Muscle imbalance is an issue that affects many gym goers, athletes, and people in certain jobs, it can range from a mild symmetry issue, to a serious medical condition. Fixing muscle imbalances are dependent on the type of imbalance in question. The more serious muscle imbalance issues are beyond the scope of this article and should be dealt with by a physiotherapist or medical professional.
When we talk about muscle imbalances in this article, we are talking more about the bodybuilding definition, an overdeveloped chest and underdeveloped shoulders for example. In this article we will help you to identify potential muscular imbalances, discover how this has occurred, and give you strategies to combat them.
What Are Muscle Imbalances?
In the intro we mentioned how there were different types of muscle imbalance. On one end of the spectrum you have a suspected imbalance between bicep and tricep, on the other end of the spectrum you have a condition such as tennis elbow (something that sounds tame but can actually end careers). Sadly, we’re not qualified to talk about how to fix tennis elbow, nor should you be looking for advice on this online. Find yourself a good physiotherapist, they are worth every penny.
There are two main causes of muscle imbalances, either you are born with one (again, not something that we can really fix in an article) or you develop one through physical activity, posture, or your job. An example of a muscle imbalance that you are born with can be scoliosis, while this condition affects the spine, it can affect posture which can lead to muscle imbalances.
What we are looking at is muscle imbalances caused by exercise. A guy who benches as heavy as he can every day for ten years will potentially have some serious muscle imbalances as a result of that. We will look at ways to deal with this.
The Left/Right Imbalance
As ambidextrous people are as rare as unicorns, we’re going to assume that pretty much everyone reading this is either left or right-handed. You’ve probably noticed that your dominant hand is quite a bit stronger than your other hand. This will also be true of your legs, and when you get down to it, it may also be true of your chest and shoulders. This is a muscle imbalance that affects almost everyone, and no matter what you do in the gym it will always be there to some extent.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce the imbalance. The good news for new lifters is that the first steps to addressing this imbalance require no extra work at all. When starting a training program just pick a lot of compound movements (bench press, bent over row, deadlift, squat etc) and perform them with a solid technique.
Doing so will make a huge difference. However, doing it indefinitely will eventually re-establish this imbalance. The reason is that when you increase the weight your more dominant side will slowly take over to help you lift more. With flawless technique this can be negated slightly, but still, you may want to switch to unilateral exercises.
A unilateral exercise is one that uses only one side of your body. Instead of curling a barbell with both arms, switch to a single-arm bicep curl with a dumbbell. Instead of two-legged leg presses, perform one-legged leg presses. Instead of a barbell bench press, try a single-armed dumbbell bench press. You get the idea.
Performing these exercises individually with your weak arm first will help you bridge the gap, provided you perform the same number of reps on each arm. Needless to say, if you are performing 8 reps of single armed rows with your left and 12 reps with your right you won’t be bridging any gaps!
You don’t have to perform exclusively unilateral movements but sprinkle them into your training programs and you will quickly address the most common muscle imbalance around.
The Agonist/Antagonist Imbalance
While a left/right imbalance is caused by a lifetime of favoring one side over the other, the agonist and antagonist imbalance is often caused by picking certain exercises over others. Most movements are caused by muscles working in pairs, there is an agonist which contracts while the antagonist relaxes.
During a bicep curl your bicep muscles will contract as you curl the weight upwards while the tricep muscles relax. In a tricep pushdown the opposite occurs, with your biceps being the antagonist to the agonist triceps. If you perform exercises that concentrate on the biceps (curls, rows, pulling exercises etc) but neglect exercises that concentrate on the triceps (presses, pushdowns etc) then your biceps will become larger while your triceps stay the same.
This will create an agonist-antagonist imbalance and could theoretically lead to injury. Though the bicep and tricep relationship is less likely to cause injury than the quadricep and hamstring relationship or the chest/upper back relationship.
The first way to go about fixing it is to ensure that your technique is sound. One of the most common mistakes is not paying enough attention to the eccentric part of the movement. For a bicep curl, most people spend a lot of time curling the weight upwards, but then essentially drop the weight back down to the starting position. By slowly lowering the weight you are helping that agonist/antagonist partnership and placing emphasis on your triceps as well as biceps.
The next thing to do is to ensure that you are paying equal attention to both the biceps and triceps, or the quadriceps and hamstrings. When creating a program, bear this in mind. If you are doing three sets of lunges, then add in three sets of Romanian deadlifts. If you are doing five sets of bicep curls then add in five sets of tricep pushdowns.
Common Muscle Imbalances in Lifters
The most common muscle imbalance in lifters is between the chest and the upper back. This is partly down to posture, if you have a job that involves sitting at a desk or long spells in the car, then you may develop upper-crossed syndrome. This is where your shoulders round forward and you get tightness in your trapezius and pectorals. Lots of bench pressing can also cause upper-crossed syndrome. Meaning that an office worker who benches every day will have a serious problem.
There are several ways to address this postural issue. Firstly, working on your posture. Sitting upright more often is one way to counter it but long-term postural change is often difficult to achieve. People naturally sit in a slumped position, particularly if they are at their desks for hours at a time. Nobody who is concentrating on an important report is going to be constantly reminding themselves to sit up straight!
Adding more upper back exercises is another way to go, if you are performing two back exercises for every one chest exercise then this should help to strengthen your back muscles and reduce the pressure on your pectorals. You can also add in exercises such as the face pull, which can strengthen the muscles around your scapula. It is also a fantastic warm up exercise for pretty much any training program.
Finally, addressing your bench press technique may be helpful. If you have a solid bench press technique which involves full range of motion and excellent movement patterns, then you are less likely to be affecting your upper-crossed syndrome. Push that chest out, pull your shoulder blades back and use a sensible weight.
These techniques are specifically aimed at fixing a very common muscle imbalance, but they can be applied to any other similar imbalances. If you have a quadricep/hamstring imbalance, then you may struggle with certain exercises. But focus on building up the weaker muscle with isolation exercises (i.e. Romanian deadlifts for weak hamstrings, or single-leg step ups for quadriceps and glutes) and ensure that your technique is sound during exercises such as the squat that work them both.
Hopefully, this article has given you an idea of what causes a muscle imbalance and how best to approach rectifying the situation. We cannot stress enough the importance of seeking professional help (physiotherapists) for some of the more serious imbalances. In fact, even the less severe imbalances would benefit from their advice.
Most sporting injuries can be traced back to an imbalance, and almost all of the major sporting teams screen for muscular imbalances during medical testing. Building up weak muscles is also a very common practice in competitive bodybuilding, as bodybuilders are constantly looking for symmetry and will always focus on weak areas rather than staying with strong areas.
If you hate deadlifting but love benching then it can be tempting to stick to what you love, you can’t suck at deadlifting if you’re never deadlifting! But this will harm you in the long term. Get out of your comfort zone, balance your training programs, and soon you’ll see balances in your muscles. This will help you move better, will lower your risk of injury, and will allow you to look more symmetrical, and lift heavier weights. Who wouldn’t want that?