Muscle imbalances occur when muscles are unequal in strength or size compared to an opposing muscle group. They're also quite common among the general population.
Learn how to fix muscle imbalances here.
What is Muscle Imbalance and How Does It Happen?
As the name implies, a muscle imbalance occurs when one muscle (or group of muscles) is stronger, weaker, or tighter than its opposing muscle (or group of muscles). This imbalance can lead to restricted movement, impaired force production, joint pain, or dysfunction.
There are two main types of muscle imbalances within the body:
Body Muscle Imbalance
A body muscle imbalance occurs when a particular muscle (or muscle group) on the side of your body is stronger, weaker, larger, smaller than its corresponding opposing (antagonist) muscle group.
Ideally, the muscles on each side of your body should be comparable in size and strength.
A common example of a muscle imbalance is between the pushing and pulling muscles of the upper body. We've all seen the gym bro that loves Chest Day and will gladly bench himself into a coma instead of doing some heavy sets of rows, deadlifts, and pull-ups.
While he may have a big chest, he's also got a hunched-over posture, making him look more like Quasimodo on his way to ring the bell than Arnold.
Beyond poor aesthetics, such a gross muscle imbalance between the anterior and posterior muscles of the upper body can lead to poor posture, restricted movement, and joint pain, particularly in the shoulders.
Joint Muscle Imbalance
A joint muscle imbalance occurs when one or more of the muscles surrounding a joint are weaker, stronger, tighter, or looser than the others. This can lead to limited function and/or pain.
Ideally, each of the muscles that surround a joint would work together with opposing force to keep the bones of the joint centered for optimal movement. Imbalances between the muscles surrounding the joint can lead to the joint not being centered and stable, impairing force production, performance, and even basic movement. It can also lead to increased wear and tear on the joint.
What Causes Muscle Imbalance?
We touched on what causes muscle imbalances briefly above (training one muscle group more than its antagonist muscle group), but that's not the only thing that can develop a muscle imbalance.
Muscle imbalance may also happen due to:
- Sedentary Lifestyle
- Poor Posture
- Exercising with Improper Form
- Unbalanced Training Programs (e.g., too much pressing, not enough pulling)
- Certain Daily Activities
Ways to Correct Muscle Imbalance
Identify the Imbalance First
Before you can set about correcting a muscle imbalance, you first have to identify where the actual imbalance is. Something else to keep in mind is that the body is one interconnected entity. While you may be feeling discomfort in one area of your body, the actual site of the imbalance could be elsewhere.
For example, if you're feeling discomfort in your hips or low back when you're walking, it could be due to problems with the lower leg's foot, ankle, or muscles, not necessarily the actual muscles of the hip and low back. Dysfunction in these lower extremities leads to unnecessary forces and undue wear and tear on the hips and back, which is causing movement limitations, dysfunction, and pain.
If you're not sure where your muscle imbalance may be, it can be useful to undergo a biometric screening where they can focus on specific joints, including shoulders, wrists, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles.
Short of going to get screened, you (and/or your training partner) can use observation to see if there’s a gross muscle imbalance. Tell-tale signs of muscle imbalances included hunched shoulders, anterior pelvic tilt, head/neck position, or leg rotation.
Fixing Muscle Imbalances with Exercise
The obvious answer for fixing a muscle imbalance is to train the weaker side (or muscle group) more often. A simple way to do this is to increase the weekly sets (and reps) for the weaker muscle group.
For instance, let’s say that your left bicep is smaller than your right, and you can do about 30 dumbbell curls per arm per week (3x10). To bring up your left side, you could add an extra set of dumbbell bicep curls using only your left arm.
Another option is to terminate your sets when your weaker side starts to fail. This applies mostly to unilateral exercises, such as dumbbell laterals, dumbbell curls, dumbbell lying tricep extensions, etc.
Yet another way to help fix muscle imbalance is to start unilateral exercises with the weaker side. Perform as many quality reps as possible with your weaker side, and when it's time to perform the exercise with your stronger side, only perform as many reps as you did with the weaker side.
For instance, if you can only perform eight reps of the Bulgarian Split Squat with your left leg holding 50-pound dumbbells, then you would only perform eight reps of the Bulgarian Split Squat with your right leg (even though you may be able to do 9, 10, or 11 reps holding 50# dumbbells).
One other thing that can help to fix muscle imbalances (or prevent them from happening in the first place) is to use intelligent program design and ensure that you’re performing equal amounts of volume for all the major muscle groups -- chest, back, shoulders (front, side, and rear delts), biceps, triceps, quads, and hamstrings.
If you've been training for some time with an unbalanced program (e.g., 20 sets of chest per week and only three sets of pulldown per week), then it would be wise to dial back your chest training for several weeks (~10 sets per week) and ramp up your weekly back volume (10-20 sets per week) to help fix the imbalance.
The best way to fix a muscle imbalance is to head it off before it happens (or gets really out of control).
That begins with using a balanced training program and training your least favorite (weakest) muscle groups with as much intensity, effort, focus, and volume as your favorite (strongest) muscle groups.
Some other things to consider to help fix/prevent muscle imbalances are:
- Perform unilateral exercises in your weekly training routines
- Let your weaker side dictate the load and reps for the exercise and only train your stronger side to that level
- Make sure you’re using proper form -- hire a coach if necessary
Finally, don't neglect the importance of proper nutrition, rest, and recovery. This is especially important if you're increasing the amount of weekly volume you're performing for a lagging muscle group.
Some key points to keep in mind regarding proper nutrition and recovery:
- Consume enough protein each day (1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is a good rule of thumb)
Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night
- We know it can be hard to unwind after a stressful day, especially when you're bombarded by texts, emails, calls, DMs, and endless bands of blue light emitted from everything and anything. That's why we developed Steel Dreams® -- a natural nighttime relaxation and recovery.
Consume Healthy Fats
- Increased training, lack of sleep, excess life stress, and substandard diet can contribute to systemic inflammation, which can impede recovery (resulting from your workouts). Most individuals also don't consume enough omega-3s since fatty fish isn't a favorite protein of many people. Supplementing with a quality omega-3 supplement, such as our Ahiflower® vegan omega-3s, may help recovery as well as a healthy inflammatory response that supports improved cognition, joint health, skin health, heart health, and hormonal balance.