5 Ways To Correct A Muscle Imbalance

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5 Ways To Correct A Muscle Imbalance

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
— Thomas A. Edison

I can’t think of anything much more frustrating than putting in your time and training hard in the gym only to end up with muscle imbalances.

All that hard work and effort and this is how you’re rewarded, it’s bullshit but it happens, which is why you’ve found your way here. 

Once you’ve determined that you have a muscle imbalance the next step is to address the issue and begin correcting it.

There are 5 strategies you can use to do this;

  • Use unilateral exercises
  • Start with the weaker side
  • Let the weaker side set your workout volume
  • Do additional work on the weaker / smaller side
  • Fix the underlying problem i.e. mobility / flexibility

This post will explore each strategy and look at when it’s best to use each one.

Use Unilateral Exercises

If one side of your body is stronger you can guarantee that it will always be dominant when both sides of the body are being trained together.

For example, if your right pec is stronger than the left, then the right side of the bar will rise slightly faster and fatigue slightly slower, causing your left pec to be underutilised in comparison.

The solution is to switch out the barbell exercise, where both sides of the body are worked together (like the barbell bench press) for a unilateral dumbbell exercise where both sides of the body are worked independently (like the dumbbell bench press).

This allows the body to work just as hard on both sides of the body without the dominant muscle taking over and reducing the work done by the weaker.

Good examples of switches you can make are:

  • Barbell bench press --> Dumbbell bench press (flat or incline)
  • Barbell squats --> Dumbbell lunges or pistol squats
  • Barbell bicep curls --> Dumbbell bicep curls (hammer or normal)
  • Barbell shoulder press --> Dumbbell shoulder press (seated or standing)

 

Start With The Weaker Side

It’s only natural that one side will be more dominant than the other after all the vast majority of us are not ambidextrous and therefore favour one side of our bodies.

Without you fully realising it you will be favouring your stronger side of the body because it makes things easier for you. When you do your unilateral exercises, the chances are you instinctively train your stronger side first without thinking about it.

This means when you are at your freshest you’re training your dominant side first when your weaker side would benefit much more from going first.

If you’re trying to fix or even prevent a muscle imbalance always train your weaker side first.

 

Let The Weaker Side Set Your Workout Volume

Following on from the point above, if you train your dominant side first when you’re at your freshest you’ll find that the weaker side struggles to keep up with the workload and ends up falling behind which only makes your imbalance worse.

By starting on your weaker side, you can let it determine the amount of work your stronger side does which stops it from outworking the weaker side.

For example, if you’re trying to do 3 sets of 8 reps on lunges and your weaker side can only do sets 8, then 6, then 5, guess what?

That’s exactly what your stronger side will do too, even if you could do more with the stronger side, don’t.

 

Do Additional Work On The Weaker / Smaller Side

Chances are you create proportional imbalances because you favour working some parts of the body over others.

I’m not picking on you by saying this.

In fact, it’s very common and imbalances great created when you focus more on pressing movements for the chest than you do pulling movements for the back.

Or if you spend more time training your upper body than you do the lower, giving you that top-heavy look.

You can bring up lagging body parts using one of two methods:

1. Increase Overall Volume

This would mean adding in an extra work out for the trouble body part or if that’s not possible then adding in a few extra exercises within your current workout setup.

For example, if your back is proportionately smaller compared to your chest and you only train 3 times a week you could add in an extra back session to increase your overall training for that body part.

Alternatively, if you’re already training 5 times a week and would risk burnout and overtraining from adding another workout you could reduce the volume on other body parts to allow space for some more direct back training.

The reduced training on the other body parts will be enough to maintain your current physique in those areas whilst giving you the space you need to increase your training volume for your back.

2. Increase Training Load

Another method of doing this is to increase the training load you use when working the ‘trouble’ body part.

Whether you decide to apply progressive overload by increasing the load lifted (recommended), reduce rest time, increase reps or sets is up to you.

The goal is to increase the work capacity of the out of proportion body part to help bring it in line with the rest of your physique.

Again, depending on your training programme, you might reduce the work you do in other areas to allow you to focus more on your back, or even add in another workout.

Note: you’ll notice that both methods are heavily intertwined and by doing one you’ll most likely end up doing aspects of the other.

 

Fix The Underlying Problem i.e. Mobility / Flexibility

Whilst one of the above strategies will usually fix any muscle imbalance you have it’s also worth exploring the underlying cause.

If it’s bad technique have a look at why;

  • Is it because you’re not focused?
  • Did you learn the technique wrong?
  • Are you struggling with mobility or flexibility?

For example, if you have tighter quads, hamstrings and glutes on one side of your body you can bet it will mess with your squat and deadlift performance which can lead to muscle imbalances.

Alternatively, if you have restricted mobility in one shoulder it can impact your bench press and shoulder press form and result in one side doing more work than the other.

Once you’ve identified the problem area you can work on improving flexibility and mobility in that area which will help ensure the imbalance doesn’t come back after you’ve fixed it.

Man working out in the gym

Which Strategy Is Best for Which Type of Imbalance?

You can use any of the above strategies to fix any type of imbalance, however, in my experience, some strategies lend themselves better to certain types of imbalances.

Strength Imbalance

  • Switch from barbell to dumbbell (unilateral) exercises to start working each muscle or groups of muscles independently i.e. from bent over rows to single arm rows
  • Always start on the weaker side and only allow the stronger side to do as much work as the weaker side, this will stop the stronger side getting even further ahead
  • Let weaker side dictate your workload for both your reps, sets, training load and rest times then mimic the same on the stronger side
  • Depending on the disparity in strength do additional work on the problem area i.e. is your back much weaker and therefore smaller than your chest? Add in some extra training

Symmetrical Imbalance

  • Switch from barbell to dumbbell (unilateral) exercises to start working each muscle or groups of muscles independently i.e. barbell bicep curls to dumbbell curls
  • Always start on the weaker side and only allow the stronger side to do as much work as the weaker side, this will stop the stronger side getting even further ahead
  • Let weaker side dictate your workload for both your reps, sets, training load and rest times then mimic the same on the stronger side
This should be enough to fix the imbalance over time, however, if the problem still persists then add in some additional work on the smaller side.

Proportional Imbalance

  • Increase the training volume in the out of proportion area by adding in an extra work out for that body part

Or

  • Reduce the workload of other areas to allow for more training volume to be applied to the out of proportion body part
Focus on progressive overload and getting stronger in the problem area.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As with losing fat or building muscle, fixing an imbalance won’t be a quick overnight process, you will need to specifically work on your problem area/s for a prolonged period to see results.

 

Takeaway Point

Muscle imbalances are an unfortunate part of the workout process and whilst everyone will have some small difference between their dominant and non-dominant side, it’s not out of the ordinary to develop larger muscle imbalances due to a variety of issues.

However, there are a number of strategies you can use to correct a muscle imbalance;

  • Use unilateral exercises
  • Start with the weaker side
  • Let the weaker side set your workout volume
  • Do additional work on the weaker and/or smaller side
  • Fix the problem i.e. mobility and/or flexibility

 
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