The majority of us train to look good and feel good.
If you follow a good training program, eat reasonably well most of the time, get adequate sleep, and use the right supplements, you’ll get great results!
As you progress in your training, you may start to notice subtle differences in your physique and/or performance. It could be that one arm looks a little more muscular than the other or that you find one leg to be stronger than the other. These slight differences in size and/or strength from one side of your body to the other are known as muscle imbalances.
They’re completely normal -- we all have a “dominant” side and a non-dominant. The goal is, that from a performance and aesthetics standpoint, these imbalances are minimal. And, again, if you’re following a well-designed training plan, like the kind that are offered for FREE in the 1UP Fitness App, then you (usually) don’t need to worry.
Again, the human body is quite complex, and we’re all built a bit differently. For instance, you might find that you push a little harder with one side of your body than with the other when perform compound exercises like back squats or bench presses. Over time, this can lead to an imbalance in both size and strength.
But, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered!
Here’s how to fix muscle imbalances.
How to Fix Muscle Imbalances -- 3 Steps
#1 Follow a Solid Training Program
The first step in fixing a muscle imbalance is taking the steps to limit your chance of developing a major muscle imbalance. This means following a quality training program centered around compound movements.
For example, when training your legs you can choose to perform leg extensions, which work only the quadriceps, and don’t work the glutes or hamstrings, or any number of squat variations, such as the back squat, front squat, or goblet squat. Squats also involve many other muscle groups, including the upper back, abs, and glutes. Squatting is also a fundamental movement pattern, forces your muscles to go through a more complete range of motion, and has a greater capacity for overload (which can help build more muscle and strength) than leg extensions.
Now, this isn’t to say that leg extensions are “bad” or “ineffective”, but if you only used leg extensions to train your legs, you would develop some serious aesthetic and strength imbalances between the front and back sides of your legs. This also has unintended downstream consequences from excessively weak hamstrings and overdeveloped quads, which could affect the hips, knees, ankles, and lower back.
This same philosophy applies to other major muscle groups -- chest, back, shoulders, etc.
Every training program, provided you don’t have a history of major injury or other physical limitation, should address these major movement patterns:
- Vertical Push
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Push
- Horizontal Pull
A “bare bones” full-body workout that you could perform three times per week could very easily be:
- Dips (Vertical Push)
- Pull Ups (Vertical Pull)
- Push Ups (Horizontal Push)
- Inverted Rows (Horizontal Pull)
- Goblet squats (Squat)
- Kettlebell swings or Romanian Deadlifts (Hinge)
That covers all of your fundamental movement patterns and addresses the major (and minor) muscle groups.
Once you have the movements of your training program dialed-in, the next step to consider when trying to fix muscle imbalances is…
#2 Adjust Volume
Not only is it important to have the right exercises in your training program in order to avoid muscle imbalances, you also need to perform the right amount of each exercise. If you’re just starting out, then you’ll be performing roughly the same number of sets each week for each muscle group.
The one exception might be in your ratio of pushing exercises to pulling exercises. The reason for this is that most of our daily activities in daily life involve things in front of our bodies (e.g. texting, typing, pushing). Few of us do much pulling each day. This can lead to the shoulders being pulled forward and weak upper back muscles (i.e. hunched over posture).
Over time, this can put undue strain on the shoulder joint and rotator cuff, which may eventually lead to pain and dysfunction. In the case of several imbalances between the front and back sides of the upper body, it may be recommended to perform a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing exercises.
For instance, you may perform a total of 18-20 working sets for your upper back, spread across pull ups, dumbbell rows, cable rows, and face pulls, with only 10 working sets for your chest spread across bench press, incline dumbbell press, and push ups.
Again, early in your fitness journey volume will be similar across each muscle group, and as you progress and want to bring up a “lagging” or “stubborn” muscle group, you will need to adjust your weekly training volume according to your goals.
#3 Include Unilateral Exercises
As mentioned earlier, we all have a dominant side. This doesn’t just impact daily activities such as which hand we use to write or which foot we use to kick a ball -- it also impacts our performance in the gym, particularly during bilateral movements such as the barbell bench press, barbell squat, leg press, seated cable row, etc.
One side of our body is naturally stronger than the other, and over time, this can lead to significant discrepancies in both size and strength.
The solution for the imbalances between one side of our body and the other (also known as asymmetries) is unilateral training.
Unilateral exercises are those in which only one side of the body is working. Some of our favorite unilateral exercises for fixing muscle imbalances and making size and strength gains, include:
- Bulgarian split squats
- Dumbbell curls
- Dumbbell bench press
- Overhead kettlebell press
- Single-leg Romanian deadlift
Unilateral exercises force each muscle to pull its weight as it can’t rely on its stronger counterpart to “shoulder the burden.” If you find that there is a significant imbalance between the two sides of your body, you have two options:
- Start with the weaker side and only perform as many reps with the stronger side
- Start with the stronger side and use rest-pause with your weaker side to match the weight and reps performed with the stronger side.
Bonus Tip: Mobility Work
One last thing you can do to help avoid (or fix) muscle imbalances is to incorporate some mobility work into your week. It may not seem like much, but as little as 15-20 minutes 2-3 times per week can do wonders to improve your mobility, workout performance, and limit your chance for developing a muscle imbalance.
Muscle imbalances can be in the form of strength or size differences between two sides of the body. This could be between the same muscle group on opposite sides of the body (e.g. left bicep vs right bicep) or between the front and back sides of the body (e.g. chest vs back).
The three keys to avoiding (or fixing) muscle imbalances is to follow a proper training program focused on compound exercises, perform the right amount of volume for each muscle group, and include unilateral exercises in your workout plan.
We offer coach and personal trainer-approved programs for FREE in the 1UP Fitness App. You’ll also gain access to our exclusive private Facebook group where you can ask questions, get feedback, and receive encouragement, advice, and motivation from other goal-oriented individuals.