Muscle imbalances are a controversial subject in the fitness world, and are often the source of heated debates (because nerds can ruin any subject).
The debate is not centered around whether muscle imbalances exist or not, but rather on what is the cause of the imbalance in the first place.
Most strength and conditioning coaches (and a large amount of physique coaches) believe that imbalances occur due to over-training one muscle while under training another.
On the other side of the argument is functional movement coaches who claim that muscle imbalances are caused by tight muscles that have been affected by bad movement patterns. For example if you always walked with your shoulders forward you might get tight pectoral muscles.
Both sides make convincing cases, and the reality is that both sides could be right in certain situations. In this article we are going to assume that a muscle imbalance can occur due to poor training or bad movement/posture, and we are going to create a strategy that can prevent either issue from creating an imbalance.
The Most Common Muscle Imbalances
We will take a look at some of the most common imbalances, describe how to identify them, then look at strategies to prevent them.
#1. The Shoulder Imbalance
Before going into too much detail we should first look at the anatomy of your shoulders. They are made up of one large muscle called the Deltoid. A lot of people mistakenly believe that the Deltoids are a muscle group made up of three separate muscles, but it’s just one muscle with three origins.
These origins are made up of different fibres, and are therefore defined as three distinct parts: The Anterior (front), Lateral (side), and Posterior (rear).
Many people end up with much stronger front delts than rear delts. This is the most common imbalance in weight lifters and it can actually cause a lot of issues down the line.
Due to a lot of pushing movements such as bench press, shoulder press, and front raises, the front delts tend to become much more developed than the rear delts.
Because of this you can become “round shouldered” which can affect your posture.
This can lead to rotator cuff injuries, bad posture, and poor lifting technique. That common trope about bodybuilders having poor mobility is often due to weakened rear delt muscles and the imbalance that this causes.
Luckily there is an easy way to fix this. In fact there are two methods that you can use. The first one would be to perform your training on a push/pull split.
One day you train pushing movements (bench press, shoulder press, squats, etc) and on the other day you perform pulling movements.
Making sure to train 2 back exercises for each chest and shoulder movement that you performed the day before.
Another method is to add in exercises that work the rear deltoids specifically.
Face Pulls are probably the best exercise for this.
- Grab a cable machine and attach a rope so that it hangs at about eye level.
- Then grab the rope in both hands and take a couple of steps back until you can feel the tension on the cable.
- Next you want to raise your elbows so they are in line with or above your ears, and pull the rope attachment towards your face.
- Pause when you feel sufficient tension in your rear delts and don’t try to push it further. Keeping your elbows high throughout.
- Slowly return the cable back to the starting point and then repeat.
Other rear deltoid exercises that you could perform would be:
- Rear Delt Cable Flyes
- Scapular Retractions
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises
You could also focus on mobility work that targets the muscles of the upper back and shoulders.
Adding in rowing movements such as T-bar rows, dumbbell rows, and seated rows can also help.
#2. The Upper Leg Imbalance
This imbalance is often found in athletes, and is responsible for a number of injuries and performance issues.
As with the deltoid muscles, we’ll first discuss the anatomy of your upper leg before explaining how you can fix this issue.
You have two main muscles that make up your thighs, these are the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The quadriceps are in the front, while the hamstrings are at the back.
These muscles work together to stabilize the knee, and help you perform knee and hip movements.
What happens with a lot of people is they unintentionally overdevelop the quadriceps, leading to an imbalance.
Another factor is that people who sit down a lot during the day tend to get very tight hamstrings, which again can cause an imbalance.
Runners who work office jobs tend to suffer the most because while on the one hand they are exercising their quadriceps a lot while running, they are also sedentary for long periods of time while at work. This combination leads to many injuries (both chronic and acute).
The simplest way to fix this imbalance is to just add in a lot more hamstring dominant exercises into your gym routine.
- Glute Bridges
- Nordic Curls
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Leg Curl Machine
#3. Tennis Elbow
This injury is very common in sports (such as tennis obviously) where you hold or grip equipment, but it can also affect anyone who performs a lot of gripping actions in their work or improper form on tricep exercises.
This is what makes it such as difficult issue, you can’t tell a hairdresser or butcher to stop performing the actions that are causing their injury.
Tennis elbow is caused by an overuse of the extensor muscles in the forearm. Particularly the extensor carpi radialis brevis.
These muscles attach to the radius bone in your upper arm (at the elbow). You may start to notice a pain in your elbow as you perform your usual movements, and that your forearms fatigue faster than usual. Your grip may also become quite a lot weaker than it was before.
There are a number of exercises that you can perform to reduce the risk/effect of tennis elbow.
- Wrist turns, where you hold your arm at a 90 degree angle and turn your wrist over slowly (either with or without a weight) are excellent.
- Wrist lifts, where you hold a weight outstretched and then lift your wrist so that the weight turns towards you. You can also use your other hand to grab the wrist and flex it for you.
If the issue is serious then you can use a counter-force brace known as an Epicondylitis Clasp which can relieve the symptoms of tennis elbow and reduce inflammation.
#4. Uneven Muscles
Let’s get one thing clear, humans are NOT symmetrical creatures.
It is very rare, if not impossible to find someone with a perfectly symmetrical face or body.
One of the most common complaints from weight lifters and fitness enthusiast is a perceived uneven muscle imbalance in terms of size. The most common ones being:
- One Bicep Bigger Than The Other (Uneven biceps)
- One Chest Bigger Than The Other (Uneven chest muscles)
For the most part everyone has some muscular imbalance in terms of size, because we humans have a dominant side that we use more often, this also translates into the work we do in the gym. These imbalances are pretty normal, unless it’s actually causing you bodily pain, discomfort and aching (in which case, go to a physiotherapist).
The shape of our bicep, chest and even shoulder muscles are not always symmetrical, the way they attach to the bone can be different, the size and shape of the muscle bellies can also be different. If you feel like one side of your body is bigger than the other, you may be right, but it’s practically unnoticeable to other people, it’s mostly just in your head (no one really pays attention or notices your body with the scrutiny that you do).
But sometimes, we do go too far in using our dominant bicep or dominant chest and this can give a wonky look.
Here are a few tips that will help you even up your muscles:
- Use dumbbells. This way you’re making sure both sides are doing an equal amount of work. Always stop when the weaker side is fatigued.
- Stretch! Make sure your imbalance isn’t caused by tight muscles on one side. Learn to stretch and loosen your muscles properly.
I hope this article helped you in correcting your muscle unevenness and imbalances. And remember, you notice your own muscle unevenness WAY MORE than anyone else.