Do you have a stronger side?
Maybe one leg or arm that performs far better in training than the other side?
I can guarantee you that 99% of people have muscle imbalances. Nothing in nature is symmetric, neither an apple nor our human body.
However, the question we need to ask is: How do I detect muscle imbalances? And how can I decrease those imbalances with proper training?
If you overlook imbalances and train the left the same as the right, the stronger side will always take over. Our body seeks to choose the easier way, not the better way. Thus, it will choose the stronger leg or arm muscles because activating those does not require as much focus and energy.
How to detect Muscle Imbalances
Over time, the stronger side will get even stronger, while the other one gets weaker. This imbalances can lead to bad posture and chronic pain, as it will translate much more force on our joints than they could handle.
Today, I will give you some tips to detect muscle imbalances in your body and how to train to decrease them. I have been battling this for 6 years and I am excited to share some of my knowledge with you!
Step 1: Look in the mirror
Stand up straight, only wearing your underwear and look at your body. Try to stand on both feet and as upright as you can. Scan your body from head to toe:
- Are your shoulders even: It is very common to have one shoulder higher than the other. Typically, your pelvis will be higher on that side as well.
- Waist: is one side shortened/tight?
- Pelvis: if you have severe muscle imbalance, you can see that one side of the pelvis is higher than the other, rotated.
- Knees: Are your knees caving in? Is one knee rotated more to the outside than the other?
- Muscles: Look at the size of your muscles. Is one leg thicker than the other or vise versa?
- Feet: Are both feet showing in the same direction? Are you maybe putting more body weight on one foot than the other?
These are basic starting points to assess muscle imbalances yourself. Of course, it is best to let a professional have a look as well. But I always encourage people to deal with their own body too!
Step 2: Test your Squat
To find out if you have a glute imbalance, or very tight ab-/adductors, stand in front of the mirror and simply perform a squat. Hold the bottom position and look at yourself. Are you leaning towards one side more than the other or are your hips perfectly even?
If you cannot hold this position and feel like you fall over, your glutes are weak and you need to strengthen them. Read more about that in this article.
Step 3: Mind-muscle connection test
The next time you are doing a workout, think about which muscles you feel the most. For example when you perform an alternating Lunge, do you feel the burn more on the left or the right leg? Can you do more repetitions on one side than the other?
These are all factors that might indicate that the side you are feeling work more is the stronger one.
In fact, the weaker side might also cause you pain if your imbalance is severe.
→ I highly recommend to read this article by Bret Contreras. I have read all of his glute training articles and he provides excellent information on how to train with muscle imbalances in the glutes. I am still using his approach and it has helped me tremendously over the years.
Take Action: How to adjust training
The following training tips can be utilized if you have muscle imbalances. Especially if you are dealing with scoliosis or hip dysplasia, bilateral exercises will often cause more harm than good. Out of the 6 years I have been training, I have trained 2 years solely using unilateral exercises.
Tip 1: Unilateral Exercises
When you are doing an exercise on one leg, you are forcing your body to activate that leg, whether it is the weaker side or not. It will be difficult in the beginning but after a while, you will feel your weaker side getting stronger. As a matter of fact, your newly gained strength will transition to bilateral exercises as well.
Ideas for the Lower Body:
Step ups, Lunges (Curtsy Side, Reverse, Front, Stationary), One-legged Squat, One-legged Deadlift, One-legged Glute Bridge/ Hip Thrust, One-legged Back Extension, One-legged Leg Curls, Donkey Kicks, Fire Hydrants, Split Squats
Ideas for the Upper Body:
One arm Rows, One arm Shoulder Press, One arm Lats Pulldown, One arm Reverse Fly, One arm Triceps kickbacks, Bicep Curls with Dumbbells
Tip 2: 2x Volume on the weaker side
This is the best training technique for muscle imbalances. A simple yet very effective change to your workouts: You will complete double sets or repetitions for each unilateral exercise you perform in your workout.
An example would be:
Step ups – 12 repetitions, 3 sets
Variation a.) You will perform 12 repetitions on the left and the right. Complete 3 sets on the stronger side and 6 sets on the weaker side.
Variation b.) Perform 3 sets of Step ups but do 12 repetitions on the stronger side and 24 repetitions on the weaker side, using the same weight.
I like to use variation a and feel it is more effective. Typically, I would do 2 sets on the stronger side and 4 sets on the weaker side.
You can use this technique for all exercises on your routine or only for one or two. This depends on how severe your muscle imbalances are!
Tip 3: Reduce HIIT
HIIT tends to consist of mainly bilateral exercises. Also, it tends to be quite high impact, which is not recommended if you have muscle imbalances and can’t fully control the force. Especially when doing jumping movements, you need to be able to control the movement with your muscles so that no force is put on your joints.
If you would like to lose some more fat, I would recommend to stick to one HIIT session per week and do moderate to low intensity cardio the other days. This can be anything like swimming, cycling or bodyweight exercises at home.
Tip 4: Glute Activation for the weaker side
I always recommend to activate your glutes before working out. However, if one glute is stronger than the other, the weaker side needs to be addressed more specifically to grow. Thus, I perform only one or two exercises on the stronger side and do the rest of the exercises on the weaker side only.
The two exercises are normally sufficient to activate my strong side and by really burning out the weaker side with the other exercises, I can make sure my brain builds a stronger neural connection to my weak glute.
I hope you find these tips useful. If you have muscle imbalances and are experiencing pain, I definitely recommend visiting a professional too. However, if you don’t have pain but still feel that one side of your body is doing more work, you can use these tips to decrease imbalances and prevent injuries!
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