- A muscle imbalance is a noticeable size or strength discrepancy between muscle groups, such as having a right bicep that’s larger than your left, or a bigger upper body than lower body.
- The most common causes of muscle imbalances are improper workout programming and poor exercise technique, mobility, and flexibility.
- To fix muscle asymmetry, train your weaker muscles more and don’t do more reps with your stronger muscles, and to fix muscle disproportions, follow workout routines that emphasize the major muscle groups you want to improve.
Let’s face it.
One of the biggest reasons to toil away in the gym is to look good. Really good.
Gals usually want lean legs, a curvy butt, and a toned upper body and abs.
If you listen to the right people, you’ll discover that getting there isn’t all that hard, really.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll wind up with the exact body you want.
In time, you might notice one side of your chest is slightly smaller than the other, or one arm is clearly larger than the other, or your entire upper or lower body is noticeably larger than the other.
Many people say this shouldn’t happen if you’re following a halfway sensible workout routine. Others say it’s purely genetic, and you have to play the cards you’re dealt.
Well, both are wrong.
You can develop muscle imbalances following any weightlifting routine, good and bad, and you can absolutely take measures to correct them.
It’s pretty simple, too.
You don’t have to drastically change your training or buy special equipment.
As you’ll see in this article, all you have to do is make some simple tweaks to your training routine, keep an eye on how your body responds, and adjust accordingly.
Let’s get to it.
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Almost every major muscle in your body has a twin.
- Left pec, right pec
- Left quad, right quad
- Left triceps, right triceps
- Left lat, right lat
- . . . and so on.
Thus, one type of muscle imbalance is a size or strength discrepancy between a pair of muscle groups.
For example, it’s common for guys to have one arm or pec that’s larger than the other.
Bodybuilders refer to this as “asymmetry.”
Sometimes you can see these imbalances in the mirror, and sometimes you can’t, but you often notice them in your training (one limb is stronger than the other).
For example, if one side of the bar tends to ascend faster than the other on your bench press, it may be due to one or more muscle imbalances on the trailing side.
If any of these opposing pairs of muscle groups are significantly smaller or weaker and less developed than the other, visual symmetry and performance suffers, and in some cases, the risk of injury rises.
Bodybuilders call this “disproportion.”
Similarly, if your hamstrings are significantly weaker than your quadriceps, this may increase your risk of a hamstring injury.
So, the goal, then is twofold:
- Symmetrical looking muscles on each side of your body.
- Proportionate development of the upper and lower, and front and back parts of your body.
Fortunately, 80% of this is simply following a well-designed workout program that focuses on heavy barbell training, and that doesn’t neglect or undertrain any portion of your body.
The other 20%, however, depends on your genetics.
We all have natural strong and weak points that will show more and more in time, and that will eventually need to be addressed.
For me, for example, my chest and biceps have always been high responders, while my lats and calves have been more stubborn than a radioactive mule.
Summary: A muscle imbalance is a noticeable size or strength discrepancy between muscle groups.
This can take the form of an asymmetry—where a muscle on one side of your body is larger than the other—or a disproportion, where one or more opposing muscle groups are significantly larger than the other.
The most common cause of muscle imbalances is simply training one muscle or muscle group more or more intensely than another.
This is no surprise, of course.
If you train one muscle or muscle group more frequently or intensely than its physiological or visual counterpart, a muscle imbalance will develop sooner or later.
For example, if you do more reps on your dumbbell curls with your strong arm than your weak arm, it’s going to wind up noticeably bigger and stronger.
Similarly, if you hit your chest with 100 heavy reps per week and your back with only 30, or if you focus all of your time on your upper body and neglect your legs, you’re going to wind up with a disproportionate physique.
These types of scenarios usually boil down to poor workout programming.
Many workout programs for men tend to emphasize the “mirror muscles” (chest, shoulders, and arms), and neglect the rest (back and legs, namely). For women, it’s usually a lot of butt and legs and very little chest, arms, shoulders, back, or anything else.
A good program, however, distributes the work fairly evenly between your upper and lower regions, and between pressing, pulling, and squatting.
Many people aren’t focused on the work at hand while they train, and instead let their mind wander as they go through the motions.
This prevents the “mind-muscle connection” that many bodybuilders talk about, and often results in one side of the body (the stronger one, usually) doing more work than the other.
For example, let’s say your left back muscles are less developed than your right.
You don’t realize it, but while doing dumbbell rows with your left arm, you’re using more shoulders and momentum to swing the weight than you do with the right.
