Muscle imbalances affect even the most diligent weightlifters.

That is, no matter how carefully you train, there will likely come a time in your fitness journey when one part of your body gets bigger, stronger, or bigger and stronger compared to its counterpart on the opposite side. 

The obvious problem with this is that it can spoil your body’s visual “balance.”

But that’s not the only way “muscle asymmetries” cause issues—they can also hinder athletic performance and may increase the risk of injury.

As such, most weightlifters want to know how to spot, prevent, and correct muscle imbalances.

And that’s precisely what you’ll learn in this article. 

What Is a Muscle Imbalance?

Almost every major muscle in your body has a twin—left pec, right pec; left quad, right quad; left triceps, right triceps, and so on.

Thus, one type of muscular imbalance is a size or strength discrepancy between a pair of such muscles. Bodybuilders refer to this as “muscle asymmetry.”

Sometimes you can see these imbalances in the mirror, and sometimes you can’t. Still, you often notice them in your training because one limb is stronger than the other.

For instance, if one hand ascends faster than the other on your bench press, it may be because of one or more muscle imbalances.

Another type of muscle imbalance can exist between pairs of opposing muscle groups, like your chest and back, triceps and biceps, and upper legs and calves.

If any of the muscles in these pairs are smaller or weaker and less developed than the other, visual symmetry and performance suffer, and sometimes, the risk of injury rises.

Bodybuilders call this “disproportion.”

For example, overdeveloped pecs and underdeveloped back muscles not only spoil your “aesthetics,” but may increase the likelihood of you hurting your shoulders.

Similarly, if your hamstrings are significantly weaker than your quadriceps, your risk of a hamstring injury may increase.

So, the goal is twofold:

  1. Symmetrical-looking muscles on each side of your body
  2. Proportionate development of the upper and lower and front and back parts of your body

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What Causes Muscle Imbalances?

Muscle imbalances usually occur when you train one muscle or muscle group more often or with more volume and intensity than others.

For example, if you do more reps of dumbbell curls with your strong arm than your weak arm, it will wind up bigger and stronger.

Similarly, if you train your chest with lots of sets and your back with few, or if you only focus on your upper body and neglect your legs, you’ll develop a disproportionate physique.

These problems usually stem from poor workout programming.

A good program, on the other hand, intelligently distributes the work between your upper and lower regions and among pressing, pulling, and squatting exercises.

Another mistake that produces muscular imbalances is using one side of your body more than the other.

People often don’t focus while exercising, making it hard to connect mentally with the muscles you’re trying to train. As a result, the stronger side does more work than the weaker side.

For example, if you have an imbalance in your back muscles (your left side is weaker than your right), it might be because you mindlessly use momentum more when rowing with your left side than when rowing with your right side. 

Or, if you have a shoulder muscle imbalance (again, your left side is weaker than your right), it might be the result of pressing harder through your right hand than your left while overhead pressing

In both scenarios, your right side does more work and will grow faster.

A lack of flexibility and mobility can also cause problems. Many people spend a lot of time sitting or leaning over desks, which can lead to tight shoulders, hip flexors, and lower back muscles.

This can affect how well you perform in the gym and lead to some muscles working too hard while others don’t work enough.

How Do You Spot a Muscle Imbalance?

Spotting muscle imbalances can be straightforward, especially with asymmetry. 

Just use a measuring tape to compare your muscles. Measuring them while flexed can give you more accurate readings because you’re less likely to press down and distort the measurements.

Judging proportions can be trickier because it’s at least partially subjective. That said, if you take cold, unflexed pictures of the front and back of your body and analyze the relationships between your upper and lower halves and front and back muscles, you’ll probably find flaws.

This is especially true if you’re training one side or half of your body harder or more than the other. If that’s the case, you have at least a minor imbalance.

For men, this guide outlines the standards for an ideal physique, which can help you identify what areas you need to work on in your training.

You can also use this guide to help estimate your genetic potential for developing different muscle groups to see where you have the most room for improvement.

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How to Prevent Muscle Imbalances

Eighty percent of preventing muscle imbalances is following a well-designed strength training program built on compound exercises that train your entire body evenly. For programs that meet this criteria, check out Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, or Thinner Leaner Stronger for women.

For the remaining 20%, do the following:

1. Do unilateral exercises.

Doing unilateral exercises (exercises that train one side of your body at a time), such as the alternating dumbbell curl, lunge, and Bulgarian split squat, negates the physiological biases that can creep into bilateral exercises (exercises that train both sides of your body simultaneously, like the squat, bench press, and deadlift).

With unilateral exercises, you can’t unwittingly favor one side of your body—each limb must “pull its own weight.”

2. Start and end sets of unilateral exercises with your weak side.

Starting your sets of unilateral exercises with your weak side and ending your sets when your weak side fails keeps you from racking up more volume on your strong side.

3. Train weaker, smaller muscles more than bigger, stronger ones.

For example, if your left shoulder is smaller than your right, and you do about 30 reps of dumbbell side lateral raises per week per side, you could bump your left-side raises to 40 reps per week.

Similarly, if your legs are too small compared to your upper body despite years of proper strength training, and if you’re doing, say, 12 hard sets per week for your legs, you could increase this to 15 hard sets per week.

4. Follow a mobility routine.

If your body isn’t flexible enough to perform an exercise through a full range of motion, the resulting compensations will cause muscular imbalances over time. 

For example, if one of your hip flexors is tighter than the other, you will likely favor the looser one when squatting heavy weights, which will probably lead to a muscle imbalance in your legs. 

Check out this articles to learn more about effective mobility routines:

The Definitive Guide to Mobility Exercises: Improve Flexibility, Function, and Strength

How Long Does it Take to Fix Muscle Imbalances?

The time it takes to correct muscle imbalances varies depending on several factors, including the severity of the imbalance, how consistently you try to fix it, and how responsive your body is to training (the longer you train, the less responsive your body becomes to weightlifting).

For example, if you’re an experienced weightlifter with noticeably imbalanced back muscles who does 1-to-2 perfunctory sets per week to fix it, it’ll take you far longer to correct the issue than a greenhorn weightlifter with a minor asymmetry who attends to it diligently. 

As such, it’s impossible to give a one-size-fits-all timescale. 

That said, with consistent effort, most people will see improvements in minor imbalances within 8-to-12 weeks. For more pronounced problems, you should see better muscle balance after 6-to-12 months. 

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Muscle Imbalances FAQs

FAQ #1: What are the symptoms of muscle imbalance?

Symptoms of muscle imbalance may manifest as differences in muscle size or strength between the left and right sides, upper and lower body, or the front and back of your body. 

Other indicators include:

  • Uneven posture
  • An inability to move one limb as freely as the other
  • Discomfort during or following exercise
  • A clear disparity in how well one side performs compared to its counterpart

FAQ #2: Can muscle imbalance be cured?

Yes, you can fix muscle imbalances through targeted exercises, stretching, and adjustments to your overall training regimen.

Basically, follow the advice in this article. 🙂

FAQ #3: Is muscle imbalance a problem?

While some degree of muscle imbalance is normal and may not cause issues, significant muscle asymmetries can lead to unbalanced aesthetics, performance issues, and an increased likelihood of injury.