Let’s face it.
One of the biggest reasons to toil away in the gym is to look good. Really good.
Gals usually want lean legs, a curvy butt, and a toned upper body and abs.
If you listen to the right people, you’ll discover that getting there isn’t all that hard, really.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll wind up with the exact body that you want.
In time, you might notice that one side of your chest is slightly smaller than the other, or one arm is clearly larger than the other, or one thigh is more developed than its counterpart.
What to do?
Many people say this can’t even happen if you’re training properly.
Many others say it’s purely genetic, and that you have to just play with the cards that you’re dealt.
Well, both are wrong.
You can develop muscle imbalances following any weightlifting routine, good and bad, and you can absolutely take measures to correct them.
It’s pretty simple, too.
You don’t have to drastically change your training or buy special equipment.
As you’ll see in this article, all you have to do is make some simple tweaks to your training routine, keep an eye on how your body responds, and adjust accordingly. And by the end, you’re going to know exactly what to do to fix YOUR muscle imbalances.
Let’s get to it.
Almost every major muscle in your body has a twin.
Left pec, right pec; left quad, right quad; left triceps, right triceps; left lat, right lat; and so on.
Thus, a muscle imbalance is a size and/or strength discrepancy between two matching muscle groups.
For example, it’s common for guys to have one arm or pec that’s larger than the other.
Bodybuilders refer to this as “asymmetry.”
Sometimes you can see these imbalances in the mirror, and sometimes you can’t, but you often notice them in your training (one limb is stronger than the other).
For example, if one side of the bar tends to ascend faster than the other on your bench press, it may be due to one or more muscle imbalances on the trailing side.
Bodybuilders call this “disproportion.”
If any of these opposing pairs of muscle groups are significantly smaller or weaker and less developed than the other, visual symmetry and performance suffers, and in some cases, the risk of injury rises.
So, the goal, then is twofold:
Fortunately, 80% of this is simply following a well-designed workout program that focuses on heavy barbell training, and that doesn’t neglect or undertrain any portion of your body.
The other 20%, however, is going to depend on your genetics.
We all have natural strong and weak points that will show more and more in time, and that will eventually need to be addressed.
For me, for example, my chest and biceps have always been high responders, while my lats and calves have been more stubborn than a radioactive mule.
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The most common cause of muscle imbalances is simply training one muscle or muscle group more or more intensely than another.
This is no surprise, of course.
If you train one muscle or muscle group more frequently or intensely than its physiological or visual counterpart, a muscle imbalance will develop sooner or later.
For example, if you do more reps on your dumbbell curls with your strong arm than your weak arm, it’s going to wind up noticeably bigger and stronger.
Similarly, if you hit your chest with 100 heavy reps per week and your back with only 30, or if you focus all of your time on your upper body and neglect your legs, you’re going to wind up with a disproportionate physique.
These types of scenarios usually boil down to poor workout programming.
Many programs for men tend to emphasize the “beach muscles” (chest, shoulders, and arms), and neglect the rest (back and legs, namely). For women, it’s usually a lot of lower body and very little upper.
A good program, however, distributes the work fairly evenly between your upper and lower regions, and between pressing, pulling, and squatting.
Another common problem is accidentally using one side of your body more than the other on various exercises like the squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
Many people aren’t focused on the work at hand while they train, and instead let their mind wander as they go through the motions.
This prevents the “mind-muscle connection” that many bodybuilders talk about, and often results in one side of the body (the stronger one, usually) doing more work than the other.
For example, let’s say your left back muscles are less developed than your right.
You don’t realize it, but while doing dumbbell rows with your left arm, you’re using more shoulders and momentum to swing the weight than you do with the right.
Thus, every time you row, the right side of your back gets a bit more work than your left, and thus, grows bigger and stronger.
Last but not least, poor flexibility and mobility often prevents people from doing exercises properly even if they want to.
Many of spend our days sitting or hunched over a desk, which makes it easy to develop tight shoulders, hip flexors, and lower back muscles that can’t perform the way that we need in the gym.
Our body automatically makes various compensations, which often results in certain muscles being over-engaged with others being under-engaged.
The easiest type of muscle imbalance to spot is asymmetry (a mismatch between left- and right-side muscle groups).
All you have to do is grab a measuring tape, measure both sides three times, average the measurements, and compare.
I like to measure muscles flexed for this type of analysis, because it results in more consistently accurate numbers (you’re less likely to depress the muscles with the tape and throw off your measurements).
Proportions are much trickier to judge, however, because it’s at least partially subjective.
I might look at someone and think their biceps are too big for their shoulders, whereas someone else will think it looks awesome.
That said, if you take cold, unflexed pictures of the front and back of your body, and analyze the relationships between your upper and lower halves, and front and back muscles, you’ll probably find blemishes.
This is especially true if you’re currently training one side or half of your body significantly harder or more than the other. If that’s the case, rest assured that you have an imbalance to one degree or another.
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(No such guidelines exist for women that I know of, but if you’ve come across anything, please drop a link in the comments below!)
The first step to preventing muscle imbalances is following a workout program that’s built on compound exercises, and that trains your entire body evenly.