Thus, every time you row, the right side of your back gets a bit more work than your left, and thus, grows bigger and stronger.
Last but not least, poor flexibility and mobility often prevents people from doing exercises properly even if they want to.
Our body automatically makes various compensations, which often results in certain muscles being over-engaged with others being under-engaged.
Summary: The most common causes of muscle imbalances are improper workout programming and poor exercise form, mobility, and flexibility.
The easiest type of muscle imbalance to spot is asymmetry (a mismatch between left- and right-side muscle groups).
All you have to do is grab a measuring tape, measure both sides three times, average the measurements, and compare.
I like to measure muscles flexed for this type of analysis, because it results in more consistently accurate numbers (you’re less likely to depress the muscles with the tape and throw off your measurements).
Proportions are much trickier to judge, however, because it’s at least partially subjective.
I might look at someone and think their biceps are too big for their shoulders, whereas someone else will think it looks awesome.
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 blemishes.
This is especially true if you’re currently training one side or half of your body significantly harder or more than the other. If that’s the case, rest assured that you have an imbalance to one degree or another.
If you’re a guy, you can also check out this guide to building the ideal looking physique.
(No such guidelines exist for women that I know of, but if you’ve come across anything, please drop a link in the comments below!)
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.
Summary: To spot a muscle asymmetry, measure your flexed limbs on your right and left side and compare the measurements. To spot a muscle disproportion, take pictures of your body from different angles and see if there are any parts that seem too large or small compared to others.
The first step to preventing muscle imbalances is following a workout program that’s built on compound exercises, and that trains your entire body evenly.
For example, if you want to train your legs, you can do something like leg extensions, which work your quads, or you can squat, which works all of the muscles in your legs, and engages just about every other muscle in your body, too.
The same goes for every major muscle group in your body.
You can do an exercise that isolates it, strengthening little else, or you can do one that focuses on it, but strengthens many others, as well. And the more you do of the latter, the more symmetrically your body will gain muscle and strength.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you won’t develop muscle imbalances, though.
First, you’ll inevitably favor one side of your body slightly more than the other in certain exercises.
For example, you might extend one arm just a tad further during your bench press, or angle one foot more out than other while squatting and deadlifting. Over time, these habits can add up to slight, albeit significant, differences in size and strength.
This is one of the reasons many weightlifting programs include unilateral exercises, which are movements that train one limb at a time (single-leg or single-arm movements), like the dumbbell lunge, alternating dumbbell curl, and Bulgarian split squat.
These types of exercises negate the physiological biases that can creep into bilateral exercises, which train both limbs simultaneously (like the barbell squat, barbell bench press, and barbell deadlift). With unilateral exercises, each limb must “pull its own weight.”
Another effective way to prevent muscle imbalances from developing in your body is to follow a simple but effective mobility routine.
If your body isn’t flexible and functional enough to perform an exercise correctly, the compensations that result will, in time, cause muscle imbalances.
For example, I’ve struggled at times with tight hip flexors, and when one side was tighter than the other, I couldn’t help but slightly favor the looser side when squatting heavy weights.
If I hadn’t done anything to correct this, I not only would have increased my risk of injury, but one of my legs would have wound up considerably more developed than the other.
I’ve fixed it each time with a simple mobility routine like this, and have now gotten better with keeping it in as a matter of routine, as opposed to a corrective action.
If you do just 15 minutes of mobility work once or twice per week, you might be surprised at how much it can help your performance in the gym.
Check out these articles to learn more about effective mobility routines:
Summary: The three best ways to prevent muscle imbalances are to follow a workout program built on compound exercises that trains your entire body evenly, incorporate unilateral exercises into your program, and improve your flexibility and mobility.
So, you have a muscle imbalance.
You know what to do and not to do going forward to prevent further issues, but now we have to get you back on track.
As you know, there are two kinds of muscle imbalances, and they require different solutions.
If one side of your body is bigger or stronger than the other, the solution is obvious:
Train the weaker side more.
And the easiest way to do this is to simply increase the weekly volume (reps or sets) on the weaker side. Personally, I like to go up by 25 to 35%.
For example, let’s say your left shoulder is smaller than your right, and you normally do about 30 reps of dumbbell side lateral raises per week per side (3 sets of 10 reps).
I would then bump my left side raises up to 40 reps per week by adding one additional set to my shoulder workout for my left arm only (3 sets on my right, 4 sets on my left).
