If you have unbalanced muscles, this article will show you how to fix muscle imbalances using bodyweight exercises.
Nobody wants an unproportional body.
Although it’s not possible to have a complete symmetrical body, we can get close to that by eliminating muscle imbalances.
If you have ever wondered why your right arm is bigger than the left or why you have rounded shoulders, this article is for you.
So what exactly is muscle imbalance? Here are the definitions for the three types of muscle imbalances.
Opposing muscle imbalance– This is when one muscle is stronger than its opposing muscle. A good example is when biceps are stronger than triceps. Or the chest is stronger than the upper back. This imbalance not only affects posture but also poses injury risk, as you will see later.
Symmetrical muscle imbalance- As the name suggests, muscles on one side of the body are bigger or stronger than the same muscles on the other side. For example, the right arm is bigger than the left one.
General imbalance- Basically this is when the upper body and lower body are not balanced. Think of a dude with a buff upper body and weak legs.
In today’s society muscle imbalance is very common. And it’s mostly attributed to lifestyle. Most people sit down all day and this has an effect on muscles and bones.
Some imbalances, if not corrected can lead to serious injuries and aches now or later in life.
I will discuss what causes muscle imbalances, how you can avoid them, and even how you can fix them. And even I’ll also share a method I used to strengthen my left arm.
Opposing muscle imbalance
Opposing or antagonistic muscles are muscles that work in a complementary way to execute the movement in the body. These muscles should be balanced in strength, flexibility, and posture, for efficiency and to prevent injury.
In a case where a muscle has grown weaker or stronger than it’s opposing muscle, that’s an imbalance.
For muscles to execute movement they contract then relax. One muscle gets shorter and the other longer for movement to happen. When one has an imbalance the muscles contract or relax too little or too much. This is due to muscle tightness and shortening.
This tightness and imbalance put a strain on the joints. And as a result, the joints ache or can’t have a full range of motion or can’t move normally.
Muscle tightness can happen due to prolonged inactivity, not stretching after workout or training one muscle while ignoring the other.
Take for example someone who trains biceps all the time but never works triceps. His/her biceps will not match the triceps in strength and they will end up with an imbalance. And they will even have a hard time straightening their hands because of the biceps tightness.
Here is a list of opposing muscles and the movements they execute.
|Pectorals (Chest) and Latissimus dorsi (Lats)||Move the arms or shoulders forward and backward|
|Abdominals and Erector spinae (lower back)||Bending the spine forward and backward|
|Quadriceps and Hamstrings||Bending and straightening of the knee|
|Hip abductors and adductors (Hips)||Moving the legs apart and together|
|Gastrocnemius and Tibialis anterior (Lower leg/Calves)||Standing on your toes or pulling your toes up toward your shin|
|Iliopsoas and Gluteals (Glutes)||Lifting the knee or moving the knee backward|
|Biceps and Triceps||Bending and straightening the elbow|
Posture and muscle imbalance
Everybody has a position in which they spend most of the day in. And for most people is on a chair, maybe every day of the week. The problem is this is that our bodies are not designed to sit all day (we are supposed to be upright most of the time).
So these everyday positions put the spine and other joints out of their normal balanced alignment. And the muscles follow suit too and adapt to the body’s regular position. That’s how bad posture causes muscle imbalance.
That’s why forward head posture is very common. Because most of the time our heads are leaning forward whether you are texting, using the computer, doing laundry, driving and maybe even now as you read this. With time our bodies are forced to adapt to these positions.
Studies show that forward head posture and rounded shoulders are very common among workers due to bad posture and muscle imbalances.
Maintaining the same position regularly can also shorten and tighten muscles. Again on sitting, when you sit down the hamstrings contract and the quadriceps relaxed. Regularly sitting for long hours means hamstrings are always contracting, this causes chronic hamstring tightness.
For a detailed explanation of posture and muscle imbalance read this.
The three major opposing muscle imbalances
Pectorals and Lattisimus dorsi Imbalance
The lattimus dorsi are the main opposing muscles to the pectorals. An imbalance here means that the upper back is weaker than the chest. As a result, the back will lengthen the back and the shoulders lean forward, causing rounded shoulders.
The lats and middle trapezius muscles are responsible for holding the shoulders back. But when they are not strong enough the chest forces the shoulders forward.
Focusing on chest exercises like pushups all the time and not doing back exercises will cause this imbalance
This imbalance can be avoided or corrected by doing back exercises. Here are some back exercises you can start doing today: Wide grip pull up, side to side pull ups, chin ups, Inverted row pull up and the supermans.
If you already have a rounded shoulder posture, read on. There is something you have to do before you start doing these exercises.
Abdominals and Erector spinae Imbalance
Also known as a lower crossed syndrome. This is usually one of the major causes of lower back pain and also increases the risk of lower back injury.
In this case, the abdominal muscles are weak or lack the endurance to counter the pull of antagonist lower back muscles. This puts extra stress on the lower back muscles because they have to work harder to support the lumbar spine.
The stress and strain cause lower back pain. Note that this isn’t the only cause of lower back pain.
The imbalance will also limit one’s ability to do exercises like squats, morning ups, one leg deadlift and lying leg raise.
Here are some preventive and corrective exercises: Crunches, glute bridges*, planks, and lunges.
Quadriceps and Hamstrings Imbalance
For most people, the quads are stronger than the hamstrings. And this increases the risk of developing knee injuries.
Having weak or tight hamstrings puts excess stress on the knees. As I stated earlier, long hours of sitting causes hamstring tightness. Not only that, quads are more favored in our movements and tend to get stronger. Most of the times we use the quads- walking, climbing the stairs….
This imbalance can cause the “popping sound” in the knee.
Some preventive and corrective exercises are leg curls, one leg deadlift, and single leg bridges.
And if you want to fix glute imbalance you should definitely read Bret’s article.
Effects of opposing muscle imbalance
If muscles are not balanced this pulls one joint out of its position. And that puts a strain on that joint. This, therefore, stresses the ligaments and nerves around that joint and brings the pain.
To ease the pain the body readjusts itself and this causes the other muscles to become unbalanced. And the cycle continues.
High injury risk
Even though chances of getting injured in calisthenics are low, muscle imbalance makes one prone to injury. In fact, bad posture and muscle imbalance are known to cause of swimmer’s shoulder.
Poor flexibility and range of motion
When one muscle is tight and shorter, this limits mobility. This can be limiting when doing bodyweight exercises. Or limit your performance if you are an athlete.
That’s why it’s always important to warm up before training and stretch after, in order to restore normal muscle length.
Other effects of muscle imbalance are:
Lower back pain
Headaches and neck pain
Anterior knee pain and hamstring tears (common in sports)
How to fix opposing muscle imbalance
Once you know you have muscle imbalance it’s time to correct it.
Strengthening the weaker muscle to balance strength may seem like the logical thing to do.
But the first thing you should do is break the tightness in the tight muscle. Jumping straight to strengthening the weaker muscle may cause more imbalances, especially if the imbalance major or you’ve had it for a long time.
First, create mobility on the tight muscles.
Self-release is a great way of creating mobility. Using a foam roller or a massage ball will help break the tightness and increase the range of motion.
Just like losing weight, you can’t correct an imbalance which you have had for years in just 2 weeks. So you’ll have to work on it for several months.
Do foam rolling for 2-3 minutes on the tight muscles before you start the corrective exercises.
Here’s a full body foam rolling video.
Another thing that you should do is to always stretch after training. Stretching after a workout helps restore the normal length of the muscles. “When you strengthen you also need to lengthen.”
A study on 62 volleyball players, which tested postural asymmetry and gross joint mobility recommended stretching to fix muscle imbalances and correct bad posture.
Strengthen your core
Having a strong core is a great way of preventing muscle imbalance and reduce chances of lower back pain. Core stability also improves physique and corrects posture.
Here are core strengthening exercises that you should include in your routine: Planks, the supermans, glute bridges, leg raises and crunches.
Take breaks from sitting
If you sit all day or are in any position for many hours, take several breaks from that position. The breaks can be as short as 10 minutes. Standing up after 2-3 hours will make a big difference.
