My old Kenpo master once told me an astounding story.
He and his daughter were experts at archery. They were at the range once, and his daughter pulled back the string on her bow and hit a perfect bullseye.
He then asked her to move over. He slowed his breath, calmed his mind, and pulled back the string on his bow. The arrow was released and it split his daughter’s arrow perfectly in half inside the bulls eye.
I asked him how he could perform such an amazing feat. His answer surprised me.
“Todd, hitting the target has everything to do with how you begin. If you are off by a tiny bit, you are off by a lot.”
Humans are not machines. Machines are made and deteriorate over time, while humans are created and adapt over time.
Adaptation is the reason you can develop the ability to perform a muscle-up, back flip, or any other such goal. However, adaptation is also the process that causes imbalances. This can lead to injuries and stand in the way of achieving your goals.
Muscle imbalances start right at the beginning. If you train and are “off” by a bit, you’ll develop unevenly and become off by a lot more over time. Your body adapts unevenly to the greater stimulus on one side, which can lead to injury.
In this article, I’m going to share with you 6 steps that will help to improve muscle imbalances. It’s important to remember that nobody can achieve perfect symmetry. We all have slight imbalances that come about just from living our lives, but it’s important to be balanced enough to prevent injury and develop relatively equal strength throughout the body.
What Are The Causes of Muscle Imbalance?
The biggest cause of muscle imbalance is favoring one side of your body over the other. If you’re right-side-dominant, you’ll typically have greater strength on your right side. When you do pull-ups, for example, you’ll pull slightly more weight with your right side than your left. When you do a push-up, you’ll put more weight on your right arm.
This is very common. Last Saturday I helped my cousin and family lay shingles in their garage. I noticed that the entire time I was hammering with my right hand and aligning the singles with my left hand. My right side was being used more. This will have increased capillary diameter, helping to improve circulation, endurance and strength in the hammering arm.
This is a perfect example of one of the many thousands of instances throughout our lives that cause muscle imbalances. We favor one side, and it adapts. Then we set a fitness goal like being able to do fifteen pull-ups in a row. You’re able to keep your weight balanced for the first ten reps, but your dominant side takes over (even if it’s just a little bit) for the harder last five reps.
This causes strength imbalances.
Other Types of Muscle Imbalances
Muscle imbalances are not one-dimensional. Strength is not the only component. Mobility and flexibility also affects muscle imbalance.
If you have better mobility in one shoulder, those muscles have a greater advantage than those at a more restricted joint. Think about what happens to an arm when it’s put into a cast for six months. When you take it off, the arm looks like death. It’s smaller, it smells, the skin is greyish, and it’s weak. Movement is life. Greater movement equals greater health.
The other type of imbalance occurs at a neural level. When we do the same movement over and over, we are teaching our nervous system to perform that movement. This is called muscle memory. The neurons learn to fire in a certain sequence, to the point where the movement becomes almost automatic.
Martial artists rely on this muscle memory to help them if they’re attacked. They practice thousands of times in the dojo, so that when someone throws a punch at them in the street their nervous system reacts quickly and efficiently to perform the learned movement.
Why Are Muscle Imbalances Bad?
Muscle imbalances on very small scale are inevitable. They can’t be avoided. It’s just part of being human. Remember that you cannot achieve perfection, but you can work towards it.
If you have too many muscle imbalances, it can lead to injury. For example, many people have imbalanced development in their chest and upper back. Their shoulders are rotated inward, causing a shortening of the chest muscles. After years of sitting with this posture, the muscle become atrophied and short. Conversely, the muscles in the upper back become elongated and pull on the spine.
If you have a job where you typically keep your right arm in front of you (computer mouse, anyone?), your right pectoral (chest) muscle will become shorter. At the same time, the muscles on the right side of your back will elongate and rotate the portion of the spine that they are linked to. This causes some interior spinal muscles to become atrophied, potentially causing pain by pinching nerves.
This same scenario can be played out in countless areas of the body. Your chest and back, biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes, and so on. This can also be an issue between different sides of the body, for example between the right chest muscle and the left.
But don’t worry.
I have a 6 step method for helping you to improve muscle imbalances and work towards greater symmetry.
6 Steps for Improving Muscle Imbalances
1. Become Aware Of Your Imbalances
How can you tell if you even have muscle imbalances?
Here are some signs to look out for:
- Pain – This isn’t always an indication of imbalances, but since advanced stages of muscular imbalances lead to pain, it can be a telling sign.
- Weakness on one side – Have you ever tried to perform a movement (pull-up, push-up, squat) and noticed that one side fatigues faster? Yep, you’re imbalanced.
- Physique imbalances – This is another sign that can be deceiving. Our bodies aren’t uniformly symmetrical. You could have perfectly balanced strength, but notice that your body looks a bit different in the mirror from side to side. Remember, this CAN be a sign of an imbalance, but it isn’t the be all and end all.
2. Start Tracking
If you really want to improve your imbalances, you need to do some tracking.
Create some tests. If you use weights this is a lot easier, as differences in weights will reveal your strength imbalances. With bodyweight training it’s slightly more challenging. If you have the ability to do a one-arm chin-up or a pistol squat, these can be great for spotting imbalances.
Track your muscles’ abilities on an individual basis. You’ve got to isolate them in order to really see what’s going on.
3. Improve Mobility
Mobility is a critical component in becoming balanced. If you have poor mobility, it’s like stepping on the gas pedal in your car while keeping the parking brake on. Improve your mobility and you’ll notice your strength will also improve.
As you go through some mobility work, write down any differences in range of movement at each joint.
4. Distribute More Bodyweight To Your Weaker Side
If your current routine is filled with more complicated compound movements (like burpees, gracie drills, spider push-ups, etc.), I recommend that you cut down on those exercises while working on your imbalances. Choose exercises where you can more easily isolate your weaker side. The best way to do this is through bodyweight distribution.
Find simple exercises such as push-ups, squats and pull-ups. While performing these movements, shift your weight over to your weaker side. This will put a greater load on the weaker muscle group, forcing it to adapt without relying on the dominant side to take over when it gets tough.
5. Increase Volume
You need volume to increase strength and size. You can’t do one set of push-ups and call it good. You have to work the muscle over and over again, on multiple planes. Use the omni-set technique on your weaker side and you’ll grow like a weed.
6. Move Back To Equalized Movements & Greater Awareness
Bodyweight mastery is a process. Over time, you learn your personal habits and can adjust accordingly.
By using the above steps you’ll start to see greater balance. Once you’re comfortable with your progress, switch back to movements where your bodyweight is distributed evenly.
Over time, you’ll be able to notice that you inevitably begin to favor one side again. But with this greater awareness, you’ll be able to consciously pull yourself back to a more balanced point, and continue developing from there.