Identifying & Fixing Imbalances

muscular imbalance 2Chances are you have muscular imbalances.

Chances are those imbalances are affecting your performance…

Chances are it isn’t for the better either.

In today’s post we will discuss what kinds of imbalances you might have and what you can do to correct them in order to improve your performance in training and competition.

In my experience I have found 3 main types of muscular imbalances.  These imbalances can affect posture, performance, and the risk of injury.

Protagonist/antagonist imbalance

This is the most commonly discussed imbalance.  Basically, this type of imbalance is where one muscle is significantly stronger than its antagonist which causes the body to “pull” in the direction of the stronger muscle.

muscular imbalance 1A classic example of this are the individuals who train the “beach muscles” (chest, shoulders, arms, and abs) with little regard to their antagonists (lats, traps, and lower back).  This causes the body to pull forward and increases the risk of injuring yourself.

How does this type of imbalance increase the risk of injury?

The simplest answer the that the stronger muscle overpowers the weaker one and causes it rip.  Your protagonist and antagonist muscles work in tandem whenever you perform a movement, such as a front kick.  As your thigh contracts, your hamstring relaxes.  If your thigh is disproportionately stronger than the hamstring however and you throw a powerful kick, the hamstring might not be strong enough to resist the pulling force created by the thigh, resulting in a tear.  Yes, this is a very simple example.  It’s just to illustrate the general process.

Here are some protagonist/antagonist combinations:

  • Pecs (Chest) / Traps (Upper Back)
  • Biceps / Triceps
  • Rectus Abdominis (Abs) / Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
  • Quadriceps (Thigh) / Hamstring
  • Gastrocnemius (Calves) / Tibialis Anterior (Shins)
  • Gluteus Maximus (Your bum) / Inner Hip Flexors (Iliacus, Psoas Major & Minor)

Fixing these types of imbalances are a relatively simple task.  All you need to do is make sure you’re training all the major muscle groups and not neglecting one group because it’s “too hard” (pullups come to mind).

Macro imbalances

Before you ask, yes I just made this term up.  Macro imbalances are where a certain part of the body is largely ignored.

skipped leg dayIs this real or fake?  Don’t care.  It illustrates my point.

Since my main experience is with Taekwondo, I will speak from that point of view.  Taekwondo is largely composed of kicks.  In WTF style sparring, 99% of all the points scored are from kicks (I would say 100%, but I’ve seen a TKO from a double punch to the torso years ago).  The natural tendency is to train legs, legs, legs and largely ignore the upper body.  This is a mistake for a few reasons.

  1. Force is generated through the use of every muscle in the body.  Your upper body affects the power of your kicks, granted not to the same extent as the legs and core.
  2. A powerful upper body is great to have when you get into the clinch with your opponent.  A punch to the ribs might not score any points, but it can knock the wind out of them and drain their will to fight.
  3. Strong muscles means strong bones.  Strong bones means you have less of a chance to be TKO’d by broken wrist, forearm, clavicle, etc.  Strong muscles around the neck also mean less chance of being knocked out by a hit to the head.

Am I going to suggest Taekwondo competitors train the upper body as much as the legs?  No, but it would behoove you to completely neglect it as well.

Right Side/Left side imbalances

Are you ambidextrous?  No?  Then chances are you have imbalances between your right and left side.  Sometimes they might not even make sense.

I’ll use myself as an example.  I’m left-handed.  As a result, my left side is much more powerful than my right.  However, my right side is much more coordinated than my left.  I can throw any spinning kick with my right leg that I want, but if you ask me to do the same with my left leg I look ridiculous.

This is less of a muscular imbalance and more of a neural imbalance.  Many times all it takes is more training on the weak side to bring it up to speed.

On the flip side, you CAN have muscular imbalances between your left and right side.  To locate muscular imbalances between the left and right, you need to perform exercises where you can isolate the left and right side.

For example:

If I want to test whether my right bicep is weaker than my left, I could take a 30# dumbbell and perform bicep curls until failure on both sides.  If your right is within a few reps of your left, you’re pretty even.  If you can only squeeze out 15 reps on your right while your left side can do 35, then you got a pretty bad imbalance.  This can be done with essentially any muscle group.

