Happen to notice when you’re working out that one arm or leg is stronger than the other? If so, don’t sweat it. You’ve probably got some muscle imbalances, which are very common.
“Some muscular and strength imbalance between the two sides of the body is completely normal,” according to strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N.
The thing is, while some asymmetry between sides is normal, there’s a tipping point at which muscle and strength imbalances become a problem and actually interfere with your overall quality of life in and out of the gym, Harcoff says.
Below, four signs your muscle imbalances have crossed the threshold into being worth correcting, plus how to remedy the situation.
Why Are Muscle Imbalances So Common?
According to Harcoff, muscle imbalances can occur in the body for a multitude of reasons. One of the most common is previous soft tissue or skeletal injury or trauma. It makes sense: If a broken bone or muscle tear immobilizes your arm or leg for a period of time, it’s a given that the limb gets weaker while the other gets stronger to compensate, he explains. Even after the injury heals, these muscle imbalances can linger.
Spending too much time in a particular position can also lead to muscle imbalances. “Our bodies conform to the positions we spend time in,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of movement platform Movement Vault. For example, if you spend hours a day sitting with your right leg crossed over your left, your right hip can become more mobile than your left over time. Unless you actively work to match that increased mobility through your warm-up, stretch, or mobility routine, the asymmetry can impact your movement patterns. You might, for example, favor one side over the other when you do squat movements, which can exacerbate and worsen the asymmetry, he says.
Some muscle imbalances, however, don’t stem from anything you do, don’t do, or have experienced, but from innate anatomical differences in the length of your bones, joints, or tendons between sides, says Harcoff. Another reason not to beat yourself up about it.
3 Signs Your Muscle Imbalances Need Addressing
1. Your Shoulders and Hips Are Uneven
If you’re concerned about serious muscle imbalances, stand in front of a full-length mirror and take inventory. “Typically, notable muscle imbalances are pretty easy to spot visually on the body,” Harcoff says. “Often, they present as one side looking more elevated than the other,” he says.
As you stand there, peek at your shoulders. If you were to draw a line connecting your shoulder blades, would it be perfectly parallel with the ground, or would the line be slanted? “One shoulder being higher on the body is a common sign of imbalance,” Harcoff suggests. Look for the same thing in your hips.
Next, look at the angle of your head and neck. If they jut to one side or another, as is common in folks with desk jobs, you may have imbalances in the mobility and strength in your neck, traps, and upper back muscles, he says.
Finally, eye up your actual muscles, both in a flexed and relaxed position. Likely, if there’s a difference in strength, you’ll be able to notice a difference in girth between sides, suggests Harcoff.
2. You Can’t Lift the Same Amount of Weight on each side
“Another way to spot imbalances is to look at the numbers you’re able to lift between sides,” says Harcoff. Ideally, you’d be able to lift the same amount of weight for the same amount of reps with the same quality form on each side, he explains.
If you have a training log, look back and see if the reps you tallied or weight you used between sides was the same (balance!) or different (imbalance!).
Or, simply give a few unilateral exercises a whirl. The next time you have access to dumbbells, test your shoulder and thoracic spine strength and mobility symmetry with strict shoulder presses, overhead walking lunges, and single-arm dumbbell overhead squats.
To test lower body imbalances, try movements like single-leg squats, forward walking lunges, Bulgarian split squats, single leg step-ups, and single leg deadlifts, Harcoff says.
3. You Get Injured Often
While a slight difference in strength between sides is livable, bigger differences can create a chain reaction throughout the body.
“Imbalance in one muscle group can cause other muscles and joints upstream or downstream to compensate,” explains Harcoff. In practice, that means one muscle group is forced to take on work it was not designed for. “Not only will this result in suboptimal movement patterns, but can also end up causing overuse injuries down the road,” he adds. If you’re dealing with a nagging injury, a muscle imbalance might be the sneaky culprit.
Pro Tip: Get Your Form Evaluated
Spotting form flubs in your own movement patterns can be tricky—even if you’re a seasoned exerciser or an actual fitness professional. That’s why Harcoff recommends hiring a physical therapist or certified trainer to evaluate you as you perform a push, pull, hinge, and squat. When all else fails, they can help you figure out where your imbalance lies.
His suggestion: When picking a fitness expert, make sure that they have a solid understanding of anatomy. “You also want them to have experience with biomechanics to ensure they are putting you in the best possible position to succeed (and not make matters worse),” he says. For best results, look for a certified strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S.) or a physical therapist (D.P.T. or P.T.).
How To Deal with Muscle Imbalances
Realizing that you have pretty significant muscle imbalances? It benefits your long-term health and fitness journey to prioritize remedying them.
1. Do unilateral movements
One-sided (a.k.a. unilateral) moments are the absolute best way to remedy muscle imbalances, according to Wickham. Why? Because they take the stronger side out of the equation, forcing the weaker side to complete the work on its own without a helping hand from the strong side. Single-arm dumbbell shoulder presses, bent-over rows, and chest presses are all great options for your upper body. Meanwhile, all sorts of lunges, split squats, and single-leg squats and deadlifts help bring balance to your lower body.
2. Train your weaker side first
Whenever you do those unilateral movements, work your weaker side first. “There is a small training effect in the stationary limb (the one opposite to the limb that is doing the work),” says Wickham. By training your weaker limb first, you ensure that it’s as fresh as possible when under load. “This supports the limbs ability to move the weight well,” he notes.
3. Let the weaker side dictate your weight
Repeat after us: Don’t use different weights for each side of your body. This only exacerbates strength differences between the sides.
Instead, put your ego aside and pick weight based on what your weaker limb can handle. “If the left arm can only curl 20 pounds, use 20 pounds on both sides, even your right arm can curl 25 pounds,” says Harcoff. Once your weaker side catches up to your stronger one, you can progress your weight.
Don’t worry, the stronger side won’t get weaker, either. “The other side will be able to maintain strength using a lighter load,” Harcoff says. “Using the lighter load just gives the weaker side time to catch up instead of further exacerbating the imbalance.”
4. Enlist a pro
If you’re struggling to correct imbalances through your own devices, check in with a fitness professional for help. They can help you create a training program that effectively targets any asymmetries and incorporate other therapeutic modalities as needed to help you get back into balance.