Looking better, losing unwanted weight or enhancing athletic performance are three of the most popular reasons for why we exercise. While many of us want the benefits from working out, not many of us will walk into a fitness facility and tell an instructor that we have something that needs to be fixed; yet many of us are walking around with muscle imbalances that could be potential causes of injury unless addressed with the proper exercise program.
A joint is where two bones meet; every joint in the body is surrounded by muscles that produce and control movement. If muscles on one side of a joint become too tight from overuse then it could cause the muscles on the opposite side to become weak from lack of use, this is called a muscle imbalance. Muscle imbalances can be a potential cause of injury because they can change the resting position of a joint, ultimately changing its path of motion during movement which could cause an injury.
If you’re already injured or in pain it is important to see the appropriate medical professional for a proper diagnosis and, of course, treatment. However, if you notice that the same muscles are always a little too sore after a workout then you may have muscle imbalances.
The good news is that the right exercise program can help improve your overall muscle strength and enhance joint range of motion, both of which are essential for eliminating muscle imbalances. Being able to identify muscle imbalances and address them with a workout program can help improve how you feel without the time and expense of medical treatment. Here are six things that you should know about muscles imbalances and how they are created; this information can help you avoid an uncomfortable injury that could keep you from your workout goals.
- Repetitive motions are one of the most common causes of muscle imbalances. When muscles shorten they produce force; if they are used to generate force for the same actions over and over and over again they can become overused and remain in a state of semi-contraction which can then change the position of the joint. Doing the same movements in a work setting or performing the exact same exercises in every workout are two examples of repetitive motions that can be a potential cause of imbalances. If you have a job requiring repetitive motions then try to identify ways that you can make small changes to the movement to avoid imbalances. Make sure to change the exercises in your workouts on a regular basis to minimize the risk of developing muscle imbalances.
- Remaining in a sedentary, seated position for an extended period of time can create muscle imbalances around the hips. Think about how you sit when driving to work or throughout the working day; while we’re seated, our hips are flexed which places the muscles that cause hip flexion in a shortened position, when the hip flexors are shortened they will change the way the hip joints move. In addition when the hip flexors become tight they can reduce the activity to the gluteus maximus muscles responsible for extending the hips which could be a potential cause of low-back pain. If you work in a job that requires you to be seated through most of the day then look for opportunities to stand up, move around and try to keep your hip muscles from becoming too tight.
- Body position while driving. While being in a seated position can cause imbalances how you position the rest of your body while you drive can have a lasting effect on your body. Take a look at how you position your hips and legs while you drive, if you keep one leg bent back or you slouch while driving and you’re in the car for an extended period of time this could cause the resting length of your muscles to change. If you find yourself stuck in a car for lengthy periods of time, pay attention to how you sit and try to keep your body in a neutral position. If you’re taking a long car trip then when you stop for gas make sure to get out, move around and stretch for a bit before hopping back behind the wheel (this will also help you to wake up and stay alert, which are important for safety).
- Performing exercises in only a single plane of motion can be a cause of muscle imbalances. The body is designed to move through multiple planes of motion and in many directions, however many popular exercises move the body through only a single plane of motion. Biceps curls, lat pulldowns, seated rows, crunches and squats are all examples of exercises that are restricted to a limited, linear path of motion. Doing too many exercises that are restricted to a limited path of motion could possibly lead to muscle imbalances. To reduce the risk of developing muscle imbalances make sure that your exercise program includes equal amounts of movements like pushing, pulling, rotating as well as moving sideways and in rotational directions. Understanding how to move in a multi-planar environment can help reduce the risk of imbalances.
- Maintaining a poor posture can result in muscle imbalances of the upper body, specifically the shoulders and upper back. If your parents told you to ‘stop slouching’ or to ‘sit up straight’ they were definitely on to something. Posture is the resting position of the body, if you have poor posture it could lead to faulty, inefficient movement patterns that increase the risk of injury. For example, allowing your body to roll forward in a slouched position can cause shortness in the muscles of the shoulders which creates unnecessary length in the muscles of the upper back. Using a computer keyboard or constantly banging out messages and status updates on a phone can also create this slouched position. If this sounds familiar exercises for core stability or pulling movements with your hands in a neutral position can help you stand taller (which also helps you to look slimmer without dropping any weight).
- Wearing shoes with an elevated heel can create muscle imbalances. If you frequently wear shoes that elevate your heels higher than your toes you could be at risk for developing a number of muscle imbalances in your feet, lower legs, hips and even shoulders. When your heels are in an elevated position it can change the position of your knees which changes the position of your femurs (thigh bone) which, subsequently, changes the position of your spine and shoulders. Elevated heels can also cause extreme tightness in the calves and the muscles responsible for pointing the feet. If you’re a runner or dancer and you wearing elevated heels on a regular basis then it’s important to address any flexibility issues in calves before they develop into potential injury-causing muscle imbalances.
If you notice that your car has a tendency to pull to one side then it means it’s out of alignment and you need to see a mechanic. Likewise if you experience the same injuries over and over or you notice a lingering soreness that doesn’t go away it could mean that you have muscle imbalances which affect how your joints move. While we often think of flexibility training as holding stretches for extended periods of time (that is just one component of flexibility called static stretching) simply moving is an important way to increase muscle length and improve flexibility.
My book, Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple can teach you how to create your own exercise programs so that you keep crushing your goals while minimizing the risk of injury during your workouts.