If you are over 40, chances are that you have some type of muscle imbalance. A sedentary lifestyle coupled with daily activities and improper exercise technique and choice can lead to several different imbalances forming over the years.
What are muscle imbalances
There are two types of muscle imbalances. One type is when there is an imbalance in muscle strength or tightness at a joint. The second type is an imbalance between the sides of the body.
Muscles around a joint usually act in pairs. One muscle works to bend a joint and the other to straighten the joint. Your bicep and tricep muscles of the arm are a good example of this. The bicep bends at the elbow and the tricep straightens the joint at the elbow.
An imbalance from side to side would be where a muscle is tighter or stronger than on the other side of your body. This is especially critical in the lower body. If your hip muscles are tighter on one side this can cause you to walk with a shift to one side leading to more problems over time.
What causes muscle imbalances
There are many things that can contribute to muscle imbalances.
- Sitting can cause tight hip flexor muscles and weak glute muscles. This can contribute to poor posture (see the anterior pelvic tilt example in my article about posture).
- High heels can contribute to tight calf muscles and a tilt in the hips, which can lead to imbalances in the ankle muscles, the muscles around the knees and the hip muscles.
- Doing something with one side of the body can contribute to side to side imbalances. Examples of this would be carrying a purse or backpack on your right shoulder all the time, shoveling using mostly your left side, or carrying a child on your right hip. Even running on sloped pavement can contribute to muscle imbalances.
- Playing a one sided sport like golf or tennis can also lead to side to side imbalances.
- Focusing on one part of the body with exercise, while ignoring other parts. People who work out in a gym, often focus on the parts of the body they can see, the front the body, and ignore what they can’t, the back of the body.
- A small imbalance can lead to worse imbalances or other imbalances over time. Your muscles are connected together in chains so a small imbalance in one muscle can get repeated up the chain of muscles.
- Injuries can also lead to imbalance if proper rehabilitation is not done after the injury. The injured muscle is likely weaker after the injury and other muscles have likely compensated for the injured muscle.
Why are muscle imbalances bad?
Muscle imbalances can lead to poor posture, injury, and chronic pain.
Muscle imbalances can lead to poor posture. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk this can lead to a couple of muscle imbalances. If you are hunched forward, your chest muscles tighten, and the upper back muscles weaken. This can lead to a hunched shoulder posture. This poor posture makes you look older, and like you lack confidence.
The weak glute muscles, and tight hip flexor muscle that result from sitting too much can cause your hips to tilt forward which can make it look like your stomach is protruding more than it really is.
Muscle imbalances can lead to injury. If you keep doing repetitive exercise with a muscle imbalance there is a good chance that injury will result. Tight calf muscles can lead to ankle or knee injuries. Hip muscles out of balance can also lead to knee injuries.
Muscle imbalance can also lead to chronic pain. Over the years your muscle imbalances can cause your movement patterns to be impaired. An example would be chronically tight hamstring muscles which pull the body out of alignment leading to lower back pain. Or imbalances in the shoulders can lead to the shoulder joint not tracking properly which can cause pain with certain movements.
Can you fix muscle imbalances?
Muscle imbalances can be fixed. If the imbalance is severe enough that pain or injury has resulted, then physiotherapy is a good idea. A series of corrective exercises that combine strengthening the weakest muscles and stretching the strongest muscles will help to reduce muscle imbalances.
You can have your muscle imbalances assessed by a corrective exercise specialist or a physiotherapist to determine which approach you should take.
Adding one sided exercises can help to balance side to side imbalances. A single leg deadlift rather than a standard deadlift can help to balance side to side imbalances in the glute muscles. Exercises that target a single muscle can also help. But in both cases pay attention to where you are feeling the exercise. If it is not in the muscle it is supposed to be targeting, chances are another stronger muscle has decided to take over and this will only make the imbalance worse.
Balance your upper body exercises with a combination of pushing and pulling exercises. Many exercise classes ignore pulling exercises or don’t use enough resistance meaning that the focus is on the front of the body and not the back.
Stretching and foam rolling also play a role in reducing muscle imbalances. Stretching after exercise is important, or at any time for tight muscles. Yoga can help, but keep in mind that yoga without strength trying can actually lead to muscle imbalances, or make existing ones worse.
Muscle imbalances should not be ignored. They can lead to poor posture, injury, and chronic pain. They will affect your overall quality of life and your ability to continue to enjoy your life as you get older.
Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash