I’m a reformed meathead. I used to declare every Monday as chest and arms day, grunted heavily while curling in the squat rack and thought everyone who did lunges should just squat. I thought working out was about moving the most weight and getting checked out by the ladies, hopefully at the same time.
After spending many years under the bar while dealing with various back, leg, elbow and shoulder injuries, I’ve changed my tune. No lifter likes spending time on the DL or in a Physical Therapists office lifting pink dumbbells and doing unnatural things to stability balls.
Lifters who focus on the big 3(squat, bench and deadlifts) can develop muscle imbalances. Some become either quad or hamstring dominant or don’t balance pressing with adequate amounts of pulling. Then muscle strains, aches and pains can darken the lifter’s doorstep.
Or worse, you’ll start to look like this guy.
Balance training is not only about standing on one foot or performing circus tricks on a Bosu ball. It’s also about correcting strength imbalances between our left/right sides and muscle imbalances from opposing muscle groups.
The better balanced you are, the less likely you’re spending time on the DL and more likely that you’ll have a better performing body. That’s a win- win for you and your lifting numbers.
Use the tests below to see how balanced you really are.
Hamstring to Quadriceps Strength Ratio
Hamstrings should have between 60 % – 75% the strength of the quadriceps. This ratio has been discounted in some circles but I feel it’s a good starting point. You don’t need fancy equipment for this test, just access to a leg extension and leg curl machine. I knew these were good for something.
Work up to your 5 repetition maximum on both machines, testing one leg at a time with good form. Rest 3 minutes between the quad/hamstring test and rest as needed between attempts. Record numbers for both machines, and then its math time.
Leg curl divided by leg ext. x 100 = %
For example 60/90 x 100 = 66% Hamstring/Quadriceps strength ratio.
If the ratio is less than 60% include more hip dominant exercises into your routine, especially after your big strength movement for the day. Here are some examples
Super setting these type of exercises with another glute movement works best to help strengthen the entire backside. For example
1A. Romanian deadlift- 12 reps
1B. Lateral band walk – 12-15 reps
1A. Dumbbell deadlift- 12 reps
1B. Single leg hip extension– 12 reps on each leg
Work in the higher repetition ranges (12-15) to groove and master the pattern before worrying about adding weight. Retest this in 4-6 weeks and admire the results.
Standing on one foot
Single leg balance is probably the most overlooked factor in training, and it’s fundamental to almost everything we do. Walking, taking the stairs or playing your favorite sport all involve single leg balance to some degree. If it’s important in our everyday life, it’s important enough to train in the gym.
In Dan John’s book, “Can you go?” he suggests balancing for less than 10 seconds on either leg is a cause for concern, and there maybe an underlying medical condition.
Grab a stopwatch and see if you can balance between 10-20 seconds on both feet. If you’re between 10-20 seconds, work on your ankle mobility to see if that helps improve your balance. However, if it’s less than 10 seconds, take Dan’s advice and go see your doctor. It may just save your life.
Left /right side imbalance
Most of us have strength imbalances between sides due to activities of daily living. For instance, I carry the groceries in my left hand so I can use my keys to open the door with my right hand. Over time, my left side has become stronger that my right.
Rather than feed this imbalance with barbell exercises, unilateral work will help turn this weakness back into a strength and your lifting numbers will improve as a result.
Note- core strength will be a factor in unilateral upper body work. You cannot get enough core work, in my humble opinion.
I chose the cable single chest press/row for this test. However, any dumbbell unilateral variation will do. For example, you can do the dumbbell shoulder press, bench press, floor press or any unilateral row.
After warming up, work up to your 5 RM on the cable row, alternating arms and working with good form. Progress by raising the weight 5-10 pounds at a time. Rest when needed, especially when the weight starts getting heavy. The test stops when you can no longer lift the weight (or it’s a mighty struggle) for 5 reps on either side. Do the same for the cable chest press.
After completing this test, it should become apparent whether or not you have a strength imbalance between your left/right sides with the press, the pull or both.
If this is the case, start plugging more unilateral pressing and pulling into your current routine. Do this a couple of times per week and start with the weaker side first. Let your weaker side dictate what your stronger side does.
Do this after your strength movement for the day and work in any repetition range (4-6, 6-8, 8-12 or 12-15) you desire, depending on your goals. Super setting these movements works best. For example
Retest this again in 4-6 weeks to see if your body has played catch up.
Injuries and strength imbalances happen whether you like it or not, but that doesn’t mean you have to take this lying down. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
No pink dumbbells and stability balls for you!