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How to Fix A Muscle Imbalance: 5 Fixes For Improved Aesthetics & Performance

trainingTheo Brenner-RoachComment
How to Fix A Muscle Imbalance

I can’t think of anything much more frustrating that putting in your time and train hard in the gym only to end up muscle imbalances that throw off your symmetry and throw out your proportions. 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. 

Whether you’ve discovered you’ve got a muscle imbalance, have your suspicions or are just deciding to sort it out this post will cover the different type of muscle imbalances, how they develop and what to do about it.

What Is a Muscle Imbalance?

Simply put a muscle imbalance is a difference in either size or strength between 2 muscles or muscle groups and can be categorised in 3 ways:

  • Symmetrical imbalance
  • Proportional imbalance
  • Strength imbalance

Symmetrical imbalance could be the difference in the size of your biceps, pecs or thighs. This would give one side the appearance of being bigger or more developed than the other.

Proportional imbalance could be the difference between your chest and back or your upper body and lower body. This would impact your aesthetics by making your upper body look too big for your lower body or your back being small and weak compared to your chest. This can also have negative effects on your posture and flexibility.

Strength imbalance could be the difference between one leg and the other or one shoulder and the other, causing the barbell to rise faster on one side when doing a squat or shoulder press.

As much as you might try to avoid it, the chances are you’ll develop some sort of muscle imbalance over the years. I’m not talking small differences that come from your dominant side being stronger than your non-dominant side. A noticeable muscle imbalance can throw off your aesthetics and mess with your proportions. It can impact the way you lift weights, perform movements and change the way you look.

The point to which these are an issue is somewhat up to you, if it’s only small and doesn’t bother you or affect your performance then you can just leave it. However, if it’s causing injury, impacting your performance or ruining your aesthetics then it’s time to sort it out.

What Causes Muscle Imbalances?

Some people say you only get imbalances if you follow a poorly planned training programme but in reality, you can develop imbalances even if you’re following the perfect routine. The common causes of muscle imbalances are:

  • Poor programming
  • Bad technique
  • Injury
  • Mobility or flexibility issues

However, the good news is you can fix your imbalances with a little bit time, effort and consistency.

Poor Programming

There are a number of situations that can causes muscle imbalances but unsurprisingly the most common one is poor programming which leads to a focus only on the muscles you can see, i.e. the ‘mirror muscles’, hello chest, shoulders and biceps aka the ones you enjoy training. When you do this, you neglect the other muscle groups that contribute to a rounded physique. All this means is that instead of looking good naked you look mismatched and out of proportion, you look comical in shorts at the beach and develop bad posture due to overdeveloped pecs and a weak back. 

Another common occurrence of this is the untold number of guys who skip leg day because “it’s hard”, “it hurts” or their legs “get enough work from sports” and end up with an overdeveloped and out of proportion upper body when compared to their lower body. Not a good look. Don’t be one of those guys who looks like they’re struggling to support their upper body.

Bad Technique

Another cause of imbalances is bad lifting technique and a lack of focus when lifting. I’m not saying you have to 100% laser focused on every single rep in every single workout BUT when you’re in the gym you should be focused on what you’re doing and trying to work on your mind to muscle connection. Day dreaming, messing around with your phone or chatting non-stop will take you out the zone and can cause you to go through the motions with little active thought for what you’re doing.

A lack of focus can lead to bad form when lifting which will ultimately result in unnatural lifting patterns where one side of the body ends up doing more work than the other. Maybe one side of the bar rises quicker during the bench press but you don’t notice and correct it, if this happens every time you bench press then over time it’ll lead to both a symmetrical and strength imbalance. Before you know it one side of your chest is bigger and stronger than the other and you’re left wondering how you got there.

Injury

Another common cause of muscle imbalances, sadly depending on the injury there’s not a whole lot you can do about this one. For example, break a foot, leg or arm and depending on the recovery time that arm will naturally become weaker and smaller than your healthy arm.

Mobility or Flexibility Issues

This one kind of ties in to most of the others and can be the fundamental reason for bad lifting technique and even injury. It’s often the root cause of muscle imbalances and if you’re still at the stage where you haven’t developed any big imbalances then it’s worth revisiting your technique and working on your mobility and flexibility to help prevent any from forming.

How Do You Know If You Have a Muscle Imbalance?

Sounds like a bit of a stupid question because you’d think that most muscle imbalances will be clearly obvious and the majority of the time you’d be right but even so, there are a few other methods for seeking out muscle imbalances in the body.

Monitor Your Strength

Depending on the lift you can use a mirror otherwise film yourself or get someone else to. Pay attention to the way your body moves, is one side of the barbell rising faster than the other, can one arm do more reps than the other, are you twisting and rotating when you shouldn’t be? All of these things are signs of a strength imbalance.

Now look at your training notes (you’re keep training notes, right?!), are your triceps much stronger than your biceps or is your back weak compared to your chest, how about the legs? They should be strongest of all. This can another good way of sussing out imbalances in the body.

Look in the Mirror

Probably one of the easiest ways to identify symmetrical imbalances is to study yourself in the mirror. Does one bicep look bigger than the other, what about your pecs or your thighs? Take photos monthly and compare them to see how the imbalances progress. You can also use this method to check your proportions, it can be easy to hide a difference between your upper and lower body behind straight leg or relaxed fit trousers but standing in front of your mirror in your underwear gives you nowhere to hide.

Take Regular Measurements

This goes hand in hand with the point above and will help confirm any suspicions you have about symmetrical imbalances. Take main body measurements once a month and track how things change.

How Your Clothes Fit

Be aware of how your clothes fit; is one trouser leg tighter around the thigh or calf? Does one t-shirt sleeve fit tighter than the other? Does your chest look well developed but your back looks under developed? These points and more can be a sign of muscle imbalance and can often be a great anecdotal indicator that something might be going wrong. You can then use the points above to confirm your suspicions.

Analyse Your Posture

Posture can be a great indicator of muscle imbalances as well as mobility and flexibility issues. For example, are your shoulders rounded forwards? If so, then it’s likely you have underdeveloped back muscles as well as tight chest and shoulder muscle that would benefit from stretching.

How to Fix Muscle Imbalances

There are several strategies you can use to fix a muscle imbalance and there is not right or wrong answer. Instead the strategy you choice will be dependent on the type of imbalance you have.

#1

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 you right pec is stronger than the left, you can be sure that when you barbell bench press the right side of the bar will rise slightly faster and fatigue slightly slower, leading to the left side of the pec being underutilised in comparison.

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

#2

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 use 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. So, when you need to lift, carry or move something you will default to using your stronger side and when working out it’s no different.

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 still giving your already dominant side the benefit when in fact your weaker side would benefit from going first.

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

#3

Let Your Weaker Side Dictate 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.

#4

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 can be seen in the way that most guys do a lot for pressing movements for the chest than they do pulling movements for the back. So, they end up with underdeveloped back muscles which throw off their proportions. This can also be seen when you spend more time training your upper body whilst simultaneously neglecting the lower body, resulting in a top-heavy look.

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

1.      Increase the overall volume of training

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 the 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 the 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.

#5

Address 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, because you learnt the technique wrong or because you are 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 improve flexibility and mobility in that area which will help ensure the imbalance doesn’t come back after you’ve fixed it.

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.

Summing Up

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.

These imbalances can be categorised as strength, symmetrical and proportional imbalances and there are several strategies you can use to fix them for improve performance and aesthetics.