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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
As a former collegiate athlete, I’ve has always had a passion for all things health and wellness. SteelFit® is a culmination of all my years of education, training, and passion combined. I create, formulate, and educate daily. I am always thinking of how to give our customers the latest and greatest products to help them achieve their goals. Some of my best ideas come when I’m at the gym. When I’m not doing all those, I love spending time with my wife Jessica, my son Logan, our three puppies, and playing daily fantasy sports. I love to travel and am always up for a good cheat meal.
August 20, 2021 5 min readRead More
August 18, 2021 5 min readRead More
Receive our latest news, offers, and promotions.