It seems like common sense that we should have our bodies perfectly balanced, with our left and right sides having the same level of capabilities in strength, flexibility, control. And muscles that pull in one direction should be as strong as the ones that move you in the opposite direction. Why wouldn’t you want that?
At first thought it appears very clear that this can only be a good thing, but just like nearly everything there’s more to it than that.
How Do I Know if I Have a Muscular Imbalance?
First things, first: you do. Everyone does. The real question is whether or not your muscular imbalances are causing problems for you. In general, if you’ve been living with an “imbalance” for years, then you’re likely fine. In other words, if you don’t really notice any issues in your daily life then de facto you’re doing okay.
This even applies to your body structure in general and whether you have “unevenness” and asymmetries.
An example would be being born with one leg shorter than the other, your body adapted and you don’t experience any issues. But say you were suddenly made to wear a cast or boot that changes your leg length, if you don’t have the physical capacity/tolerance to adapt to that quick change, then you may have problems.
Here’s some examples of when you notice a change in your body that it’d be good to see a health care professional:
- One arm or leg is now different than the other, in terms of strength and/or appearance. You may notice that one foot consistently stumbles when you walk or that one of your shoulders is higher than the other when you look in the mirror.
- A significant difference in grip strength between hands. For most of us, the dominant hand is a bit stronger, but a major difference is something to take note of especially if it’s a recent change.
You may also notice asymmetries in various exercises:
There may be other signs you notice, but the main point here is that any imbalance that’s worth concern is going to be pretty obvious when you look for it. Subtle imbalances are normal and fine.
So what about pain?
Yes, you should also get qualified medical help if you’re feeling chronic pains, but this is usually coincidental to asymmetries and isn’t really a symptom that’s specific to muscular imbalance. Chronic pain is a complex phenomena and is much more than simply correcting any perceived unevenness.
OK, so you’re not perfectly symmetrical. Now what?
Well, this is where The Internet will try to tell IT’S TIME TO FREAK OUT.
This is how companies sell everything from exercise bands to special “therapeutic” devices and training programs that claim to restore your all-important balance and alleviate everything from back pain to arthritis. And I can honestly tell you – as both a physical therapist AND a guy who also sells training on the internet – that it’s mostly BS.
Let’s look at what causes imbalances so we can understand how they work and what you need to do about them…
What Causes Muscular Imbalance?
Like any very broad term with medical connotations, it’s important to keep things in perspective here. There’s a lot of different types of imbalances and asymmetries, and as we’ll show below, they don’t always have to be problematic.
Here’s a broad overview of some of the most common factors in the kinds of imbalances you’re most likely to experience:
Handedness/footedness dominance starts out from our genetics and the lateralization of our brains. One postulated reason is that equalized control is inefficient, and can have greater possibility of error when information passes through the two hemispheres. It’s all incredibly complicated but the reality is that – except for the approximately 1 percent of the population who are truly ambidextrous (no dominant side) – we all grow up with a preferred side.
So there are structural reasons, you are “built” a certain way. Our brain configuration, better nerve conduction of signals and all that.
How This is Reinforced
This is just the start of it though, as those connections get strengthened and build up other structures in their wake (muscle fiber, bone growth, further nerve connections) just as a matter of what we habitually do every day without thought.
And depending on our recreational and work activities we can become more or less dominant. Just as we like to always emphasize for every skill you do, it’s all a matter of practice. In all sports and hobbies, we will perform thousands of repetitions over the years towards mastery of our chosen craft. And usually these actions have a “sidedness” to them, sports like tennis, baseball, golf will have you doing those repetitions in a particular way to a particular side the majority of the time. You can see that this will only further cement certain limb dominance.
But while those are examples of activities that emphasize a specific side, others sports/hobbies can inherently encourage us to increase our skill/use of our ‘weaker” sides. Playing music is a good example, where dexterity in both hands is absolutely necessary. We can use our less dominant side more regularly and often and coordination/strength/skill will improve over time.
Whether we are forced to due to injuries or just make a conscious decision to do so, the plasticity of our nervous system is an amazing phenomena. We can literally adapt to anything given enough time.
Should We Strive to be Symmetrical and Balanced?
As we’ve talked about above, side dominance is an inherent thing, and our daily habits and activities are continual reinforcements. Even in those of us that are “ambidextrous”, our daily habits and activities very likely exhibit preferences. It’s simply the way we are.
