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How to Correct a Muscle Imbalance

There is nothing worse than training hard for months to only notice a muscle imbalance. It is common that many of us have more strength on one side of our muscles than the other, but when this becomes visible it can be disheartening. Luckily, there are a few ways in which you can correct a muscle imbalance.

Firstly, let’s look at what a muscle imbalance exactly is; a muscle imbalance occurs when the size or strength between two muscles, or even muscle groups, is different. There are typically three ways in which you can categorize a muscle imbalance:

  • Symmetrical imbalance: when one side visibly appears different to the other; for example, one calf being much more defined than the other.
  • Strength imbalance: during an execution of an exercise, a noticeable difference between the strength you have; for example, when performing a chest press, noticing that one side is capable of pushing much faster than the other.
  • Proportional imbalance: when your upper body is more defined than the lower (or vice versa), making you look imbalanced in general.

So, what causes a muscle imbalance you may wonder? The most common causes of this are either poor programming, bad form, existing injury or issues with your flexibility or mobility. Now that you understand a bit more about muscle imbalances, let’s talk about how you can correct it.

Try Unilateral Exercises 

When performing exercises that require you to use both sides of your body, such as a barbell bench press, your dominant muscle will always take control when you notice that one muscle is stronger than the other. Unilateral exercises allow you to focus on working just the weaker muscle to help build its strength to perform at the same level as the other. Make the following swaps if you are experiencing a muscle imbalance:

  • Barbell bench press for dumbbell bench press
  • Barbell squats for dumbbell lunges
  • Barbell bicep curls for dumbbell bicep curls
  • Barbell shoulder press for dumbbell shoulder press

Always Train Your Weaker Side First

Without even thinking it, we subconsciously train our stronger side when performing unilateral exercises. By starting out with your weaker side, you are more likely to see the benefits and help correct a muscle imbalance.

Choose Your Weight Based on Your Weaker Side

While you may be capable of lifting 20 pounds, for example, if you struggle to do this on your weaker side, you should choose weights that challenge your weaker side without working to failure on it. This will provide enough of a challenge for your weaker side and will still work your more dominant side without encouraging muscle gain on that side.

Work Your Weaker Muscles More

We have all been guilty of working certain areas more than others because we prefer certain kinds of workouts compared to others. However, this is one of the biggest causes of muscle imbalance. If you have muscle groups or single muscles that are weaker or on the smaller side, you should do additional work to help compensate. You can do this in a couple of ways – either by increasing your overall volume for those weaker muscle groups as well as increasing your training load; to do this, you will want to be gradually increasing load, reducing rest time and increasing reps or sets.

You should always consider your form and anytime you notice your form slipping, stop! It is better to perform a few perfect reps, rather than a load of poorly executed ones. Always be sure to work on your flexibility by stretching properly before and after exercise.

Now, let’s focus specifically on what you can do, depending on the sort of imbalance you have:

Strength and Symmetrical Imbalance

Put the barbell aside for a while and start focusing on using dumbbells to work muscles and muscle groups individually, always being sure to start working on the weaker side. Allow your weaker side to help select the load you are using and throw in a few extra reps on each set on the weaker side.

Proportional Imbalance

To really fix this issue you are going to need to reduce the load you put on stronger areas in your body and focuses specifically on the areas that are weaker. To get the weaker muscles and muscle groups up to speed, increase the volume of work they endure.

Even when taking the necessary precautions, muscle imbalance can still occur. Sometimes, without even realizing we are causing it ourselves. Look for the signs (symmetrical, strength or proportional) and correct it. Find the exercise(s) that work best for your body and the best for correction. If possible, speak to a personal trainer or talk to someone who has experienced a muscle imbalance with their training. It’s not a permanent issues, but it can be a frustrating one. 

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What is Progressive Overload?

If you have started strength training or are considering it in the near future, you will want to learn everything there is to know about progressive overload. Progressive overload is an increase in stress placed upon your body while training, whether that is in the form of additional weight, increased reps, or perhaps even more focus on better form and performance by adjusting tempo. If you have been lifting weights for some time and noticed that you hardly see any changes, it is because you have not been using the principles of progressive overload. In order to build muscle, you must challenge them, and the best way to do this is with progressive overload; if you always perform the exact same exercise routine with the same weight and number of reps, you are never going to see progress! Let’s look at how best you can use progressive overload! 

Before we start, let’s just note that there is no hard and fast rule that we can give you regarding how much extra you should be adding to your load or how many extra reps you should do, as it is extremely individual. These rules, however, will help point you in the right direction and help you determine what progressive means to you and your body.

Perfect Form Is Superior to Everything Else!

Whether you are in a group class or working out in the gym, you may feel pressured due to those around you who are capable of handling heavier weight or doing more reps. The most important thing here to remember is that your form is more important than the amount of weight you use or the number of reps you perform, because incorrect form can lead to injuries and will hinder your growth. Before you even begin worrying about anything else, ensure you form is perfect – even if that means losing weights entirely for a bit until then! This is where working with a personal trainer can be so helpful, as they can help guide you and correct your form.

Start with Increasing Reps

For many people, it is best to start by increasing reps as opposed to weight. It may feel exciting and you may want to be able to grab the next jump up in weight, but hold your horses! Instead, increase your reps first. So, for example, if you are squatting with a 50 pound barbell for 10 reps, rather than introducing a new plate, aim for 12 reps, then progressively 15, moving onto 20. Once you have got to this point, you can then increase weight and drop your reps back down to 10. 

Don’t be Too Hard on Yourself!

This is one of the most important things you need to remember regardless of what you are trying to achieve with your fitness goals. Some weeks are going to be better than others, but always try to get up and show up! All of our fitness journeys differ and are rarely linear. There will be times where you feel very tired and may not feel as strong as normal; listen to your body and decrease weight/reps if you feel this way. 

There Are Many Factors That Can Affect the Results of Progressive Overload

Remember, there is so much more to progress than simply training. Your nutrition, stress levels, and sleep have a major impact on how your body responds to training. If all of these factors are not in sync, you will never see the progress you want. Keep all of your goals aligned and the progress you see will be tremendous! 

You Can Achieve Progress Overload in Many Ways 

Remember, progressive overload does not necessarily refer to increase in weight. In fact, progress overload is anything that increases the stress placed onto the body, and this can include volume, range of motion, density and frequency. Once you have perfected your form and are in a position to start challenging yourself, why not consider trying out some of the below progressive overload ideas:

  • Lift the same load for a longer distance
  • Lift the same load for an increased number of reps
  • Increase load
  • Lift load with increased speed 
  • Increase the number of training sessions per week
  • Introduce static holds, partial reps and drop sets
  • Decrease rest time in between sets 

Training takes dedication and commitment, and at times, can be frustrating, but it can be so rewarding at the same time! Don’t become complacent in your routines, instead focus on how you can find new ways to switch up your training programs and challenge yourself, which can bring about such incredible results.