Muscle imbalance can affect anyone regardless of how active you are. When our muscles are functioning correctly there is a balance in tone, strength and length in the muscular pairs we rely on to support our skeleton in everyday activities and exercise. If one muscle becomes stronger or more flexible than its opposing pair, an imbalance develops and over time, this can become a serious issue.
For example, if your right bicep is weakened this will force your right triceps to work harder to compensate when using your elbow joint. Over time this could cause a tissue breakdown in the harder working muscle and result in pain when lifting with your right arm.
How to Identify Imbalance
Warning signs of a muscle imbalance can include pain and joint inflammation, but often there will be no symptoms as an imbalance develops, until the disparity in muscle function becomes more pronounced over time.
The easiest way to detect an imbalance is by observation. The most common imbalances occur in the shoulders, hips and spine.
Stand facing a mirror with your back straight and feet slightly apart. Check if your shoulders appear to be at the same height, and if your neck appears straight and if your hips look level.
When working out, try using a mirror in the gym while doing exercises to see if there are any significant differences in your movements on each side of your body. If you suspect an imbalance, a qualified physiotherapist can help to diagnose the precise location of the problem.
Common Causes of Imbalance
For athletes, the most likely cause is overuse of a particular motion in their sport of choice. For example, a weightlifter will develop their chest muscles (pectorals) but may neglect their upper back (trapezius). For non-athletes, an imbalance is often the result of a postural dysfunction or simply a repeated action such as picking up a baby or using a computer mouse. Imbalance can come as an indirect result of injuries to muscle tissue such a whiplash or a twisted ankle, or be caused by repeated micro-trauma like wearing badly fitting shoes or sitting in a car for extended periods.
Alternatively, someone who works out a lot may inflict the problem themselves unknowingly through chronic exercise imbalance.
Muscle imbalance is usually a problem which has developed over many years of improper movement and as such it can take several months to correct the issue. The first step is to identify and change any lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the imbalance.
To address the imbalance directly it will be necessary to carry out targeted exercises on the affected area, making sure to exert equal force across opposing muscle groups. When working out, it is vital to focus on the quality of movement rather than weight to ensure an even muscle build.
Prevention measures are just as important as correction to achieve optimum performance. Prehabilitation in exercise is a proactive method of training and conditioning to avoid the imbalances and asymmetries that can lead to injury.