Balancing Act!

For many of us bodybuilders, developing our physiques is a constant juggling act. We are perpetually compelled to stare into a mirror and see if our bodies are in perfect symmetry.
For many of us bodybuilders, developing our physiques is a constant juggling act. We are perpetually compelled to stare into a mirror and see if our bodies are in perfect symmetry. We constantly evaluate for example, if our shoulders are proportionate to the rest of the upper body, or if both our quads display the same sweep and dense muscularity, and on and on it goes.

One Side Bigger?

It is in doing this that many of us have come to realize that (God forbid) one side is bigger or stronger than the other, be it in an arm, leg, or other body parts. Some may think it is no big deal and continue training the same way for the next 2 - 3 years, but a muscle imbalance that goes unchecked is a serious injury waiting to happen.

Most people have a slight muscle imbalance to begin with when they first start bodybuilding. This is due to genetics. Since bodybuilding programs incorporate a mix of two-limb movements, such as barbell bench presses, t-bar rows etc., and unilateral movements, such as alternate dumbbell curls and lunges, very minor imbalances go away after awhile and seldom manifest into injuries or joint pain.

But what happens if the imbalance is more pronounced? You see it at the gym all the time. Somebody is bench pressing and the barbell looks like it's going to tip over because one arm is stronger than the other. As a result the weight is being lifted unevenly. As the poundage increases, so does the potential for injury. Therefore, it requires special attention to correct or at least minimize the problem.

Say What?

Let's take a closer look at the problem. Say for instance, my left arm is stronger than my right, and I decide to do a set of barbell bench presses. As soon as I dismount the bar from the rack, my right arm starts working harder than my left to balance the weight. As I lower and raise the barbell, my left arm and its synergists (muscles around it that help to move weight) contract harder than my right.

This results in:

    A) Moving the barbell unevenly because my right arm is struggling to keep up
    B) My right arm and its synergists not being fully worked, which causes my left arm to develop faster than my right.

Also, an imbalance usually exists in a limb (in this case the arms), and ultimately transfers to the body part that the limb is used to work. So my left pec and delts end up bigger than my right. If I keep on benching without rectifying my imbalance, I might end up tearing a muscle. One usually starts to identify such anomalies shortly after beginning a bodybuilding program.

There are two ways to identify it:

    A) During your workout
    B) When you pose

Say you knock out four sets of squats for 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps. Do you feel one leg doing more of the work? Are you constantly off balance and fighting to stabilize yourself? Do you feel a greater pump in one side than the other? The other way is to simply pose at a mirror. Is your right arm bigger than your left when you flex it? Look for subtle differences. Is your right quad displaying more muscularity than your left?

Be Aware

Be aware that while a strength imbalance can be corrected, a size imbalance may not. For example, some of us may find that our left bicep doesn't peak as high as our right, but both arms are just as strong. There nothing much you can do about this because it is due to genetics.

Correcting the situation in its early stages isn't too hard of a task. The key is to make sure that each limb is doing its equal share of work. Most two handed barbell or machine movements allow for one limb to work harder than the other (e.g. lat pull-downs or leg extensions). Cut these exercises out for a couple weeks or keep them to a minimum. If you like machines, look for those that isolate each limb.

The Hammer Strength leg extension machine has two levers to allow each leg to work on it's own. Incorporate dumbbell exercises in place of traditional barbell movements, such as dumbbell presses instead of barbell bench presses. Try split squats and dumbbell lunges for quads and glutes instead of squats. Below is a list of exercises for each body part that focuses on equal distribution of workload on each limb.

Chest Dumbbell Presses and Flyes
Shoulders Arnold Presses / One-Arm Cable Lateral Raises
Biceps Seated Alternating Curls / Cable Curls
Triceps Overhead Dumbbell Extensions / Dumbbell Kickbacks
Back One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
Lower Back Dumbbell Deadlifts
Quads Split Squats / Dumbbell Lunges / Single Leg Extensions
Hams Single Leg Curls
Calves Single Leg Calf Raise

Treat a muscle imbalance like a lagging body part. That means work it first. For example, if my right leg were weaker than my left, I would perform all the dumbbell lunges for my right side before I would switch over to the left. At the end of my workout, I would perform 1 - 2 additional sets of single leg extensions and curls to tax every last fiber in my right leg.

Pace Yourself

Pace yourself and stay focused on feeling the burn throughout the movement. Visualize the weaker muscle contracting and lengthening with each rep. This is crucial for improving the mind-muscle connection.

If you have a muscle imbalance, seriously attempt to correct it. You may be selling yourself short on muscular gains if you don't. Your left arm is only going to grow so big before if realizes that your other side isn't keeping up, and so it stops growing. I've known many people who corrected their imbalances and boom… they busted through the strength plateau they had been on for months. Bringing up a lagging body part also improves your overall symmetry.

You don't want one shoulder appearing bigger than the other do you? Finally, give top priority to correcting the imbalance over more seemingly glorious tasks, such as packing on mass with bone-crushing weights. After all, you can't get huge with a torn pec right?

God Bless,