For example, if you want to train your legs, you can do something like leg extensions, which work your quads, or you can squat, which works all of the muscles in your legs, and engages just about every other muscle in your body, too.
The same goes for every major muscle group in your body.
You can do an exercise that isolates it, strengthening little else, or you can do one that focuses on it, but strengthens many others, as well. And the more you do of the latter, the more symmetrically your body will gain muscle and strength.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you won’t develop muscle imbalances, though.
First, you’ll inevitably favor one side of your body slightly more than the other in certain exercises.
For example, you might extend one arm just a tad further during your bench press, or angle one foot more out than other while squatting and deadlifting. Over time, these habits can add up to slight, albeit significant, differences in size and strength.
This is one of the reasons why many weightlifting programs include unilateral exercises.
Unilateral exercises are movements that train both limbs simultaneously but independently, like the dumbbell lunge, dumbbell bench press, and dumbbell overhead press.
These types of exercises negate the physiological biases that can creep into bilateral exercises (those where both limbs have to work together to perform the whole movement), because they force each limb to “pull its own weight.”
Another effective way to prevent muscle imbalances from developing in your body is to follow a simple but effective mobility routine.
If your body isn’t flexible and functional enough to perform an exercise correctly, it’s going to have to compensate to get the job done, and this inevitably causes muscle imbalances.
For example, I’ve struggled at times with tight hip flexors, and when one side was tighter than the other, I couldn’t help but slightly favor the looser side when squatting heavy.
If I hadn’t done anything to correct this, I not only would have increased my risk of injury, but one of my legs would have wound up considerably more developed than the other.
I’ve fixed it each time with a simple mobility routine like this, and have now gotten better with keeping it in as a matter of routine, as opposed to a corrective action.
If you do just 15 minutes of mobility work once or twice per week, you might be surprised at how much it can help your performance in the gym.
So, you have a muscle imbalance.
You know what to do and not to do going forward to prevent further issues, but now we have to get you back on track.
As you know, there are two kinds of muscle imbalances, and they require different solutions.
If one side of your body is bigger or stronger than the other, the solution is obvious:
Train the weaker side more.
And the easiest way to do this is to simply increase the weekly volume (reps) on the weaker side. Personally, I like to go up by 25 to 35%.
So, let’s say your left shoulder is smaller than your right, and you normally do about 30 reps of dumbbell side lateral raises per week per side (3 sets of 10 reps).
I would then bump my left side raises up to 40 reps per week by adding one additional set to my shoulders workout for my left arm only (3 sets on my right, 4 sets on my left).
I’d then continue this way until my left shoulder caught up in size, at which point I’d switch to either 3 or 4 sets per arm per week.
One other thing you should do is end your sets on unilateral exercises when your weak side fails.
In the case above, that would mean stopping the lateral raises when your left can’t go any further, regardless of how much the right might still have left in the tank.
The reason for this is obvious: it prevents you from accidentally racking up more volume on your stronger side.
To do this, it also helps to start your sets with your weaker side.
That way, you’re allowing your weaker side to determine when you stop your sets, not your stronger one.
At bottom, the solution here is more or less the same as the above:
You have to train lagging muscle groups more and/or more intensely than you’re currently training them.
You can achieve this by increasing weekly volume, or by working with heavier weights and pushing hard for progressive overload.
So, let’s say your legs are still too small compared to your upper body, despite following a well-balanced weightlifting routine.
Maybe you had neglected your legs previously, allowing your upper body to get a big head start, or maybe your lower body just didn’t respond to the training as well as you had hoped.
Either way, if you don’t change anything about your workout programming, you’ll probably be stuck with this imbalance for quite a while.
The solution, then, is to train your legs harder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean adding another leg workout on top of what you’re already doing. That might be too much for your body to handle, which will ultimate lead to symptoms related to overtraining.
Instead, you’ll probably need to dial all the rest of your training back to “make room” for the additional leg work, and especially if you’re doing a lot heavy, compound weightlifting (as you should!).
This will allow you to focus on maximal leg development, without sacrificing any of the size or strength that you’ve developed elsewhere.
A training routine that’s designed in this way is called a “specialization routine.”
It’s built to push the envelope with one muscle group, while cutting back with others, so you can make sure you’re fully recovering.
Here are several examples of specialization routines that I’ve put together:
I still have one to create (triceps), but if any of those muscle groups on your body need more attention, give the respective routine a go, and it should help.
If you’re going to be into any form of resistance training for the long haul, you’re going to run into muscle imbalances to one degree or another.
Whether due to workout programming, exercise technique, or genetics, it’s just inevitable.
That said, you can mitigate them by focusing on heavy barbell training for the bulk of your weightlifting, training your entire body evenly, and including unilateral exercises in your routines.
Then, when imbalances do appear (and they will), you can take simple actions to correct them.
The most effective methods are making sure your dominant side isn’t getting more volume than your weaker one, and adding more volume and/or intensity to your lagging muscle groups.
If you do all that, you’ll never struggle with muscle imbalances, which will not only improve your “aesthetics,” but will reduce your risk of injury, as well.