Should we even attempt to change this?
🎙️ Related Podcast: Imbalances Won’t Kill You
Can Muscular Imbalances Cause Pain or Injury?
First is the idea that a body that is more balanced in strength and proportion is less susceptible to injury and pain, and again this seems like common sense. But that really hasn’t been borne out in the research.
Even in the case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), remember those checks in P.E. class as a kid?, It’s been shown that more of us (13%) have some degree scoliosis than we are aware of and this is accompanied with no reports of pain or dysfunction. The relationship between back pain and scoliosis is not clear. Old long-term follow-up studies reported no greater incidence or degree of back pain in adult scoliosis than in normal population when matched for age and sex. It depends on the significance of the curve. Even in this classic example of body asymmetry, if it’s not egregious, you are probably fine, and even if there is you are likely just fine too. Weird but true.
Also when considering the practicalities of getting better at your chosen sport, if you want to be competitive you have to make the most out of the time you devote to practicing. And we only have so much practice time.
You have to consider that there is that practice time that you absolutely need to improve, then subtract from that total time the amount you’d spend working on your less dominant side in maneuvers you would very likely not use in a competitive match. Even if there was a benefit to learning how to use your other hand, or bat/golf/etc from the other side, is the percentage benefit worth the significant amount of time it would take? That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.
You are probably stronger on one side than another simply because 99 percent of us exist with a predetermined dominant side. But at what point does it become significant enough to become a problem? I’d argue that you would already know. It would be so obvious that it affects the things that you want to do. If you are just wondering and unsure, you are likely just fine and really shouldn’t worry about it. In fact, there is research finding that worrying too much about symmetry is a sign of body dysmorphia!
As a counterpoint to the above, at the highest levels of sport you’ll likely see more prevalence of pain/issues simply because of the very high volume of training/practice. Golfers are a primary example. But professional golfers spend literally hours and hours more in their practice than regular people. Two hours a day of training is on the very high end of training for recreational fitnessers. Professional athletes can spend upwards of three to four times as much as this in their training. It’s literally their job.
We are absolutely not saying that it’s okay to completely neglect muscle groups, one side vs the other, or particular movement patterns. As always, we encourage a more thoughtful approach than one extreme or the next. In fact this is why we espouse having movement variability as a big component in your training. Moving and training in a variety of different ways is an excellent way to assess and address any legitimate concerns about significant differences in your body’s capabilities. We’d go as far as saying it’s the best way to train.
But full symmetry and TOTAL BALANCE is not only impossible, it’s unnecessary.
Mini-Rant: Don’t blindly follow WILBURs
The Internet is a wonderful thing, but many people have begun to confuse easy access to information with actual expertise. To become a PT, I’ve spent years studying and practicing my craft and passing evaluations based on a vast pool of research and collective wisdom. Then I went to work as a clinician and gained first-hand experience helping thousands of real patients address real injuries.
Contrast this with what I’ll call WILBURs: Well Intentioned But Unqualified Redditors. These are people who want to be helpful but lack the expertise to do anything beyond parroting advice that sounds right, based on reading a few online discussion threads.
I’m all for people crowdsourcing advice and sharing their experiences. And over the years, GMB has participated in the Bodyweight Fitness subreddit, which has been fun and rewarding for us. But the internet creates an echo chamber where opinions can be amplified and repeated, and muscular imbalances are one area where well-meaning communities have caused undue worry and concern, far out of proportion with the actual dangers.
It’s like your friend who convinces himself he has some rare disease because he looked up the symptoms on WebMD. Turns out, it was just heartburn from too much Fire Sauce at his favorite taco joint.
Please participate and enjoy whatever communities you like, but don’t forget that it’s your own responsibility to self-assess intelligently (see above) and get qualified medical advice if you have a legitimate concern.
When is it a good idea to address concerns?
We’ve outlined reasons why you shouldn’t worry so much about side dominance or minor differences in strength/flexibility but when would it be appropriate to be concerned?
- Are there movements/positions where you feel pain and discomfort or just simply more difficult than you’d prefer?
- Do you notice a plateau (or regression) in your improvement?
These are all valid and equally reasonable reasons for looking at changing up your training a bit.
