Early in my career, I’d spend a significant amount of time trying to “correct” a client’s muscle imbalances. These were deficits or patterns I identified during a hands-on assessment at the gym.
For some clients (mainly those dealing with chronic pain), this was the right call. But, for the rest, it meant that we didn’t spend enough time actually training. More importantly, it was probably the wrong decision.
Unless you’re dealing with injuries or other pre-existing conditions, there’s likely nothing to worry about if you’re following a good training plan (more on that below).
As human beings, we’re built to move through life asymmetrically. Slight differences in strength (and stability) side-to-side are entirely normal. And if you’re an athlete, trying to correct or remove asymmetries or imbalances might actually hurt your performance.
However, if you have a significant strength deficit on one side, it could also lead to injury down the road as it’s highly likely the weaker side is also not as stable.
So, where do you draw the line? An easy test is judging your workouts based on 3 variables.
You probably don’t need to worry if you’re following a solid training plan because a good workout program is corrective. It ensures that significant balances are unlikely, and that you’re training in a way that will adjust for all of the most common deficiencies.
As long as your workout checks the following 3 boxes with your training, you’ll likely clean up most muscle imbalances over time.
Variable #1: Do your workouts include reaching exercises?
Because we spend so much time in front of computers and sitting, you’ll often hear that a 2:1 pull-to-push ratio is about right. So, for example, you should do at least 2 sets of rows for every bench press set.
While this can help you correct any strength imbalance you might have (and that’s important), we have to dig deeper if you want a healthy, pain-free upper body.
During a bench press setup (using a barbell or a dumbbell), we’re taught to squeeze our shoulder blades together on the bench. This position of retraction (pulled together) and compression creates a solid shelf to press from.
The problem is that the exercises meant to balance out your bench pressing – pulling exercises like seated rows – finish with your shoulder blades pulled together and your back compressed.
In other words, if we look at the position of your shoulder blades during many pushing and pulling exercises, there’s not much difference.
That’s why it’s important to shift some of your push exercises, which are often geared towards barbell or dumbbell pressing, to reaching exercises like pushups and landmine presses.
Where bench pressing and rowing squeeze the shoulder blades back, reaching movements open the shoulder blades (called protraction). That means they oppose (or balance) both pushing and pulling exercises.
Variable #2: Does your workout include single-leg (and single-arm) training?
Are your workouts built only on compound exercises like back squats and barbell bench presses? In that case, you likely allow subtle strength and stability imbalances to develop. These can lead to injury down the road.
If you want to build balanced strength side-to-side, you need to add single-limb movements. Need some inspiration? Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Pro tip: When picking weights, let your weaker side guide the load selection. That might mean it’s easier at first for your stronger arm, but this will even out. Don’t bump the weight up until both arms (or legs) can do the same amount of weight for the same number of reps.
Variable #3: Does your warm-up include mobility movements?
Muscle imbalances can develop when your movement is restricted or you spend hours stuck in the same posture. The solution: include exercises in your warm-up that improve your mobility to help with a more comfortable range of motion.
That doesn’t mean you need a 20-minute long warm-up.
Here’s one move that targets the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine, three areas of the body that tend to be the most restricted.
Or, try this ground prep series pre-training to open up your back and hips.
If you check those boxes and stay consistent, you might have some slight variations, but they likely won’t be enough to cause a problem or lead to injury.
B.J. holds a B.S. in Health and Human Performance and multiple certifications, including Precision Nutrition Level 1 and BioForce Certified Conditioning Coach. Over his 14-year coaching career, he’s been fortunate enough to coach a wide range of clients. From online clients looking to get in great shape to CEO Nate Checketts (Rhone) and CEO Marcelo Claure (Softbank), and professional skateboarder Sean Malto. Before beginning his training career, he was a sports science lab research assistant.