Top Tips for Working on Muscle & Strength Imbalances
June 21, 2017
Because the body isn’t perfectly symmetrical, we all have strength imbalances to some extent. Strong and weak sides are natural, while injuries and habits can accentuate them even more.
You have a dominant leg and arm, and you might have certain muscles that simply respond better. Here are some tips for bringing up your smaller side or your weaker muscle groups.
- Add recovery time. If you’ve been ultra-focused on a certain muscle because it feels like it stubbornly refuses to respond, you might start with this, the simplest tip of all (but still a top one): wait another day or two between working it out again. It’s wise not to underestimate the importance of recovery to your muscle-building goals. In several of our tips to follow, we speak to doing less in order to achieve more within a workout, but adding recovery time in between workouts can give your body systems the extra space they need to build size and strength. Especially if you’ll take our advice and increase intensity and/or add weight…add rest, too!
- Reduce volume. It’s exercise science to the rescue here, and it boils down to doing less, as in shorter workouts, with less reps over less sets. You’ll be better able to balance your body with increasing focus on form, increasing weights, and increasing intensity. This tip highlights the fact that you might be working very hard—too hard—to strengthen muscles you see as unresponsive. When you border on overtraining, you’re going to impede your progress. To reduce volume in order to balance your body: A) focus on bilateral exercises (both limbs at once, as in barbell exercises instead of dumbbells) and B) focus on performing one very intense set of each of your exercises. Oh, and add recovery time, as we already mentioned.
- Do fewer exercises. When you’re completing a full strength training routine, it’s possible that you’re doubling or tripling the work for certain muscles, by your selection & number of exercises. This is especially true if you include compound movements like bench presses, rowing and lunges – these work multiple muscles at one time, or secondary muscles in addition to the primary focus. So, since there is triceps work in chest work, biceps work in rowing movements and calf work in lunges, you don’t need to add 3 or 4 more exercises for your biceps, triceps and calves on top of all that when you’re trying for balance. And doing fewer can help you do them with better form, using more weight, with reduced volume as mentioned above.
- Increase intensity. This approach is useful if you’re working on bringing up a weaker set of muscles. Your muscles will not respond by subjecting them to the exact same stress level every time you train them. Your body will better adapt by building more muscle when it senses that it’s been challenged by a new level of stress that it isn't used to. This works within limits, however, as you want to avoid overtraining which often leads to more imbalance. Ways to increase intensity without increasing volume include: increasing the amount of weight you use, changing the tempo of your workouts to include quicker power movements, or by slowing down the pace of each exercise, especially in the lower/negative phase of the movement.
- Work the weaker muscles first. When you have a lot of energy at the start of your workout, it’s a smart time to train the body parts that will be too challenged later on in the workout when you’re fatigued. One common example would be a stronger front of the body, weaker in the posterior. Or, especially for some women, stronger in the lower body and weaker in the upper body. Front/back, top/bottom or right/left, work your weaker half to its fullest first, and that can set you up for a perfectly performed set on the stronger side.
- Work the strong side first. This is the opposite approach to our number 5 tip, but hear us out. If you are performing (or trying to perform) a single set of a certain number of reps to challenge your muscles, starting with the stronger side helps you set your benchmark. Then, when you switch to the other side, you find you’re unable to do that many reps with the same weight. The answer is not to use less weight or do fewer reps, it is to do as many perfect reps as you can with the same weight, then take a short rest (15 seconds should do it), and then finish up with a mini-set on that weak side. You’ll total out the same on both sides, and help the weaker side play catch up.