In the case of the first question about pain in movement and positions, this relates a bit to the point about professional athletes. You may not be one, but if you have physical occupational duties where you have to perform repetitive activities for 6 to 8 hours a day, you’re pretty much in the same boat as a pro ball player. This is a prime example of when it’s a valid concern that injury and pain can occur due to compounding fatigue to your body.
Plateaus in improvement towards your goals is another situation that calls for a deeper look at your training. But I would argue this is likely not a strength/flexibility balance issue but rather a movement variability concern. We’ll talk more about how to address this below.
And finally, maybe you just want to try getting better on your non-dominant side? And that’s just as good a reason as any! Just be aware of why you want to. “Because it’s cool” is frankly a better reason than injury avoidance or thinking you’d need to be more balanced to be better in sport and life. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Probably not.
3 Tips for Practical Body Balance
So whether or not your asymmetries are causing problems, you may decide you want to even things out, and that’s completely fine. So the question then becomes “How do you fix muscular imbalance?”
1. Try Shifting Your Weight
You don’t have to change your training to all one limb activities. A more practical and efficient solution would be to keep all of your bilateral exercises and simply shift more of your weight to your less dominant side. It’s an easy thing to apply to your squats, presses, and pull-ups and doesn’t increase your training time at all. You can be regimented and do every repetition this way, or do half the sets in this manner. Play with it and see how you feel. This uncomplicated adjustment may be all you need.
2. Try Shifting Your Timing
A more extensive change in your routine would be to double the work (repetitions/time) on your non-dominant side/direction and halve the work on your dominant. This assumes that you’d have more unilateral exercises/movements in your training. So you may have to make significant additions to your workouts to make that happen. This wouldn’t be my first choice but it can be a very powerful way to affect changes.
3. Try Shifting Your Habits
This third tactic requires a bit more observation and thought because now you’ll be looking at what you do and how you carry yourself throughout your entire day and not just in your workouts. This strategy can be very helpful in the scenario we mentioned earlier about occupational responsibilities. Are you constantly turning/reaching to your left side? Carrying loads primarily on your right? All of that adds up over your work hours.
You’ll probably notice that you stand in the same way as well, more weight on one leg and shifted over. We’ve all likely adapted to this but there are circumstances where our adaptations aren’t enough. Warehouse work with increased productivity quotas (think Amazon workers during holiday shopping season) comes to mind. But you can probably come up with situations that are more pertinent to you.
So now you’ll be looking at what you normally do and work on changing it to the opposite. Use your other hand to open doors, shift your weight to the other side in standing, reach and turn the other way now. However, it’s important to do this gradually! Perhaps start at changing just a quarter of your day. Unless you a very disciplined person, a dramatic change won’t last, it’s too drastic of a shift and you’ll soon revert back to what you usually do.
Start with being more aware of your habits, and work on incrementally changing your preferred patterns.
|Strategies to Improve Your Movement in All Directions|
|Shift Weight||• In bilateral exercises (squats, presses, pullups) simply shift your weight a bit to your less dominant side|
|Shift Time||• Double your work time on on less dominant side/direction
• Halve your work/time on dominant side
|Shift Habits||• Observe how you stand, reach, and otherwise move throughout the day
• Start adjusting those habits so you do the opposite.
• Do this only a bit at a time!
Imbalanced or Just Uneven, You still gotta play the ball where it lies…
Your body will never be perfect, and that’s fine. It shouldn’t stop you from working to improve your capabilities in a way that’s fun and valuable for you. Just don’t let that drive to improve fixate you.
As I explained above, imbalances and asymmetries are not just natural – they can even be beneficial. It’s up to you to take the time to figure out how. Sure, work on building the body you want, but don’t forget to invest some time in learning how to use the body you have, just as it is now.
This is yet another reason we focus on skill development at GMB – so you develop your capabilities and your actual abilities at the same time.
Assess and Explore Your Uniquely Asymmetrical Movement Capabilities
Jarlo Ilano, MPT, OCS 👋
Jarlo Ilano is a Physical Therapist (MPT) since 1998 and board certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS) with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. He’s undergone extensive postgraduate training in neck and back rehabilitation with an emphasis in manual therapy.
He has been teaching martial arts for over 20 years, with a primary focus on Filipino Martial Arts, and he works out in jeans and flip-flops.