Right/Left side imbalances don’t really increase your risk of injury, but it does impair performance and options in a match.  In my case, I am hampered by my ability to only throw effective spinning kicks from my right side.

And there you have it.  To recap there are 3 main imbalances:

  1. Protagonist/Antagonist Imbalances
  2. Macro Imbalances
  3. Right/Left Side Imbalances

All three imbalances are fairly simple to correct once identified.  It just takes work.

Feel I missed anything?  Got questions?  Leave a comment below.



6 thoughts on “Identifying & Fixing Imbalances

  1. You have a good point about your training being the center of your imbalances in his article. However, most people spend lots of time in poor posture (sitting, watching tv, etc.) and that creates mobility issues. Then that person gets into lifting or whatever then the issue is further exacerbated. At least that’s my personal experience. I recently started focusing as much on my flexibility/mobility as my training and it has made a big difference in the weight room.

    • Mike, I wholeheartedly agree that poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle creates wide range of mobility issues. I converted my desk at work to a standing station 8 months ago and it has done wonders for the tightness in my hips.

      I also make it a point to exercise throughout the day; walking, pushups, and squats primarily. Then I have my actual “workout” once I get home. Perhaps we will dig into this topic more at a later date.

      Thanks for the comment and I hope to hear more from you.

  2. It sounds like you’re left hand dominant, and right foot dominant. It isn’t at all uncommon; I am the opposite, right hand dominant, and left foot dominant. Now all you have to do is find out which of your eyes is dominant:

    –make a circle with your thumb and index finger;
    –keeping both eyes open, find an object on the wall across the room and centre it in your thumb-finger circle;
    –close your left eye and observe how much the object moves;
    –do the same with your right eye.

    If the object appears to move more when you close your left eye, you are left eye dominant; if it moves more when you close your right eye, you are right eye dominant.

    I would imagine eye dominance would have some effect on accuracy of punches and kicks, but I haven’t looked into it.

    • I have actually done that test before and I am left eye dominant. I don’t think that’s what’s affecting the accuracy with my spinning kicks on my left leg. I think the biggest factor is probably because my left hip is a smidge tighter than my right and the restriction in movement is creating a cascading effect that’s throwing off my kicks.

      Taking notes on your free tutorial video right now. Hoping to loosen up those hips in the next few weeks.

  3. Nice article. I particularly appreciate that you mentioned the Tibialis Anterior.

    Do you have any experience with imbalances in the finger extensors and flexors? You didn’t mention it specifically, so I thought I’d chime in. I think that this one can be quite painful just like all the others, but as with the Tibialis Anterior, most people simply do not think about it (even bodybuilders). As far as I can tell, we squeeze things quite enough to develop some grip strength regardless of whether we’re lifting weights or not, but the opposite motion is almost universally neglected as we forget to spread our fingers to any similar capacity.

    The results of this neglect can variously be described as an ache in the forearms, a crippling weakness or pain while vertically bending the elbow, and sometimes it is even confused with elbow tendinitis or “tennis elbow.”

    Finger extensor work involves the spreading of your fingers under resistance. Personally, I like to use rubber bands placed around my fingers and I perform three sets of 45-65 reps (to failure), three days per week. Alternatively, you could repeatedly jab your bunched-up fingers into a bucket of sand and then spread them.

    Finger extensions have rapidly rehabilitated an imbalance in my forearms and cured a persistent pain that I had felt for over a year while holding a mere cup of coffee with elbows at 90 degrees. I highly recommend them to anyone who lifts weights or finds themselves forcefully gripping or bunching their fingers together with any sort of regularity.

    As an aside, I’m in the market for some good neck exercises, are there any that you would personally recommend? As of yet, I’ve only experimented with basic isometrics (using my hands for resistance).

    • Hey, glad you enjoyed the article. I have done that finger extension exercise before with a rubber band. It does work really well. The best rubber bands I’ve found for this exercise are the ones they use at the grocery store to hold produce together (like broccoli stalks). They’re very thick so you get a lot of resistance. Good suggestion on the exercise!

      I am not very knowledgeable in regards to neck exercises. The only real exercises that I know of for the next are things like neck bridges and headstands. Hope that helps. If anyone else has some suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

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