When we begin a workout regimen, we immediately start to discover more about our bodies. We learn what we do and don’t enjoy, and which exercises feel the best. We also notice that the dominant side of our body is stronger than the non-dominant side. This is called ‘side dominance’, and it’s especially evident on unilateral (or single-side) exercises like rows and lunges. However, you also might notice that you favor one side over the other during bilateral exercises.
Here, I explain what all this means for your training, and when you might want to seek help from a pro.
Let’s Talk About Side Dominance
As we develop in our early years, we slowly start using one hand over the other for tasks that require fine skill and control. Eventually, we perform tasks like writing, throwing, and eating primarily with one hand, at which point we’ve found our dominant side! Most of the time, that dominant side holds true for your legs as well. If you play soccer, ride a skateboard, or anything similar, you’re likely going to gravitate towards that same side. This certainly isn’t a rule, but it’s the more common scenario.
Given that, when you start an exercise program, you’ll likely notice that your dominant side is stronger than your non-dominant side. There are two primary reasons why:
- Your dominant side gets more ‘training’ throughout life. Think about it: You’re more likely to do things like throw, carry groceries, and reach overhead with your dominant side. Same goes for your legs: You mostly rely on your dominant leg when stepping up or down. That real-world training really shines when you get into the gym.
- Your dominant side also has much better neuromuscular control than your non-dominant side. (This is why you can’t write or throw very well on your non-dominant side.) We know that strength is largely impacted by neuromuscular ability and/or adaptations, which means that your brain and nervous system are the main controllers of muscle strength. If one side of your body has better neuromuscular control, it’s going to be stronger.
Side Dominance And Training
So what does this all mean for your training? Until recently, this topic had mostly been studied in soccer players. Not only is it the most popular sport in the world, but it also involves an element of limb dominance. Players can generally kick well with their non-dominant leg, but kick better with their dominant leg.
Right now, our research team at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI) is beginning a really interesting study to see how limb dominance affects muscle growth from bench press training. We’re investigating whether a new training idea called ‘offset loading’ can counteract some of the issues with limb dominance.
In our pilot data, we found that the dominant side pectoral muscle was more active during a normal bench press and grew more from normal bench press training. We then tested offset loading, loading the non-dominant side with five percent more weight. This evened out pectoral activation and led to greater hypertrophy of the non-dominant pectoral.
We’re testing more subjects now, but our initial results suggest that you can overcome limb dominance in the gym.
How To Overcome Side Dominance
Given this, if you’re noticing that one side of your body is weaker than the other, there are a few things you can do.
First, don’t try offset loading with free weights just yet. (Our team at ASPI needs to compile more data on what method is the safest and most effective, as well as what exercises you can use it with.) If anything, try it on free-moving machines that allow you to work one arm or leg at a time. Plate-loaded machines are usually a great option for this method.
An easier method, though, is to simply do an extra set on your non-dominant side for each exercise. This is the strategy I used to bring up my left shoulder when I got into bodybuilding and it worked quite well.
You can also really focus on your mind-muscle connection in your non-dominant limb during bilateral exercises. This is easy to do during machine moves like leg presses, hack squats, lat pulldowns, or even chest presses. Focus on your non-dominant side and think about pushing or pulling more with that side.
When To Seek Pro Help
Ultimately, whether you seek help from a professional is a tough call and depends on your goals. If you’re an athlete and notice a large asymmetry, it’s probably more important to seek help than if you’re just getting into working out and don’t plan on competing in anything any time soon.
That said, if an asymmetry is extreme and isn’t addressed, it could potentially lead to back pain or joint pain in your dominant side. So, if you have a noticeable asymmetry and joint or back pain, that’s probably a good indication to seek professional help.
I’d try seeing a physical therapist first to make sure your imbalance isn’t injury-related and doesn’t put you at risk of legitimate injury. A good physical therapist can give you some take-home exercises to start working on right away to diminish that asymmetry.
You can also seek out a qualified coach or trainer to help create and supervise workouts to reduce your asymmetry. Look for someone who has experience with your particular issue and has had some sort of biomechanics or kinesiology education. This will give you more peace of mind in knowing that they’re qualified to help you and won’t just hurt you further.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, asymmetries between dominant and non-dominant limbs are incredibly common and nine times out of ten, aren’t a big deal. In fact, these slight asymmetries are what make you…you! Some of the greatest athletes in the world have asymmetries between limbs and trying to fix them would likely just slow them down or hamper their performance.
If you notice an asymmetry, simply do an additional set on your weaker side in every exercise you do in the gym. After a couple of months or so, you’ll likely notice an improvement. It will take time, so stick with it! You can also try offset loading on certain machines or working on your mind-muscle connection with that non-dominant side.
If your asymmetry causes joint pain or back pain, have a professional check it out and give you some exercise pointers. Being in pain will keep you from adhering to your training over the long-term–and the more years you spend in the gym, the better shape you’ll be in throughout life! So don’t let a short-term focus stop you from seeking help.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.