Muscle Imbalances in Athletes and the General Public
As an athlete, powerlifter, or someone in the general population engaged in personal fitness, it is important to monitor for and recognize muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances can have varying consequences depending on location. They can be limb to limb or in the front of our body to the back. They can be tighter on one side, or weaker than the opposing side. This could, for example, cause us to favor one arm or leg over the other without us realizing. Unfortunately, this could lead to injury if not taken care of. So, who is at risk for muscle imbalances, and what are some common ones to look for?
The reality is that anyone could have a muscle imbalance, and you might not even know that you do. They are very common in the general population, especially in people who have a sedentary job and sit at a desk for long periods. People who have a hunched posture typing on a keyboard all day may have shoulders that round forward. This may be a result of tension in their pectoral muscles (chest), which results in their shoulders being pulled forward. This is an example of a front to back imbalance. If you feel this situation describes you, you may be asking what can be done to fix it. Well, being more aware of our posture and of the risk of muscle imbalance is a good place to start. Sitting up straighter or maybe even getting up periodically to take a walk or stretch could be helpful. Another method might be to see a physical therapist or someone who could help prescribe a regimen that works for you. We could also, over time,
stretch out our pectoral muscles to even out the balance between our chest and upper back or strengthen the back to pull back our shoulders. However, it is important to remember that everyone’s body and lifestyle are different, and the same method does not always work for everyone.
Athletes, powerlifters, or people who exercise frequently may also suffer from a muscle imbalance. It may be easier to notice imbalances if you belong to this group, as you are more familiar with using your muscles and comparing the weight or resistance each side is able to handle. While this is sometimes true, it may not be as easy to notice as one might think. Imbalances can occur as a result of injuries that are not checked out or treated by a medical doctor, and so the athlete favors one side rather than the other. This could lead to one side overdeveloping. Another source of imbalance could be from their form during lifts where again one side may be favored. An example of this could be the barbell bench press where one arm comes up before the other. That can mean either their form needs to be fixed or one arm and side of the chest is being favored due to a muscle imbalance.
So what can we do?
One way to fix the imbalance could be single arm pressing or dumbbells. Using dumbbells and performing the same movement allows both sides to be worked individually with the same weight allowing then weaker side to catch-up over time. This could also be applied to leg muscles and various other muscle groups where one side may be weaker. An example would be during the deadlift where one leg and hip comes up slightly before the other side. Single leg work can help the weaker side catch up. One exercise that can be used may be a single leg Romanian deadlift where while balancing on one leg, the person pushes the hips back and brings the chest forward to get a stretch and contraction in the same hamstring of the leg they are balancing on. That exercise may help fix the muscle imbalance, but again everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for another over time.
(Single leg Romanian deadlift above dumbbell bench press below)
With athletes especially, these imbalances are important to look out for. For example, if an athlete had a weaker leg, the muscles on the opposite leg may become tighter and more overdeveloped. This could cause a shift in the hips (think tilting left to right, or vice versa, depending on which side is weaker). Having to slightly favor one side while having this shift in the hips could lead to problems with smooth motion and then injury in the hip joint. That may mean ligament sprains, muscle strains, or even labrum problems. Over time this could happen to anyone if not caught and fixed in a timely manner.
Here at SPI we work with many athletes, as well as people who use our services for various injuries or for training. We've seen first-hand that using a universal method of training to fix an imbalance or recover from an injury may not work for everyone. If you notice that you have an imbalance or think you may have one, it would be in your best interest to work with someone who can help assess and fix the problem. We only get one body to live in, so if you find you have an imbalance it would be ideal to work on fixing it before it causes further injuries and problems keeping you out of work or play.