How to Fix Muscle and Strength Imbalances

Is one of your arms smaller and weaker than the other? Or maybe one of your legs?

Today’s question comes from Johanna, who wants to know how to fix such muscle and strength imbalances:

“What should I do about muscular asymmetries? I’m getting better muscle contact on my right side, and the muscles on my right side are also more developed than those on the left. Is there anything I can do to fix this asymmetry faster, or should I just keep training and hope that the imbalance goes away with time?”

I answer this question in the video below, but if you’d rather read, you can skip to the article below the video.

Muscle Imbalances Are Common – and Natural!

Probably the first thing you should know about imbalances in muscle and strength is that they are common. In fact, they are the norm. It is more common to be asymmetrical in terms of muscle and strength between your right and left side than it is to be perfectly symmetrical.

One study had 167 division 1 athletes tested for both lean mass (measured by MRI) and strength in their legs, and found that on average, these athletes had about a 1–3% asymmetry. However, half of the athletes had asymmetries larger than 5% in both strength and thigh lean mass. A third of the athletes had lean mass asymmetries of 5–10%, and a sixth of the athletes had asymmetries larger than 10%.1

To put that into perspective: the average athlete had about 8 kg of lean mass in each thigh. A 5% asymmetry means that one thigh had 400 g more or less lean mass than the other. A 10% asymmetry means 800 g more in one thigh than the other.

Quadriceps muscle imbalances
Generally not of the exact same size on both sides.

Almost every one of us is a little stronger in one of our arms and legs than we are in the other, and that is okay. It is not weird, and it is not life-threateningly dangerous. It is a natural consequence of our lives, where we tend to use one side more than the other, or where we participate in activities that favor one side more than the other.

As long as you don’t have excessive differences in size and strength, and you’re not troubled by it, you generally don’t have to pay this too much attention. However, since you’re reading this article, and since you’re also probably interested in strength training, let’s see what you can do if you want to even out imbalances between sides.

As it turns out, strength training is ripe with opportunity for this.

Two Strategies for Fixing Strength and Muscle Imbalances

I’m going to give you two separate strategies for how you can address your asymmetries, to use in the training you’re probably already doing anyway.

Both strategies assume that you are doing unilateral exercises. That is, exercises in which you are using one arm or leg at a time, such as dumbbell curls or Bulgarian split squats.

Strategy #1: Weak Side Sets the Pace

With this strategy, you let your weak side determine the weight and reps, and just repeat the same work with your strong side.

An example:

You do 8 curls with a 10 kg dumbbell with your weak arm. Then you repeat this with your right arm, even if you could have done several more.

Here’s the disclaimer: I don’t like this strategy. It relies too much on halting the development of your strong side.

Instead, I prefer …

Strategy #2: Follow the Leader

In this strategy, you’re flipping the table. Instead of leading with your weak side, you lead with your strong side.

You do a set just like normal with your strong side. Then, it’s time for your weak side to play catch-up. You will do that by lifting until you have replicated the same number of reps at the same load, no matter how long it takes.

Here’s how it might look:

You do a set of 12 reps with the 10 kg dumbbell with your strong side. Then you switch to your weak side. However, you only manage 8 reps in one set. But, instead of putting the dumbbell down, you keep it in your hand, and keep pumping out a rep here and there, just resting for a few breaths in between, until you’ve matched all 12 reps.

What’s the difference?

Instead of making your strong side work less, you’re making your weak side work harder.

Bilateral training for muscle imbalances
By all means – keep squatting.

What about Bilateral Lifts (with a Barbell)?

So should you stop training bilateral lifts with a barbell, such as bench press, squat, and deadlift, until you’ve corrected all your imbalances?

Hell no.

  • If your strength imbalances are large, you should film yourself, check if you’re excessively shifting the load to one side or the other, and then try to correct that. (Actually, you should film yourself from time to time anyway, to check on your technique)
  • If your strength imbalances are minor, you can lead your workout with these compound lifts like (I assume) you normally do, and then switch to some unilateral exercises where you use one of the two strategies mentioned above, to even out differences.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’re filming yourself to check for imbalances, however. If you identify that you’re shifting the weight to one side or the other: sure, try to correct it. But just like most of us asymmetrical in our muscle and strength, we are slightly asymmetrical when we are moving or lifting weights. Perfect symmetry between sides is not the norm, and while you might strive for it, you shouldn’t let minor asymmetries get in the way of getting good, productive training in.

Good enough is good enough.

Closing Up

I hope that helps you tackle any muscle and strength imbalances you feel needs handling. Remember that all of us are more or less asymmetrical and that it is normal. However, with some simple tweaks in your training, such as “Weak side sets the pace” or “Follow the leader”, you can probably make great improvements in closing the gap between your weak and strong side.

Or, as one strongman put it:

“I don’t have a weak side – I have a strong side and a stronger side!”


More reading:

Reference

  1. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):884-91. Lean mass asymmetry influences force and power asymmetry during jumping in collegiate athletes.

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