We all have one side of our body that is stronger than the other. This is usually referred to as the “dominant” side.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a gym or lifted a dumbbell off the rack, you’re all-too-familiar with concept as well.
Think back to your childhood.
Did you write equally well with both hands? Could throw a ball as well with your right hand as your left? What about kicking a ball? Were you able to kick the ball with the same power, precision, and force on both sides?
We all have one side of our body that is stronger than the other -- it’s just the way we’re designed.
Under normal circumstances, these minor muscle imbalances are nothing to sweat.
The problem comes when you start regularly lifting weights and building muscle and strength.
Whenever you perform a bilateral exercise, such as the squat, deadlift, or bench press, where both sides of the body work simultaneously to move a load, the muscles on the strong side of the body tend to perform just a bit more work to compensate for the weaker side.
If you only ever performed bilateral movements for the rest of your training career, you would develop serious muscle imbalances between the two sides of your body. If these differences became large enough, you would likely see a difference in the appearance of your physique as well.
But that’s not all, when you have major strength discrepancies between the two sides of your body, in an effort to perform the exercise, the weaker side may recruit the wrong muscles to execute the movement, which can lead to strain and potentially injury. The reason for this is that muscles that weren’t intended to be stressed (or built to withstand a certain level of stress) are now taxed beyond their capacity. As a result, pain, strain, degradation, and injury ensue.
Now, we typically think imbalances can only occur between the two sides of our body -- left and right.
But, they can also exist between the front and back sides of our body.
For example, we’ve all see Johnny Bench-A-Lot at the gym. You know who we’re talking about, this is the gym bro that lives for the bench press and does nary a set for his back or legs. Sure he has a broad chest and meaty triceps, but he also has a pulled-forward, hunched over posture that resembles Quasimodo, too.
Having major muscle imbalances between the chest and back muscles can lead to shoulder impingement, which causes pain and discomfort in the shoulder and may lead to eventual injury.
Similarly, if all you ever did for legs were leg extensions and did no work for your hamstrings whatsoever, you would end up with a severe imbalance between the muscles on the front and back of your legs, which increases the likelihood for an ACL tear.
Suffice it to say that if you’re serious about your training and would like to enjoy a long, pain-free lifting career, you need to be as proactive as possible with your exercise programming to help avoid the possibility of developing muscle imbalances.
With that in mind, here are a few of our favorite tips for how to prevent and fix muscle imbalances.
How to Fix Muscle Imbalances
Perform Unilateral Exercises
Addressing muscle imbalances begins with programming some unilateral exercises into your training program.
For those of you not familiar with the term, a unilateral exercise is one in which only one side of your body is working at a time.
Examples of unilateral exercises include:
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Stationary Lunge
- 1-arm overhead press
- 1-arm row
- Alternating bicep curls
The list goes on, but you get the gist.
Incorporating unilateral exercises forces you to start working one side of your body at a time and from this you’ll be able to identify just how severe (or not) your muscle imbalances may be from one side to the other.
But, simply performing unilateral exercises isn’t enough...that brings us to the next point.
Do the Same Number of Reps for Both Sides
Performing unilateral exercises is great, but it isn’t a guarantee that you will avoid muscle imbalances.
As we said at the beginning, we all have one side of our body that is stronger than the other. By this logic, you will generally be able to move slightly more weight or complete more reps with your stronger side than your weaker side.
If you do not perform the same amount of work with both sides of your body you will still develop muscle imbalances, regardless of the fact that you are performing unilateral exercises.
The solution to this is simple -- do the same amount of work on both sides of your body.
Now, you can go about this one of two ways.
The first way is to start with your weaker side. Perform as many reps as you can with good form using your weak side and then perform that same amount with your stronger side. You may feel that you could bang out a few more reps with your stronger side, but that’s not the point. You’re trying to not let the strength or size discrepancy get any worse.
The second way is to begin with your stronger side. Perform as many reps as you can with good form, and then switch to your weaker side. Now, since this is your weaker side, you may not be able to complete as many reps right off the bat.
Simply perform as many reps as you can with the weak side, then use the rest-pause technique until you complete all reps. This second method is more of a “forceful” way to help bring your weaker side up to match your stronger side by forcing the weaker to do as much work as the stronger side.
Now that we’ve addressed how to take care of muscle imbalances between the left and right sides of your body, let’s talk about fixing discrepancies between the front and back sides...
Do a Pull for Every Push
As a society, we tend to train the muscles on the front of the body (the “mirror” muscles) a lot more than we do the muscles on the backside.
This overemphasis on the “pushing” muscles of the body only feeds into the posture problems we develop on account of sitting most of the day hunched in front of a screen.