You may be familiar with the old saying, "you're only as strong as the weakest link in the chain". This is a perfect analogy for muscle imbalance.
Most of us are born with a dominant side we use when engaging in daily living. You may think this applies only to being right or left handed. But we actually have dominate muscles throughout our body.
When imbalances exist, they effect our physical functions in general. Bench press, squat, curl, deadlift, competitive sports - all the things - are effected by these imbalances.
But even more important than performance in a gym or athletics, muscle imbalances increase our risk for injury in everyday living.
You may get away with ignoring these imbalances for a time, but eventually your body will be put to a task that requires full power, mobility and strength. If the gap between dominant and weak side has widened to far, you may be at risk for injury.
Whether it be arms, shoulders, legs, glutes, back or core - when we use one side more than the other, imbalances are created.
Overtime, you may start to notice significant differences in strength, coordination, mobility, functional use and even inequality in muscle size.
A few conditions muscle imbalances are linked to are:
loss of strength & power
increased injury risks
weak core strength
difficulties with daily functional tasks
overall aesthetics with differences in muscle size
Whatever the cause or current condition, imbalances are something we help people improve everyday.
If you are feeling these imbalances in the gym, during sports, or causing concerns for every day living, the remedies are the same.
1. Isolate As Much As Possible
In my personal training gym we stick to dumbbells, cables, barbells, kettlebells, bands, and calisthenics. We have very few machines. Unless the machine is specifically designed to isolate, your stronger side will automatically do most of the work.
For instance, performing a bicep curl with dumbbells will automatically force your weaker arm to do it's own work, which translates to building muscle. Compare that to a bicep curl machine that uses both arms at once. Your dominate side will automatically kick in here, continuing the imbalance.
Isolation is the fastest way to strengthen a weak area. So, engage in exercises that force the muscle to work against resistance without help from other muscles.
Isolate as much as possible with form
Isolate as much as possible with equipment used
2. Determine Your Rep and Weight
Start using weight that challenges your weak side for a rep range of 8 - 10 with good form, rather than choosing weight your dominate side is capable of.
This will help avoid sloppy form on your weak side, and start bridging the gap of muscle development.
Also, do the same amount of reps and weight on both side, even if it is not the same intensity for your dominate side. Whatever your weak side can do, pace your dominate side by doing the same.
In theory your dominate side will lose some strength. But nothing that you will feel in everyday living. As you incorporate isolation work, and allow the weak side to dictate the rep and weight range, you will start to notice equal power and control.
As you strengthen up, you will naturally increase weight and rep that challenges both sides evenly - truly building a balanced and powerful physique. But remember, you may have to repeat this process as you increase weight load. You are still primarily using your dominate side outside of the gym, so imbalances may be something you correct often.
3. Train Your Weak Side First
Now that you are choosing exercises that isolate, and weight and reps that challenge your weak side while using good form - get in the habit of starting with your weak side.
Going back to the example of a bicep curl, once you grab your dumbbells, start your set with your weak side first. One reason is to determine how many reps you complete during that set (remember you don't want your strong side doing more reps or setting a bar that would require your weak side to have bad form to complete).
Most of us start a movement with our dominate side. Regardless if it be isolated lunges or alternating bicep curls, lead with your weaker side. This remains true, even when you are increasing weight and getting stronger.
4. Add in stand alone reps
As a personal trainer, I find my shoulders can get visually imbalanced. The visual imbalances do not come from my exercise, but from my profession. I am evenly strong in both shoulders, but not evenly coordinated.
I load and unload weight for the majority of my clients. I am quite physical with my upper body for 8 - 10 hours, 5 days a week. Like everyone, I tend to use my dominate, more coordinated side when performing these tasks.
As a result, my right shoulder can look bigger than the left if I am not careful.
Here are a few things I do to correct this.
I purposely show people how to do exercises with my left side, instead of always using my more coordinated side.
Whenever safe, I load and unload weights with my left side.
I do "stand alone" exercises on my left shoulder. Rather than doing exercises on both shoulders, I do a few sets of something to my left shoulder - either during a workout or even just impromptu.
5. Incorporate Mobility
Imbalances are not always due to lack of muscle. Over use of your dominate side can also cause imbalances through tightness and mobility restrictions.
This can be true for individuals who have physical jobs, athletes, or anyone who uses one side more than the other.
As the muscles become sore and chronically tight, the full range of motion is hindered, which limits strength. When this happens to a dominate side we see an increase in injuries.
Speak with your personal trainer about any concerns you have in this area. They should be able to help you with adding some mobility exercises or referring you to a good resource.
If you are not working with a trainer, or they are unable to help, you can look up mobility exercises to do at home. Make sure to use proper form and only try exercises you are comfortable with.
Here are a few guidelines I recommend:
Never work through "pain". Stretching and mobility can feel uncomfortable. So to clarify what I mean by pain, it is acute and you are unable to relax into the movement
Don't push beyond your comfort zone. Similar to the last tip, you don't want to do movements that cause you pain, even if the instructor is doing a better range of motion. Stretch or move in the pattern as far as you can and are comfortable. You will improve in time.
If this issue is chronic, consider seeking a medical evaluation by your healthcare provider.
Incorporating mobility exercises specific to the area of concern is a non-invasive, effective solution to heal the body and regain full access to strength.