Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or a newbie, this problem can affect anyone. Muscle imbalance can cause physical pain and instability, as well as a loss of mobility.
Very few of us are ambidextrous, to begin with. Because we naturally favor one side over the other, we use it more. Everyday life, your job, sports, or working out can make the imbalance even worse.
A big enough muscle imbalance can cause loss of mobility and pain. It may also become visibly obvious, with one side of the body larger or longer than the other. If you’re having any of these problems, it’s time to get to the root cause and fix it.
Read on to find out what muscle imbalance is, why it happens, and how to tell if you’ve got one. We also discuss ways to fix it.
How Do Muscles Work?
Muscles are designed to work in pairs to move a joint. While one muscle pulls (contracts), its partner pushes (relaxes).
This antagonistic pair work is what allows for the full motion of a joint.
Muscle groups work in much the same way.
There are always opposing muscle group pairs that coordinate to give your joints a full range of motion.
What Is a Muscle Imbalance?
Simply put, muscle imbalance occurs when muscles in an opposing pair or opposing groups are not symmetrical. When we talk about symmetry, we mean muscle length and strength.
There are different ways to categorize muscle imbalance. Healthline.com has a simple, easy-to-understand approach for us workout geeks.
Joint Muscular Imbalance
These imbalances affect your ability to move a joint. Muscles form groups around a joint and move antagonistically to give it a full range of motion.
If anyone of these muscles becomes looser or tighter, weaker or stronger, than the others, an imbalance occurs.
A simple example is your biceps and triceps. You contract your biceps to bring your cup of coffee to your mouth. As you do this, your triceps relax. Say your triceps are too tight. Your elbow’s motion will become restricted, causing you discomfort as you lift that cup.
Body Muscular Imbalance
This type of imbalance is what is usually easy for the naked eye to see.
Your body should have symmetrical muscles on either side. If a muscle or group of muscles, on one side, is out of symmetry, you have a body muscular imbalance. Out of symmetry could be weaker, stronger, larger, or smaller than the corresponding muscle(s) on the other side.
Causes of Muscle Imbalance
Many things can cause muscle imbalance.
- Not enough physical activity. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle and don’t get enough physical activity, it could cause imbalance.
- Bad posture. Repetitively, constantly sitting or standing wrong will result in muscle imbalance.
- Natural development. This is something best left to your doctor and physiotherapist to sort out.
- Everyday activities. If you have a job that has you doing the same thing over and over, it could lead to muscle imbalance. Say you’re a chef and spend hours every day chopping veggies, always with the right hand. With time, you will have an imbalance.
- Sports. Some have you using muscles on one side more than the other. Take basketball. Most players will throw the ball into the hoop using their dominant side. This will result in an imbalance if not addressed.
And of special note to gym-goers…
- Improper form when exercising. If you don’t focus on technique and do your exercises wrong, it will ultimately lead to muscle imbalance.
- Unbalanced workout program. When building muscle, you have to give each muscle group sufficient exercise. Focusing on just one group and ignoring all others will only cause you problems over time.
Effects of Muscle Imbalance
In two short words, nothing good. There’s a reason professional sportsmen spend time working muscles that get neglected while playing the sport. And for us regular Joes, working out is great for your health, but you gotta do it right.
- Unbalanced Appearance. If one limb or a whole side of the body is bigger than the other, it will become noticeable.
- Loss of mobility. If some muscle(s) are too tight or too loose, the affected joint will lose its full range of motion.
- Physical pain. A muscle imbalance can result in constant, mild to severe pain in the affected area
- Instability. If some muscle group cannot perform the way it should, it may affect the stability around that joint. This increases the risk of injury when working out, but also in everyday life.
How Do I Know If I Have a Muscle Imbalance?
If you can pull off 10 good dumbbell rows with one arm but not the other, that’s a clear indication. Likewise, if you can breeze through 50 forward lunges on one leg but only 20 on the other, there’s an imbalance.
