lady in gym doing lunges while holding dumbbells

At first glance, training hard seems to be the only true requirement for building a strong and muscular body.

But like many trainees, you might have come to the sobering realisation that it’s not always as simple.

Despite training hard, you might have noticed minor problems with how your body looks and performs. In many cases, problems come from muscle imbalances, which, if left untreated, can hinder us significantly and increase our risks of injuries.

What Are Muscle Imbalances?
Muscle imbalances come in two categories:

  • Side-to-side imbalances - for example, one bicep is weaker than the other
  • Front-to-back imbalances - for example, your quadricep is stronger than your hamstrings

In this post, we’ll primarily look at side-to-side muscle imbalances, but know that most of what we’ll discuss below also applies to the other type of imbalance.

A muscle imbalance is classified as a difference between both sides of your body. If a muscle is smaller or weaker than the corresponding muscle on the other side, you’ve got an imbalance.

The issue is that muscle imbalances lead to visual differences in how your body looks and prevent you from achieving symmetry. Plus, imbalances can lead to compensatory movement patterns, worsen your posture, and increase your risk of injuries.

What Creates Imbalances?
Imbalances can occur for a variety of reasons. The person’s lifestyle is one such. For example, if you regularly use your dominant side muscles for everyday tasks, they get stronger and bigger, creating an imbalance. Slouching to one side while working can also lead to posture problems that contribute to poor motor patterns.

Suffering from an injury can also lead to a muscle imbalance. For example, if you injure one knee but continue to train your other leg, that will create an imbalance.

Following a bad training program can also lead to imbalances. For example, never doing unilateral exercises (training one side at a time) could lead to compensatory movement patterns and imbalances. Similarly, a program that emphasises one muscle but neglects its antagonist can lead to front-to-back imbalances.

What Makes Imbalances Worse?
The worst thing a person with muscle imbalances can do is ignore the issue and continue doing everything in the same way. In the context of training, this means:

  • Continuing to use your dominant side more
  • Never doing unilateral exercises
  • Allowing your stronger side to make up for the weaker one, allowing to you finish your sets and reps

How to Fix Muscle Imbalances
Start by acknowledging the issue. Look at progress photos, take circumference measurements, and review your performance in the gym. Filming some of your sets or working with a coach can help you determine weak links in your technique.

Once you’re sure of muscle imbalances, a practical first step is to start doing more unilateral work in your training. For example:

  • Back squats Bulgarian split squats
  • Pull-ups Single-arm lat pulldowns
  • Barbell presses Dumbbell presses
  • Barbell rows Dumbbell rows
  • Romanian deadlifts Single-leg deadlifts

It’s also essential to work your weaker side as hard as possible and develop a mind-muscle connection. Feel muscles on either side of your body activating equally.

Making conscious decisions to use your weaker side more can also help. Our daily lives are full of small actions, and we rarely consider how much we use our dominant side. So, make an effort to engage your weaker side more. For example:

  • Carry weights by holding them with your weaker arm.
  • Emphasise your weaker leg when kneeling, playing sports, and similar.
  • Need to open a jar? Challenge yourself to do so with your weaker arm.

Doing these small things might seem insignificant, but their effect is cumulative.

November 05, 2021 — Daniel Felstein

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