Muscles are critical in our daily lives and help us perform day to day activities. Each of us has a dominant side that tends to bear most of our daily loads, be it picking items for a shelf, picking up a glass of water or even just which side you use to chew your food. Over time these repeated actions cause the dominant side to become stronger. This article will take a deep dive into muscle development to better understand muscle imbalances and their remedies.
What causes muscle imbalances in weightlifters
As outlined, normal muscle imbalances are likely to occur in everyone and this in itself is not a problem. However, individuals who weight-train can also cause muscle imbalances in their bodies due to bad training habits. Muscle development occurs when muscles are trained, resulting in micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which elicit a hypertrophic response in the body, causing the muscles to grow.
A poor workout program is the most common cause of muscle imbalances in weightlifters. A workout program should allocate enough volume to all the major groups to promote even development throughout the body. Many workout programs, especially for men, are usually structured to emphasize ‘show muscles’, which are usually considered appealing to the arms, chest, and shoulders. Over-emphasizing the training volume and intensity for these show muscles will lead to neglect in other muscle groups such as the back and legs, with the legs being more neglected in many lifters. This results in muscle imbalances and, consequently, a physique lacking in aesthetics.
Another mistake lifters make that leads to muscle imbalance is poor workout form. For example, if your right bicep is more developed than your left bicep, poor form may cause you to use more momentum and shoulder strength to lift the dumbbells using your weaker arm than the stronger right arm. Using momentum and recruiting other muscle groups in this bicep curl example will take tension away from the bicep, thus reducing muscle damage and metabolic stress levels, which are critical in muscle building.
Another cause of asymmetry in muscles is lifters mindless lifting. This is common in gyms where people engage in conversations during sets or let their minds wander off, not focus on the reps. Mindlessly lifting breaks the mind-muscle control meaning the nervous system will not consciously control the recruitment pattern of muscle fibers as you lift. When you focus your mind on the movement you are performing, you control each rep’s pace and movement pattern, which prevents weaker muscles in the specific group from recruiting help from other muscle groups. Mindless lifting thus allows your brain to let your weaker muscles get momentum and support from other muscle groups to help you move the weight.
Poor mobility and flexibility are other factors that result in muscle asymmetry. Mobility and flexibility issues are usually a result of everyday sedentary life. Most people spend their days hunched over their desks or in unhealthy sitting postures; our bodies adapt to these conditions over time which can cause certain muscles to be overly engaged while others become under-engaged. If you sit in a hunched position daily, your shoulders will become tight, and your hip flexors and your lower back muscles will weaken. These adverse adaptations can prevent you from properly performing exercise movements in the gym; for example, if you have weak and tight hip flexors, you will not be able to squat to full depth on the squat. If you have tight shoulders, movements like dumbbell presses and lateral raises will become difficult and even painful. Limited range of motion while working out will thus result in muscle imbalances over time.
Injuries are a causative agent of muscle imbalances. When you get injured, you become unable to train and thus need to take time off to heal. In many cases, the site of the injury may experience muscle atrophy during the healing process, making it weaker. For example, if you tear your left bicep, it may be repaired surgically, but it will most likely become weaker than your right bicep. Even when you make a full recovery, this left bicep may be unable to handle very heavy loads in training as it is already compromised in terms of structure. Because of this, an imbalance will develop.
How do you identify muscle imbalances
Identifying muscle imbalances can be tricky since everyone is subjective, and what may look like an imbalance to your eye may be completely symmetrical from another person’s point of view. The easiest muscle imbalance to spot is asymmetry; to do this, all you have to do is measure the dimensions of twin muscle groups, such as the biceps and quads. The measurements will show asymmetry as the stronger side will usually have a higher measurement than the weaker side.
Taking pictures from multiple angles and comparing them is also effective in identifying imbalances. Take pictures of your body’s upper and lower halves without flexing and keenly analyze the comparison between the upper and lower sections of your body and the front and back muscles to identify imbalances.
Effects of muscle imbalances
Muscle imbalances are generally unhealthy and can cause issues such as:
- Restricted mobility
- Unbalanced physical appearance
- Damaged joints
- Damaged connective tissues and tendons.
- Damage to the muscle
How to prevent and remedy muscle imbalances
Muscle imbalances are preventable, and even when they occur, proper steps can be followed to balance out your physique over time effectively once they are identified.