Practice proper form
You have to do each exercise properly. In fact, some imbalances are caused by poor form. Just do a youtube search to learn proper form for any bodyweight exercise.
Symmetrical muscle imbalance
Whether it’s the chest, arms, calves, traps or quads, most people’s muscles are not balanced in size or strength.
And I’m no exception; my left arm was weaker than my right. It still is but not like before.
The symmetrical imbalance is mostly caused by handedness. A right-handed person will use his/her right hand more than the left one. Therefore the right-hand ends up being bigger and stronger.
And if you have ever played a sport which requires the use side more, that side will be bigger and stronger than the other. This is common in sports like baseball, golf, tennis, volleyball and even football. If you are a tennis fan you may have notice Rafal Nadal’s visibly bigger left arm.
So overuse of one muscle will make it stronger and bigger than the other.
Even small tasks done with one side of the body over a long period of time will make that side stronger.
Another thing that leads to imbalance is bad form. Leaning on one side or favoring one muscle will cause an imbalance.
If not fixed early enough, symmetrical muscle imbalances can lead to injuries down the road.
I’ll share how you can fix strength imbalance and not size imbalance. It’s not possible to completely fix size imbalance. But by fixing strength imbalance, size difference will reduce.
The human body can’t be complete symmetry but it’s possible to make the size difference negligible.
In order to fix an imbalance you first need to identify it. Here’s how to:
-Observe your body and use the mirror to see if there is a size difference in both sides.
-Test muscle strength, pay attention to both sides when training to see if they match in strength.
Once you have identified an imbalance it’s now time to fix it.
How to fix symmetrical muscle imbalance
It is possible to fix muscle imbalance using just your bodyweight.
Do unilateral exercises
In order to truly balance strength on both sides of the body, you should do exercises which use one arm or one leg.
When doing these exercises, let the weaker side dictate the number of reps. If your weaker arm can only do 6 reps of wall push-ups, 6 will be the number of reps for each arm.
Here is a list of unilateral exercises that you can do.
One leg deadlift, Single leg bridges, One arm wall pushups, Pistol squats, Lunges, One arm pushup/ Pull up, Single leg calf raises, Side to side pull-ups (not unilateral but will work)
Do extra reps on the weaker side
But you really have to be careful on this one. Because training the weaker side too much can lead to more imbalances.
Do a maximum of 5 extra reps on the weaker side.
Practice proper form
As I said earlier form is very important. Always make sure you are doing the right thing. If possible have someone observe you or record yourself on video as you train. Watch to see if you are leaning on one side or doing the exercise properly.
Also, don’t do exercises which are too advanced and end up compromising form. Do exercises which you can perform at least 4 perfect reps.
Grip harder on the weaker arm
When doing pull exercises make your grip on the weaker arm harder than the other. This puts more force on that arm.
Increase mobility and use of the weaker side
Ok, here’s the story about my weaker arm. Way back, my left arm had a dislocation and was in a cast for 6 months. Since then it was always weak.
So two years ago a friend suggested I start using it to perform all simple tasks. So I started using it to carry things, cook, clean, anything that it could do. And it worked. Now it almost matches the right arm in strength. And it doesn’t feel overworked after training.
Realize that this won’t come automatically. You have to remind yourself every time to use the dormant hand.
There you have it. Combining all the above strategies will definitely help balance the strength (and maybe size) of your muscles.
General muscle imbalance
This is an imbalance between the upper body and lower body.
I’m sure you have seen some bodybuilders with a strong upper body but the legs look like this.
Upper and lower body imbalance are as a result of training only one part of the two. It can also be genetic, think apple-shaped and pear-shaped bodies. The approach for fixing either of these imbalances is the same.
And it’s simple. Train the weaker part more and do full body workouts. Consistently training the weaker part will reduce the imbalance and increase strength.
Now you should be able to identify any muscle imbalance in your body and fix it. To be on the safe side, correct the imbalances and avoid any aches or pains in future.
It’s advisable to see a physical therapist if your imbalances are major or if you had them for a long time.
To avoid imbalances in future, don’t just do the exercises you like or enjoy. Focus on strengthening the weaker muscles and you’ll gain more strength and a better physique.
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