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.
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.