muscles work in pairs for smooth joint movement. For example, when biceps contract, triceps stretch. When one muscle is way stronger and overpowers another it’s only a matter of time before pain and muscle strains happen. Reducing these muscle imbalances is an easy way to reduce the injury risk from strains.
Here are a couple more important issues with muscle imbalances:
Let’s get a few of the obvious reasons first:
If you have none of these, here are a couple of easy tests to perform to see if you have muscle imbalance between your hamstrings and quads and you’re pushing and pulling muscles
Your hamstrings should have two-thirds of the strength of your quadriceps, as your quads are naturally a larger muscle group, and therefore stronger.
The below test for strength ratio is not perfect, but it will at least tell you if you should be concerned if you have a noticeable strength imbalance between these two muscles.
All that is needed for this test is access to a leg extension and leg curl machine.
The math is simple: Leg curl / leg extension x 100 = %
For example, 30LB leg curl (hamstrings) / 60LB leg extension (quads) x 100 = 50%
Do this math for both sides. Ideally, you'll want to be at around 60-70%.
Strength imbalances between our left and right sides are common due to activities of daily living or an unbalanced strength program. You shouldn’t keep feeding this imbalance with bilateral exercises. Here is a simple test to tell if you have strength imbalances between your pushing and pulling muscles and left and right sides.
Note: Core strength is a factor in unilateral upper bodywork.
A cable machine works best for this, but any dumbbell unilateral variation will do. For example, dumbbell floor press, or any unilateral row.
1. Do More Unilateral Exercises:
Performing unilateral exercises such as split squats, lunges, and single-arm rows and presses will go a long way toward reducing muscle imbalances between your left and right sides. Performing unilateral exercises as part of your accessory routine needs to be a priority.
Besides better muscle development and reduced injury risk, there are other important reasons why unilateral exercises need to be part of your accessory routine:
2. Increase Volume on The Weaker Muscle Group:
Using the hamstring/quad ratio and push/pull test as a guide if either of these tests revealed an imbalance, including a little more volume on the weaker group works. For example, if your hamstrings are below two-third the strength of your quads, including more hamstring exercises like Romanian deadlifts for four to six weeks works. Then re-test to see if this worked.
3. Use Dumbbells Rather Than Barbells For Push & Pull Exercises:
By using dumbbells, you won't be able to allow your dominant side to take over a lift like with a barbell. That said, you do need to focus on both sides for good form. Be very mindful that your arms are moving together in sync and through the same range of motion. Moreover, allow your weaker side to dictate the weight you use. For example, if your form normally starts to break down on your left side after 8 reps with 50lb dumbbells, but your right side is still ok, and you were aiming for 12 reps, then drop the weight to what your left side can handle with good form for 12 reps. This will allow your right side to maintain strength while your left catches up.
Learn more about the differences between using dumbbells and barbells.
It’s all fine and good to include more unilateral exercises and increase volume on the weaker muscle group but how do you go about programming it? Here are some tips on programming for muscle imbalances
Muscle imbalances are common and everyone from serious lifters to weekend warrior to professional athletes probably has them. Usually, they’re not a big deal until pain, injury, and a decrease in performance occur. And when it does, use the actionable tips here to reduce and fix your muscle imbalance.
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