How to Finally Fix Your Muscle Imbalances

They may seem like NBD, but muscle imbalances can up your injury risk in and out of the gym. Here's how tweak your training to keep these disparities at bay.

Correcting Muscle Imbalance
Stocksy.

Even if you're a serious gym rat, your workout program might 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 nothing more than training your hamstrings — you may not think twice about skipping Romanian deadlifts and Nordic curls day after day.

But you may want to reconsider your priorities: Neglecting certain muscle groups or sides of your body, among other causes, can lead to harmful muscle imbalances, according to experts. 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 strength balance — and keep it that way. 

How Muscle Imbalances Develop 

Simply put, a muscle imbalance refers to one muscle group being stronger than another, and it can develop practically anywhere in your body, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault. You can experience imbalances between the four small rotator cuff muscles, the three heads of your deltoids, and between your major pec muscles, for instance, he says.

FTR, it's normal to have some strength discrepancies, as everyone has a dominant side that does more work than the other (think: your right side if you're right-handed) on a daily basis. But they can be exacerbated due to repetitive motions, whether it be during your sport, job, or lifestyle, says Laura Su, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Seattle. For example, if you’re a softball player constantly swinging your bat and catching the ball on your right side, there’s a good chance that half of your body will be stronger than your left, says Su. A muscle imbalance between the two halves of your body may also develop if you’re usually performing bilateral training (aka exercises that work both limbs or sides of the body at once), as your dominant side will naturally take on slightly more of the workload, she says. 

What's more, muscle imbalances can spring up between the muscles on either side of a joint, such as your quads and hamstrings or your biceps and triceps, says Su. In this case, improper training programs (think: only performing pushing movements and skipping pulling ones) can worsen any strength disparities you have, she says. 

The Risks of Muscle Imbalances

While minor muscle imbalances are bound to happen, the goal should always be to keep your body as proportional as possible in order to prevent injuries, says Su. Say you’re an athlete whose quads are significantly stronger than your hamstrings. “That imbalance could put them at greater potential risk for an ACL tear because your hamstring isn't strong enough to help decrease the amount of torque that's produced on that knee joint when you’re doing dynamic, quick motions,” she explains.

Serious muscle imbalances can also cause movement compensations that can up your risk of injury, says Wickham. Take, for instance, a person whose right leg is much stronger than their left. If they were to squat with a heavy barbell, their right leg may bear more of the workload as their left fatigues, he explains. Then, “you may have a hip shift to [the stronger] side, you might really shift the weight to one side, which causes some differences in your hip rotation and then affects your knee,” he says. “Now all of the sudden, your knee is in a bad position, which then puts wear and tear on your meniscus.”

In that same case, the weaker leg’s technique may also falter as the set progresses, compromising joint positioning and ultimately leading to 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 simply practice unilateral exercises (aka one-side movements), says Wickham. If you try a single-leg deadlift, for instance, and are able to do 12 reps on your right leg and only eight on your left while using the same weight, you’re likely dealing with an imbalance, he explains. You can also look at your form during bilateral movements: a barbell slowly leaning toward one side during a set of bench presses or back squats could signal a strength disparity, he adds. And finally, watch out for post-workout pain. “Say your shoulder is constantly getting nagging pain after a certain workout and you didn't do anything extremely traumatic to it, that could be a sign of muscle imbalance,” says Wickham.

Think you’re dealing with a muscle imbalance? Put these tips into action to fix the discrepancies you currently have and prevent others from developing.

Practice Unilateral Exercises

First things first, replace some of your bilateral exercises with their unilateral counterparts, which can also help prevent discrepancies, according to the experts. To help your muscles catch up in strength, make sure to perform reps on your weaker side first when your body isn’t as fatigued and your technique will be high-quality, suggests Su.

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

Follow a Well-Rounded Training Program

To correct and fend off muscle imbalances around a single joint, remember to follow a strength training program that hits all of your major muscle groups on the front and back sides of your body, says Su. If you’re going to train your quads, don’t forget to work your hamstrings and glutes too. And if you’re doing pushing movements to target your chest, don’t forget to complement them with pulling movements to build up your back, she says.

“A good rule of thumb when putting together a full-body split that will hit all those major muscle groups is that you want some sort of a squat, a lunge, a hip hinge, an upper-body push, and an upper-body pull,” says Su. “That'll pretty much cover those major muscle groups, and then you can accessorize and add isolation exercises as you like.” Athletes who are constantly rotating their body and transferring force in one direction (think: a tennis player) will also want to prioritize moves 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 being consistent with it, and you're progressing in the load or the reps, then you should be on a good path to preventing and correcting muscle imbalances.”

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