For those of us who train for aesthetics, there is no higher aim than to achieve a well-balanced muscular body. Building massive arms but neglecting your legs can lead to an imbalanced, uneven looking physique.
You’ve probably heard that common phrase “he definitely skips leg day”, but this is not just something that affects men with big egos. Any personal trainer will tell you that women are just as guilty of avoiding exercises for their upper back and chest as men are of skipping legs.
The problem is that a lot of exercises are enjoyable, while others are really difficult. Performing ten sets of chest press may be heaven for one person, while the idea of using a squat rack may send shivers down their spine.
Creating a balanced physique is not just about avoiding embarrassment next time you wear shorts though, nor is it always about creating symmetry. A balanced physique will be stronger, more powerful, more resilient, and better coordinated.
In this article we will take a look at how to address upper body/lower body imbalances, whether you are suffering from a big upper and tiny legs, or vice versa.
How To Fix The Over-Developed Upper Body
This is a common affliction that affects Bros more than anyone. Years of training arms, chest, and back almost exclusively (with shoulders thrown in too of course) has led to a well-developed upper body – but the legs have been completely neglected.
Many people go years without ever worrying about this imbalance, but one day they may overhear a mean comment, or find that they can no longer wear shorts without getting laughed at. If this is you then you are going to need to make changes fast!
The first thing that you should do is get your mindset correct. After years of lifting heavy with bench presses you may be tempted to try and squat double your own bodyweight. If you can bench heavy then surely you can also squat heavy right? Wrong.
You’ll see this all the time in gyms. A bro who has been tearing it up with bench and shoulder presses one day decides to crush the lower body too. They put some serious weight on the barbell and then go for the squat.
Then one of two things happen, either they fail to get back up again, or they use a half-squat technique that looks terrible and puts ridiculous pressure on your knees. Always concentrate on getting your form perfect before boosting the weights, even if that means using a very light weight.
Concentrate on your technique, timing, tempo, and form constantly while adding lower body exercises to your routine. Choosing the right type of exercises to add to your routine is crucial. If you have seriously neglected lower body for a long time then you may need to start from scratch.
If you have consistently performed lower body exercises but haven’t dedicated enough time to them (hence the imbalance) then you can add any exercise you like.
Obviously, compound movements such as the barbell squat, deadlift, and exercises such as lunges, Romanian deadlifts, and their variations all need to be incorporated into your training.
But you may find that at first the exercises are beyond you. Regress difficult exercises to match your current abilities. If you are struggling to perform a perfect barbell deadlift, then try a kettlebell deadlift – which is easier to perform, and can really help you get your technique up to scratch.
The same thing goes with barbell squats, the regression can go as far back as bodyweight box squats (sitting down onto a flat surface in a controlled manner), regular bodyweight squats, goblet squats, sumo squats with a dumbbell, and then eventually barbell squats.
Adding in exercises that primarily target the hamstrings is also a good idea, many people who sit down a lot during the day (office workers for example) tend to have quite tight, and weak hamstrings. This can cause a lot of issues with deadlifts, squats, and even some upper body exercises such as barbell bent over rows.
Starting each session with some seated hamstring curls as a warm up can make a big difference. Adding in exercises such as Romanian deadlifts, Nordic curls, and good mornings will also help.
A lot of fitness professionals look down their noses at resistance machines such as leg extensions and leg presses, (correctly) claiming that there are better barbell and dumbbell exercises that you can perform instead.
This does not mean that resistance machines should be ignored though, particularly for people who are new to lifting (and could do with a quick increase in strength). Use the leg extension, but also use lunges where possible. Use the leg press, but use barbell squats more. Create a routine that works for you, because no exercise (when performed correctly) is inherently bad.
How To Fix The Over-Developed Lower Body
Many lifters would find it impossible to imagine anybody preferring lunges, deadlifts, and squats over bicep curls. But prioritising the lower body is absolutely a thing. Without generalising too much, while men tend to prioritise arms, chest, and back over legs, many (but not all) women tend to prioritise legs over their upper body.
Chalk that down to differing perceptions of what an “ideal” male and female body looks like (thanks Cosmo!).
A (very generalised) rule of thumb should be that you should be able to perform 10 push ups, 1-5 pull ups, and 1-5 bodyweight dips as a man if you want to be considered functionally strong. Obviously, this isn’t possible for very heavy guys, but it’s just a general rule.
Women should also be able to perform push ups, performing a perfect pull up would be amazing, but most women should at least be able to perform a decent pull up while using minimal assistance (in the form of resistance bands or an assisted pull up machine). Same goes for dips.
So how would you go about getting your upper body up to the desired level? Often, incorporating eccentric training (using negatives) can really help. Performing the lowering portion of a pull up can really help improve your strength, and can eventually lead to you performing a full pull up.
You can also use resistance bands to reduce the difficulty, and slowly reduce the amount of assistance that you require until you are fully un-assisted.
Adding in resistance exercises such as lat-pulldowns can also help, though over-reliance on them can actually hinder progress.
Assisted pull up machines can also be helpful. An ideal program would incorporate all different forms of pull up exercise, plus regressions such as inverted row (using a bar placed at hip height to pull yourself up to a 45-degree angle).
You can also do similar things with push ups. Regress the exercise, concentrate on negatives, and utilise similar exercises such as bench presses, chest presses, and assisted dips. Often, pull ups and push ups can be improved by strengthening your arms and shoulders too! Consider some tricep and bicep-specific exercises.
Having an over-developed upper or lower body is either due to injury or poor programming. If it is injury then a talk with a sports physiotherapist should be your first move. But, mostly it is due to bad programming (or no programming whatsoever for many people). Creating a full-body training program is the best option for 90% of gym goers.
Instead of dealing with the following:
- Monday = Chest and triceps
- Tuesday = Back and Biceps
- Wednesday = Shoulders and Abs
- Thursday = Chest and Back
- Friday = Maybe legs (or arms)
You should consider training full-body each session. You can split this into a push/pull program if you prefer, or you can follow upper/lower (provided you have the discipline to stick to it), but make sure that lower body takes up at least 50% of your training (some would say 60% or more).
A lot of the time, people ignore a certain body part because they either dislike or are nervous about performing the exercises that target it. Squats and deadlifts can seem quite scary to a new lifter, or like a pain to longer term lifters.
Some women may worry that training their upper body could make them too bulky (untrue) or may not be “feminine” (absolutely untrue) in the way that glute bridges are.
But once someone embraces these exercises, they can then become a new favourite. Much like cooking a meal for the first time may have seemed scary but now you really enjoy it (or whatever task suits this example better for you).
Nobody can change your physique but you, and to get the body of your dreams (or just simply to reduce injury risk) you will need to get out of your comfort zone. It’s best that you ditch the excuses and start today!