When you look at yourself in the mirror, have you noticed one muscle is bigger than the other? Or have you seen one side holding you back while exercising? Then, you may have a muscle imbalance. These are not a big deal because most people have a dominant and non-dominant side, where one side is slightly stronger.

However, muscle imbalances become problematic when they limit mobility and performance or you get injured. Here, I’ll explain what strength/muscle imbalances are, how to know when you have one, the benefits of reducing them, and how to reduce muscle imbalances in your training.

What Are Muscle Imbalances?

Strength and muscle imbalances occur when one muscle is stronger or weaker than the opposing muscle group or the same muscle on the other side. For example, the hamstrings need to be roughly 2/3 the strength of the quads, and if the hamstrings are weaker, then muscle strains may happen. Muscle imbalances also occur when muscles on each side of the body are not symmetrical in size, strength, or both.

Strength and muscle imbalances often happen around the joints that need mobility, like the ankle, hip, and shoulder area.

What Causes Muscle Imbalances?

Strength and muscle imbalances are commonplace and happen to world-class athletes and people like you and me in various ways. The most common is repetitive movements or holding a particular posture for some time. For instance, tennis and baseball players hit off one side of their bodies.

Another cause is muscle overuse, or when one muscle picks up the slack for another. If the muscles on one side of the joint, like the biceps, become tight due to overuse, it may cause the triceps to become weak. If the glutes are not strong, the hamstrings pick up the slack for the glutes and get tight, which may decrease performance and cause knee pain.

Other reasons include natural development (height, limb length), activities of daily living (carrying groceries on one side of the body), and an unbalanced exercise program.

When Muscle Imbalances Become An Issue

Muscle and strength imbalances are not usually a big deal until they are. You often go through life and do not realize you have one until you run to catch a ball and pull a hammy. The biggest issue is muscle strains and pain because muscles work in pairs for smooth joint movement.

When one muscle is stronger and overpowers another, it’s usually only a matter of time before muscle strains happen. Reducing these muscle imbalances is an easy way to reduce the injury risk from strains. And if you care about how you look, then muscle imbalances become a problem.

Here are a couple of other issues with strength and muscle imbalances.

Reduced Range Of Motion

When one muscle is strong and tight, and the other is stretched and weak, it is difficult for the joint to go through its full ROM. For example, tight hip flexors do not allow the glutes to go into full hip extension.

Decreased Performance

Limited mobility due to muscle imbalances means you’re not strengthening the muscle through a full range of motion, which may hold back your gains. Plus, it will affect technique, too. For example, when your heels come off the ground due to limited hip mobility while squatting.

Tell Tale Signs You Have A Muscle Imbalance

  1. There is a difference in muscle size on your left and right sides. For example, the left arm is smaller than the right arm.
  2. Pay attention to your form. Does one side feel effortless and the other more difficult? Or does one side come up before the other?
  3. You keep getting recurring injuries on the same muscle group—for example, hamstring or quad strains.
  4. Your joint mobility is reduced. For example, your hip mobility is affecting your squat depth and technique.

If one or more of these things are happening, you have a strength or muscle imbalance, and below, I’ll get to reduce them.

2 Ways To Reduce Muscle Imbalances

Here are two simple but not easy ways to reduce strength and muscle imbalances.

1. Perform More Unilateral Exercises

Unilateral exercises such as split squats, single-arm rows, and bench presses reduce muscle imbalance between your left and right sides. Besides better muscle development and reduced injury risk, there are three other reasons why unilateral exercises must be part of your workout routine.

Increased Core Strength: Unilateral exercises automatically throw you off balance, which engages the muscles of your core muscles and body stabilizing muscles to keep you upright.

Improved performance: Daily activities like running require a lot of single-leg work. Sprinting, throwing, jumping, and taking the stairs all involve single-leg work.

Better Performance: Strengthening imbalances between the sides and muscle groups will improve your lifting technique and may help you lift more weight in your bilateral lifts. Both get you back on the gain train.

How to Program Unilateral Exercises

Unilateral exercises strengthen imbalances, prevent injury, and improve muscle development. They are great accessory exercises to perform after your significant strength movement. Training in a rep range of six to sixteen reps for most unilateral exercises for two to four sets works well for most goals.

Please start with the weaker side first and let it dictate how much weight you use. When strengthening the imbalance between your left or right sides, start with the weaker side first. This helps determine the resistance you’ll use on both and the number of sets and reps you do.

2. Do More On The Weaker Muscle Group

This is self-explanatory. If your glutes are weak, do more glute exercises and prioritize them in your workout. If your hamstrings are weaker because you’re straining them, perform more hamstring exercises than quad exercises to help fix this problem.

More work on the smaller or weaker muscles is not about more sets and reps but extra exercises on the weaker muscles. For example, if you want to increase the size and strength of your back rather than your chest, a two-to-one ratio works well. Doing two pulling exercises for every pushing exercise will go a long way to improving your back’s size and strength.

Wrapping Up

Muscle imbalances are commonplace and usually not a huge deal until pain, injury, or a decrease in performance occurs. If it does, you will now have the tools in your toolbox to reduce your muscle and strength imbalances. Then you can flex—you know you want to.

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