I’d then continue this way until my left shoulder caught up in size, at which point I’d switch to either 3 or 4 sets per arm per week.
One other thing you should do is end your sets on unilateral exercises when your weak side fails.
In the case above, that would mean stopping the lateral raises when your left can’t go any further, regardless of how much the right might still have left in the tank.
The reason for this is obvious: it prevents you from accidentally racking up more volume on your stronger side.
To do this, it also helps to start your sets with your weaker side.
That way, you’re allowing your weaker side to determine when you stop your sets, not your stronger one.
So, continuing with my shoulder example, I might only be able to do 8 reps per set with my left arm when doing dumbbell side raises, even though I could do 10 or 11 with my right arm. In this case, I’d still only do 8 reps with both arms to keep their volume equal.
Summary: To fix muscle asymmetry, train your weaker muscles more and don’t do more reps with your stronger muscles.
At bottom, the solution here is more or less the same as the above:
You have to train lagging muscle groups more and/or more intensely than you’re currently training them.
You can achieve this by increasing weekly volume, or by working with heavier weights and pushing hard for progressive overload.
So, let’s say your legs are still too small compared to your upper body, despite following a well-balanced weightlifting routine.
Maybe you neglected your legs previously, allowing your upper body to get a big head start, or maybe your lower body just didn’t respond to the training as well as you had hoped.
Either way, if you don’t change anything about your workout programming, you’ll probably be stuck with this imbalance for quite a while.
The solution, then, is to train your legs harder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean adding another leg workout on top of what you’re already doing. That might be too much for your body to handle, which will ultimately lead to symptoms related to overtraining.
Instead, you’ll probably need to dial all the rest of your training back to “make room” for the additional leg work, and especially if you’re doing a lot heavy, compound weightlifting (as you should!).
This will allow you to focus on maximal leg development, without sacrificing any of the size or strength that you’ve developed elsewhere.
A training routine that’s designed in this way is called a “specialization routine.”
It’s built to push the envelope with one muscle group, while cutting back with others, so you can make sure you’re fully recovering.
Here are several examples of specialization routines that I’ve put together:
- How to Get Bigger and Stronger Legs in Just 30 Days
- How to Get Bigger and Stronger Biceps in Just 30 Days
- How to Get Bigger and Stronger Triceps in Just 30 Days
- How to Get Bigger and Stronger Shoulders in Just 30 Days
- How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Back in Just 30 Days
- How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Chest in Just 30 Days
- How to Get a Bigger and Rounder Butt in Just 30 Days
If any of those muscle groups are lagging for you, work your way through their respective routines, and it should help.
Summary: To fix a muscle disproportion, first make sure you’re following a well-balanced workout plan that revolves around heavy, compound weightlifting. If that doesn’t fix the problem, follow a workout plan that emphasizes a major muscle group you want to improve.
A muscle imbalance is a noticeable size or strength discrepancy between muscle groups, such as having a right bicep that’s larger than your left, or a bigger upper body than lower body.
The most common causes of muscle imbalances are:
- Following an improper workout plan, especially one that focus on certain muscle groups far more than others (80% upper body and 20% lower body, for instance).
- Sloppy exercise technique that causes you to unintentionally train one side of your body more intensely than the other.
- Poor mobility and flexibility, which can make it impossible to properly execute a number of exercises.
Sometimes, however, the culprit is merely genetics, which can cause one muscle group to grow much faster than another.
For instance, my chest and biceps have always been high responders and quick growers whereas my lats and calves have always been sluggish.
To help prevent muscle imbalances, follow a workout plan that revolves around heavy, compound weightlifting and gives plenty of attention to all major muscle groups. Incorporating unilateral exercises into your routine and improving your flexibility and mobility can also help.
To fix muscle asymmetry, train your weaker muscles more and don’t do more reps with your stronger muscles, and to fix muscle disproportions, follow workout routines that emphasize the major muscle groups you want to improve.
If you do all that, you’ll avoid muscle imbalances and not only improve your “aesthetics,” but reduce your risk of injury as well.
What’s your take on muscle imbalances? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below.
+ Scientific References
- Petersen J, Hölmich P. Evidence based prevention of hamstring injuries in sport. Br J Sports Med. 2005;39(6):319-323. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2005.018549
- Page P. Shoulder muscle imbalance and subacromial impingement syndrome in overhead athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011;6(1):51-58. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21655457. Accessed October 14, 2019.