Muscle Imbalance

Even if you’re a serious gym rat, your exercise program may be partial to a few specific muscle groups. For example, if building strong, muscular quads is at the top of your goal list and you despise anything but training your hamstrings you won’t think twice about skipping Romanian deadlifts and Nordic curls day after day.

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But you might want to reconsider your priorities: Neglecting certain muscle groups or areas of your body can lead to harmful muscle imbalances, among other reasons, experts say. Ahead, they break down the potential risks of muscle imbalances and why they develop in the first place. Plus, they share tips to help restore your body’s energy balance and keep it that way.

How muscle imbalance develops

Simply put, a muscle imbalance is when one muscle group is too strong, and it can develop practically anywhere in your body, says Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault. You may experience imbalances between the four small rotator cuff muscles, the three heads of your deltoids, and your major pec muscles, he says.

FTR, since everyone has a dominant side that works more than the other on a daily basis (think: your right side if you’re right-handed), it’s normal to have some strength discrepancies. But whether they’re in your sport, work, or lifestyle, repetitive movements can aggravate them, says Laura Su of Seattle-based strength coach CSCS. For example, if you’re a softball player who constantly swings your bat and catches the ball on your right side, there’s a good chance that half of your body will be stronger than your left, says Su. You can also develop a muscle imbalance between the two sides of your body if you typically do bilateral training (exercises that work both legs or sides of the body at the same time), since your dominant side naturally takes a bit more of the workload, she says.

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What’s more, muscle imbalances can arise between the muscles on either side of the joint, such as your quads and hamstrings or your biceps and triceps, says Su. In this case, improper training programs (think: doing push-ups and skipping pull-ups) can worsen any strength imbalances you have, she says.

Risk of muscle imbalances

While minor muscle imbalances will occur, Su says the goal should always be to keep your body as proportional as possible to avoid injury. Say you’re an athlete, and your quads are significantly stronger than your hamstrings. “That imbalance can put you at greater risk for an ACL tear because your hamstrings aren’t strong enough to reduce the amount of torque produced on that knee joint when you perform dynamic, quick movements,” she explains.

Serious muscle imbalances can also cause movement compensations that can increase your risk of injury, Wickham says. For example, take a person whose right leg is much stronger than their left leg. He explains that if they are sitting with a heavy bulb, their right leg can bear more weight because of their left is fatigued. Then, “you can have a hip shift to the [stronger] side, you can actually shift the weight to one side, which causes some changes in your hip rotation and then affects your knee,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, your knee is in bad shape, and it wears off on your menopause.”

In that case, poor foot technique can also weaken as the set progresses, compromising joint positioning and ultimately causing pain and injury over time, he adds. Translation: A muscle imbalance puts both the strong and weak sides of your body at risk for injury and discomfort.

How to correct and prevent muscle imbalances?

The easiest way to determine if you have a muscle imbalance between sides is to practice unilateral exercises (movements on one side). For example, if you’re trying a single-leg deadlift and can only do 12 reps on your right leg and eight on your left while using the same weight, you’re probably dealing with an imbalance, he explains. You can also look at your form during bilateral movements: Slowly tilting the barbell to one side or leaning back during a bench press set can signal a strength imbalance, he adds. Finally, watch out for post-workout soreness. “Say your shoulder is constantly aching after a workout, and you haven’t done anything super traumatic to it, that could be a sign of a muscle imbalance,” Wickham says.

Think you’re dealing with a muscle imbalance? Implement these tips to correct existing inconsistencies and prevent others from developing.

Practice unilateral exercises

First, experts say, replace some of your bilateral exercises with their unilateral counterparts, which will also help prevent imbalances. To help your muscles gain strength, make sure to rehab on your weaker side first when your body isn’t too fatigued and your technique is high, suggests Su.

When it comes to reps and kits, you have a few options. If there’s a significant strength discrepancy, you can perform a few extra repetitions or a full extra set on the weaker side for about three to four weeks to help close the gap, Su says. Or, if your goal is to do 12 biceps curls on both arms, you can do as many reps as possible on the weaker arm, take a 10-second rest, then kick out the rest of the set, suggests Wickham. Similarly, you can reduce the weight once your weaker arm is fatigued so you can still reach that rep goal, he adds.

Follow a well-rounded training program

To correct and prevent muscle imbalances around a single joint, remember to follow a strength training program that hits all the major muscle groups in the front and back of your body, says Su. If you’re going to train your quads, don’t forget to work your hamstrings and glutes. If you’re doing push-ups targeting your chest, don’t forget to complement them with pull-ups to build your back, she says.

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“A good rule of thumb when putting together a full-body split that hits all those major muscle groups is that you want some sort of squat, lunge, hip, upper body, and upper body. Pull,” says Sue. “It pretty much covers those major muscle groups, so you can approach isolation exercises as you like.” Athletes who constantly rotate their bodies and transfer power in one direction (think: a tennis player) will want to prioritize movements that train their muscles in the opposite direction, such as a Paloff press, says Su.

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to reach out to a strength coach or physical therapist to get your body back on track. “But for the most part, if you’re following a well-rounded exercise program, you’re consistent with it, and you’re making progress in weights or reps, you should be on a good path to prevention. Correcting muscle imbalances.”

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