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The Easy Way to Find and Fix Muscle Imbalances

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The Easy Way to Find and Fix Muscle Imbalances

If one side or part of your body is bigger or stronger than the other, then you have a muscle imbalance. And this article will show you how to fix it.

Let’s face it.

One of the biggest reasons to toil away in the gym is to look good. Really good.

Most of us guys want a big, broad upper body, bulging biceps, washboard abs, and a thick, strong lower half.

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.

Get your calories and macros right, follow a well-designed workout program, take the right supplements (or not), and just put in the work, and you’ll gain muscle and lose fat each and every week.

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.

What Is a Muscle Imbalance?

muscle imbalance definition

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.

Another type of muscle imbalance exists between pairs of major muscle groups, like your chest and back, triceps and biceps, and upper legs and calves.

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.

For example, overdeveloped chest muscles and under-developed back muscles not only knocks your “aesthetics,” it also increases the likelihood of hurting your shoulders.

So, the goal, then is twofold:

  1. Symmetrical looking muscles on each side of your body.
  1. Proportionate development of the upper and lower, and front and back parts of your body.

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.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

What Causes Muscle Imbalances?

muscle imbalance symptoms

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.

How Do You Spot a Muscle Imbalance?

muscle-imbalance-test

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.

If you’re a guy, you can also check out this guide to building the ideal looking physique.

(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!)

How to Prevent Muscle Imbalances

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.

How to Fix Muscle Imbalances

how to fix muscle imbalance

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.

How to Fix Muscle Asymmetries

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.

How to Fix Muscle Disproportion

upper body muscle imbalance

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.

The Bottom Line on Muscle Imbalances

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.

What’s your take on muscle imbalances? Have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Jason

    Hey Mike, great articles. I’ve been meaning to email you about this. I’m right hand dominant and my left pec is noticeably larger than my right. Also my pecs are my slowest growing muscle. My chest routine is incline barbell, bench, incline dumbbell, then dips. How would you recommend me fixing this?
    Thanks,
    Jason

    • Vincent Marks

      Measure your wrists and ankles. The smaller side is probably smaller in bone structure and that is just how you are built. I guess you could work out the weaker side with an extra set to catch it up. I’d say your weaker side has to be one dumbbell ahead to be equal is size to the other. Use dumbbells and work them out separately. I think this is a lot of painstaking effort but you can do it if you like it. I have similar issues and no girl has ever cared and I never posed on a stage so…..

      • This. 🙂

        You just need to increase weekly volume on the lagging side. You can do single-arm DB presses to do this, or single-arm machine presses.

  • This is why we avoid dumbbells 😛

  • LifeForMuscle

    Hey mike,

    well written article, been waiting for this for ages.

    however my problem is that my dominant hand (left hand) biceps is way smaller but stronger than my right, how will i be able to fix it?

  • Liana Vencevič

    Hello Mike, thank You for this article. My left side of butt is a little bit smaller and less round than the right one. I am trying to improve my mobility in squats, I think it could be helpful too. But do You have any certain exercises, which could be helpful on working just the left side of the butt?

    • Well, you’re not going to only isolate one side of the butt. So, what I suggest is correcting your form and reducing weight on your lower body lifts so that the left side starts to properly contribute to the effort.

      • Liana Vencevič

        Thank You very much for Your answer, RogerT. I will try to correct my form with smaller weights. Yesterday I tried to do the squats with bigger concentration on my form and really felt how my left side started to work more intensly.

  • Dave Frederick

    My muscular imbalance is my right pec, is noticeably smaller and less developed than my left pec, this is because I dislocated my right shoulder two times and had to have surgery to fix it. That was 15 years ago. I’ve tried different things I’ve found on the Internet to fix it. But it’s still smaller, weaker, and way less developed than my left pec. What would you recommend to help me fix this? By the way I’ve been weightlifting for 20 years and have been practicing martial arts for 17 years. And have never, nor ever will, do steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. I’ve read your book too. Excellent work. It really opened my eyes, especially to all those exercise magazines filled with steroid users. Thanks.

    • Hey Dave! Thanks for the support man, glad you enjoyed the book and my articles!