- A workout program centered on compound exercises. This is the most effective way to prevent muscle imbalances and correct them when they occur. Compound exercises such as the bench press, squat, pull-ups and deadlifts work out multiple muscle groups simultaneously. The deadlift is a major compound movement as it works out all major muscle groups at the same time effectively. A workout program developed around compound movements prevents muscle imbalances by ensuring all the major muscle groups are trained effectively with enough volume, as shown here . Compound exercises promote the uniform development of muscles compared to isolation exercises. This is especially useful to beginner lifters to create a strong and balanced physique from the first time they start training. However, compound exercises are not guaranteed to prevent imbalances as there may be deeper issues such as extending one arm more during the bench press or angling one foot out more during deadlifts and squats. These subtle variations in form can result in strength and size differences, and you should watch out for them.
- Use of mobility and flexibility routines. As discussed earlier, limited mobility and flexibility prevent a lifter from going through a full range of motion while performing exercises resulting in muscle imbalances over time. Therefore, it is advisable to incorporate mobility routines into your workout regimen to help unlock your full mobility and flexibility. Improving mobility for an exercise like the squat can be done by adjusting your squat positioning. Everyone is different, and you should play around with different set-up points for the squat to figure out, which allows you to have a greater range of motion. Different hip joint structures in individuals mean that some squat better with their toes pointing outwards while others with straight, slight adjustments like these can help unlock mobility. Shoulder mobility can be improved by performing stretches such as the quadruped shoulder circles, l-arm stretch and tall kneeling arm raises, as shown here .
- Training the weaker side more. If one side of your body is bigger or stronger than the other, a simple solution would be a training program that trains the weaker side more. This is done by increasing the total weekly volume on the weaker side. Doing this allows the weaker side to catch up to the stronger side by giving its muscles more tension and damage, resulting in more growth over time. We can take a practical example, say your right shoulder is bigger and stronger than your left shoulder, and in a week, you perform three sets of lateral raises with tens reps in each set. To counter an imbalance, you could bump up the raises you perform on your left shoulder by an additional set per week and consistently do this until it catches up to the right shoulder.
- Use unilateral exercises. Bilateral exercises could conceal imbalances in your physique; this happens when your stronger side contributes more effort than your weaker side in lifting the weight. This is difficult to spot, but if you closely observe the bar when performing bilateral movements such as the bench press, you may notice that the bar rises higher on one side. Unilateral exercises such as the dumbbell bench press prevent and remedy imbalances by letting twin or opposite muscle groups bear the load of the exercise independently.
- Increasing volume and progressive overload. If the muscle imbalance causes disproportions, say in your upper and lower body, adjusting the volume and frequency of training may be the solution. If your legs are lagging in size compared to your upper body, working your legs with heavier weights may help them catch up. You should also train your legs harder in this situation as the leg muscles lagging could be that they are not as responsive to stimulus as muscles in your upper body. This may not necessitate an extra workout day for the lagging part but means that you could benefit from prioritizing the lagging muscles without taking away from the strength and size you have developed elsewhere.
- Using the proper form. Form is important when performing exercises to ensure that the target muscle groups are being stimulated effectively to ensure optimal growth. For example, when performing biceps curls, it is easy to let the momentum from the legs, core, and shoulders aid the biceps during the movement. Many individuals also shrug their traps when performing bicep curls; the compound effect of these effects is imbalances. Proper form can be achieved by practicing exercise movements without weights and using queues to position yourself before starting an exercise. A gym mirror is also an invaluable tool for keeping your form in check, and you should watch yourself to see and correct any mistakes you make when performing exercises.
- Focus. Practicing weight-lifting with specific physique goals in mind will enable you to prioritize all muscle groups and not just the ‘show’ muscles. Focused training will also prevent ego lifting, resulting in injury and imbalances in your physique since it also steals tension away from the target muscle groups. You should ensure that your workout split is not biased to certain muscle groups and that you allocate enough days for rest and recovery for the muscles.
- Therapeutic treatment. Therapy can begin once the imbalances are identified in the muscles and other factors such as weak flexors. Strength training in untrained individuals is effective in correcting imbalances. Shortened muscles can also be restored by combining fascia training with stretching exercises. Treating the cause of the imbalance is also important to prevent a recurrence. If sitting for very long periods is identified as being the cause of muscular imbalance, then one may need to change the working position at regular intervals. Electrical stimulation is also a viable option for those who do not want to go to the gym, and muscle can be rebuilt using EMG-triggered functional electrical stimulations.
Muscle imbalances can be caused by a variety of living conditions and anatomical factors. However, its adverse effects can be avoided if the imbalances are identified, and proper steps are taken to treat them.