If it’s a body imbalance, you’ll probably be able to tell just by looking at yourself in the mirror. One whole side of your body will appear bigger and stronger than the other. Or it could be just one leg or arm.
Some athletes will have photos of themselves taken from various angles. This way, they can see something other than a straight-angle reflection, and judge if something looks awkward.
These photos can identify imbalances in areas like pelvic tilt and foot rotation.
A third approach is biometric testing. Machines are used to measure muscular contractions and identify deficiencies. This kind of testing can focus on muscles around specific joints, such as hips, shoulders, and knees.
Biometric testing is useful when it’s hard to visually identify and imbalance.
How Do I Fix A Muscle Imbalance?
In cases where the imbalance is due to some medical or inborn condition, best seek medical advice. Many times, though, imbalances are just due to what we do in everyday life, and how we work out.
Figure Out Where the Imbalance Is
Now you need to figure out the underlying cause.
- Are you doing an exercise technique wrong? Go back and revise your form.
- Do you have mobility or flexibility issues? Incorporate exercises into your routine that will address the problem muscles.
- Are you simply not focused when working out? Take the time to do some mental prep and de-stress before your workout.
- Is it a repeated, daily activity at your job? Start doing exercises to counter-balance the effects.
There are a few strategies you can use when working out to fix muscle imbalances.
This simply means you need to do more one-sided exercises. You work one side of your body at a time, allowing you to focus on only that muscle group.
Examples are single-leg deadlifts, single-arm rows, and dumbbell bicep curls done one arm at a time.
Start by Working the Weaker Side
Chances are you subconsciously favor your dominant side because it is stronger and easier to work with. You instinctively train the dominant side first.
Make a conscious effort and always begin by working your weaker side first, for every exercise and rep.
Let the Weaker Side Set the Workload
When working with weights, let your weaker side determine the load. Sure, your stronger one can take more, but don’t let it. Likewise, let the weaker side set the number of reps that you do.
Give Your Weaker Side Additional Work
What work you give it depends on the underlying cause. If flexibility is the problem, it might be some specific stretches for that side. You can also increase its work volume or training load.
It’s very easy to talk about adjusting your workout routine to fix your muscle imbalances.
But not everyone has the knowledge (or the time!) to sit down and put together a professional-quality workout.
If you’re looking to build muscle mass, but you’re worried about getting top-heavy or other imbalances, consider doing a professionally designed workout. One we highly recommend is IFBB Pro Ben Pakulski’s MI40-X.
MI40-X, aka Cell Expansion Protocol
If you’re looking to build muscle mass and strength the right way, try this out.
MI40-X is a 40-day program designed by IFBB Pro Ben Pakulski. It has received a multitude of positive reviews from users and other professional trainers alike.
The program is presented in a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner. Ben Pakulki covers literally everything.
He explains what CEP (Cell Expansion Protocol) is and how to apply it to your workouts. He then provides you with a nutrition guide and calculators to get you eating right.
Pakulski is unbiased about supplements and gives his take on which ones are good for what. He also points you to places you can buy reputable products at reasonable prices.
Having said this, he also gives you a bare-bones version.
If you’re on a budget, he explains how to work with what you have.
And, of course, there’s the program itself.
Three levels of intelligent muscle-building workouts, with an execution guide for each exercise. This is a professionally made, safe, progressive, and balanced workout program for the whole body.
It’s All About How You Workout
Most of us have some muscle imbalance naturally, but it’s usually nothing to worry about. But we often make it worse living the way we do, and exercising the way we do.
When the imbalance gets acute enough, we lose mobility and start feeling pain.
Fixing a muscle imbalance starts with figuring out where and what it is. Once you know that and have gotten to the underlying cause, you can start fixing it.
It boils down to doing unilateral exercises and always starting with your weaker side first. And, ultimately, making sure you are doing a balanced workout program with good technique and focus.