Muscular imbalance issues can plague bodybuilders and athletes of all kinds. Left uncorrected, a muscular imbalance can cause injuries, hinder strength gains, or simply just leave you in pain all the time. Below are some common muscular imbalance issues, as well as what you can do to go about fixing them.
Shoulders/Chest and Upper Back
By far the most common muscular imbalance is between the shoulders/chest and the upper back. Often this is a result of a lifter doing way more upper body “pushing” work than “pulling” for an extended period of time. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a gym goer with shoulders that seem to be “hunched” forward, it’s because they lack strength in the rear delts and upper back.
There are a few ways to go about fixing this. The first would be to include high volume rear delt work, as many trainees neglect this from their program. Doing exercises such as rear delt raises, banded pull aparts, or face pulls for 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps, 2-3x per week will go a long way toward repairing this imbalance. It will also greatly improve the chances of keeping the shoulder girdle healthy.
Next, you’ll want to ensure your upper body pulling work includes some sort of rowing movement. Ideally, you’d use a modified version of an exercise where you pull “high” on your torso. For example, doing barbell rows or low pulley rows with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, pulling the bar to the nipple area instead of your abdomen. 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps will work well.
The last thing you’ll want to do is go out of your way to stretch the pecs and shoulders. This can be accomplished via static stretches done between sets of chest and shoulder work after you’re properly warmed up. Ensuring a full range of motion on dumbbell bench variations and dips will be of great benefit, too.
Quadriceps and Hamstrings
Many lifters think they suffer from tight or inflexible hamstrings. The truth is that more often than not, what they’re really experiencing is a muscular imbalance between the hamstrings and the quadriceps. The quads are so much stronger than the hamstrings which stay tight as a sort of natural defense mechanism to avoid injury.
Static stretching of both the quads and hamstrings (as well as the entire lower body in general) between sets of all exercises during leg workouts is a good start to alleviating this. You don’t have to stretch everything between every set, but have a “go to” stretch for the quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes and calves. Do 1-2 after every set, running through the list in a continuous rotation throughout your workout.
You’ll also of course want to strengthen your hamstrings. Leg curls done for 3-4 sets of 8-10 are fine, but consider adding deadlifts that target the hamstrings to the mix, too. You could include Romanian deadlifts, stiff legged deadlifts, or single leg deadlifts. 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps is good here, too. Just keep a close eye on your form, so as to not accidentally injure the lower back. You can drop your reps to 4-8 per set if performing regular heavy deadlifts.
A great way to mix both stretching and strengthening is to add single leg movements to your program. Specifically, you’d want to do rear foot elevated split squats or reverse lunges. Both of these force the hamstrings (and glutes) into a fully stretched position while antagonist muscles on the opposite leg work. Once again, 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps will suffice.
Preventing Muscular Imbalances
If you don’t currently have a muscular imbalance, pat yourself on the back, consider yourself lucky, and endeavor to keep it that way. One of the best ways to do this is to keep the relative workload even between your different “planes”.
This means you want to do as much overhead work (“vertical” pushing) as you do bench press variations (“horizontal” pushing). The same goes for pullups/pulldowns (“vertical” pulling) and rows (“horizontal” pulling). At the same time, you’ll want vertical pushing more or less even with your vertical pulling, as well as horizontal pushing and horizontal pulling.
Doing this ensures that you’re doing roughly the same amount of work pushing and pulling, vertically and horizontally. This keeps any one plane or motion from being done an inordinate amount more than any other, which is how imbalances are caused in the first place.
You’ll want to do the same type of thing for the lower body, too. Try to balance out quad-dominant exercises (e.g. – squats) with hip-dominant exercises (e.g. – deadlifts). You’ll also want to try to balance your pushing and pulling there too, making sure your posterior chain is worked as much as the quadriceps/legs.
Having a muscular imbalance can cause trouble, but it’s pretty simple to fix. How long you have to spend rectifying it will depend on how bad your specific imbalance is, but you’ll get there with enough time and effort. Once you have your imbalances taken care of, make sure your pushing, pulling, and planes of motion all stay fairly even in how much work they get. That way, you can do your best to prevent this from happening again.