      In your case, you’ll probably have to do a lot of dumbbell pressing and maybe even some work with cable flyes to help add more volume to your right side. I’d stick to the same recommendations in this article, but make sure you do most all of your upper body pressing work with unilateral exercises (movements that force both arms to work separately).

      Give it time, and I bet you’ll notice a major improvement.

  • Taylor Kuzik

    I notice that the left side of my torso, more around the oblique and down to my pelvis is more developed than the right one but this is noticeable only under the right lighting because of my translucent skin tone. I burn easily but don’t tan as much. It might be muscle imbalance, I have better strength on my right side but a small part of it could be from the fact I’m dominant on the right side of my body. This is something I am trying to correct but I do notice the left side of my torso is slightly weaker than my right side. I do stretch post-workout and before I go to bed. The heaviest dumbbell I can lift for like 5 reps is 35 lbs. I do intend to increase the weight as I get stronger. I sometimes do 5 reps for muscle strength since I researched on rep ranges. 1-4 reps is for maximal strength, 4-8 is for strength and 8-12 is the range for hypertrophy and 15+ is for endurance.

  • thiebault

    Hi mike !

    your articles are always by far the most precises and well made I usually find, and this one again.

    I am currently struggling to bring my right pec to the level of his bro. I played water-polo all my teens and this poor right pec is really underdevellopped comparing to the other. But it’s also way more flexible than the bigger left one. (I am left handed). Surprinsingly for me, it’s not the weakest, but maybe a bit stronger. (when i start with this arm on unilateral movements, the second struggle to keep up the reps, ending with the feeling the bigger one has once again worked out more at the end of the trainning). Due to the flexibility difference, same with bench press and bumbell press. I got good feeling with the weaker one on the Smith bench press, but I know it’s not the best to do. I also work everyday on improving muscle mind connection and flexibility, which has made good results so far. Does a specific thing could help me better please ? My full body progression is now slowed because I don’t want to get bigger on my full body but let the imbalance last.
    don’t pay attention for my English please, I am from france

    • Hey man, the techniques in this article will still help you, it’ll just take time. Focus on keeping your technique and range of motion between arms similar, and keep progressively adding weight to both sides, and things will even out over time.

  • Daniel

    Hi, Mike. In the past few months I’ve noticed a small (but now not so small) difference in my middle back. My left side is significally larger and sticks out more than my right middle back. I’m guessing this is my left lat (the part that goes near the spine, not the “wing” part which I don’ really have yet) got bigger because of extra twisting motion (at the torso) at the end of my one arm db rows with my left hand in comparison with my right hand. Could this be the case? If it is, adding more volume is not only going to affect my lat, but may trap and rear delt as well, and since those muscles are not inbalanced because the problem itself is not caused by more work, rather than extra twisting motion at the end of the movement, I don’t know how to adress this. Maybe concentrating on twisting my torso at the end of each rep on the right side and trying no to do so on my left side and see what happens?
    Thanks!

  • Chris Driver

    Hi Mike, firstly great articles and have just purchased your book. I have recently started back on a training programme – after 5 years of constant illness and injury – and have found your articles most helpful and very similar to my original training.
    However I have noticed an imbalance with my core: the right side (abs and obliques) are developing much better than my left side. Do you have any suggestions on exercises that will help me correct this?
    Many Thanks,
    Chris

  • Chris Handy

    Mike,

    Absolutely love the site and your podcasts, and recommend your stuff as often as I can. Keep up the great work.

    My question is about catching up one pec to the other. Previously, I’ve guessed at how to try to fix this and would do my standard dumbbell bench with equal weight, then at the end of my set I’d hold my strong side in an extended position and do a couple more reps with the weaker side. I felt like my stronger side was still getting a workout just from holding the extension and balancing the weight. I was thinking that holding the other dumbbell I wasn’t working would help to balance my body and keep my form dialed in.

    Would you recommend to just do an additional set with the weaker side, and NOT hold the other dumbbell at all? If I did hold the strong side dumbbell for balance, would it be better to hold it close to the body instead of extended up?

    I know this is putting a lot of emphasis on a small technicality, but I just want to make sure I get it right. Thanks!

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