Correcting a Strength Imbalance – Q&A

Question: Just wondering what are some good ways to correct imbalances? I had a hard labor job when I was in my early 20’s and not thinking about it at the time did everything with my dominant side, and have never seemed to be able to fix it. I’m not even sure where to start. Any suggestions would be helpful. Thanks.

Answer: Imbalances across the body (e.g. left vs. right leg or right vs. left arm or what have you) are fairly common and can be caused by a number of things.  You mention one, many jobs involve moving in a repetitive fashion in one direction only.  For example, grocery store checkers typically rotate one direction (from the register to the belt) repeatedly with no shift.  Many labor jobs are similar with the same asymmetrical pattern being repeated for hours, days, weeks, months or years on end.

In many sports, the same is seen.  Runners who always run the same direction around the track can end up with issues as one side of their body is stressed differently than the other; rowers often get imbalances as a function of one oar moving differently than the other.  Imbalances (and back problems because of them) are absolutely endemic to my former sport, ice speed skating.  I think you get the idea.

Injuries can cause this to occur as well; when one side of the body is injured for example, the body often adapts by inhibiting a certain muscle (or finding a substitution of a different muscle) and over time this leads to imbalances.   Making this more difficult is that once an imbalance occurs, the body often finds ways to use other muscles to do a movement to avoid the weakness.   You also often see adaptations in muscle length with the weaker side becoming somewhat loose and the strong muscle becoming tight. This isn’t universal but at this point we’re getting into physical therapy.

So what do you do about it?   I’m going to assume you know where the imbalance is.  It might be between your right and left arm (most people tend to be a bit stronger on their dominant arm side since they tend to favor it already) or a right and left leg.  That could mean quads, glutes, hamstrings when I say ‘leg’. For someone who does a lot of rotation, you might see a bunch of different issues including imbalances between arms and even rotationally (i.e. the obliques on one side might be significantly stronger than the other).

The first thing I’d generally recommend is some type of strength testing to determine the level of the imbalance; this will also let you see if you’re making progress towards fixing it.  This also lets me address exercise selection.  For the most part, for both testing and fixing imbalances I strongly suggest using isolation exercises.

While this will offend those who feel that compound movements rool and isolation movements drool, my reasoning is this: when there is an imbalance, the body is often fascinatingly creative at finding substitutions to make the movement happen while throwing the least stress onto the weak muscle.

So consider the case where someone has a right quadricep weaker than the left.  If you use a quad dominant split squat or step-up, the body will try to find other muscles to help out, avoiding the problem.  Case in point, years ago I had a trainee who had sustained a hip/SI injury.  When I had her do step ups, she’d get sore in her quads on one side and glutes on the other.  The movement looked identical but her body had found ways around the injury and was using different muscles.

In contrast, if I want to fix a quad problem and I use one-legged leg extensions, the body is going to use the quads no matter what.  The same would hold for fixing imbalances between arms (use a one arm curl or triceps pushdown), pecs (use pec deck one arm at a time or a one-armed cable crossover).   If someone had a rotational imbalance in the obliques, this would be a good use for the ‘ab-rotation’ machines that so many waste their time on trying to whittle their love handles.

In any case, the first issue is testing.  Since we want to test strength, we ideally want a weight that will cause failure somewhere between 6-10 repetitions.  Fewer than that can be a problem for isolation movements; more and you start getting into issues of muscular endurance.  After a proper warm up you want to test one side vs the other to compare the two; make sure to keep form and lifting speed the same.

So say you’re doing one-legged leg extensions with 100 lbs and get 10 reps with the strong side and only 6 with the weak side.  Now you know your baseline.  Every month or so you’re going to retest to make sure that the weak side is catching up with the strong side.

Now we fix it and there are two ‘rules’ I apply here.  The first is this: you will always start with the weak side and always let the strength of the weak side determine what you do with the strong side.   So if you do your first set with the weak leg and get 8 repetitions with 80 lbs on the 1-legged leg extension, you will stop at 8 reps with 80 lbs on the strong leg.

Even if the strong leg could easily do more (and it probably can).  If you don’t do this, you will simply keep making the strong side stronger and the weak side will never catch up.  And yes, if you’re worried, this may weaken the strong side a bit.  That’s fine, what we’re trying to do here is achieve balance so that body sides can be strengthened again.

The other rule would be to do more sets (perhaps twice as many sets) for the weak side than the strong-side.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere on the site, you can maintain strength in a muscle group with a volume reduction of up to 2-3’rds so you can cut the volume on the strong side down to 1-2 sets and not lose much strength.  At the same time you’d want to do 3-4 sets for the weaker side to stimulate strength gains so that it will catch up.  So you could do 1 set for the strong side and 2-3 for the weak side or 2 for the strong side and 4 for the weak side.

So in practice, again using quads as an example, you’re looking at a situation where you might do a workout consisting of

Warm-ups as described in Warming Up for the Weight Room
First set with weak side: say you get 80 lbs by 8 reps on the 1-legged leg extension.
Do your first set with the strong side.  Even if you can do more, stop at 80lbX8reps. 
Second set with the weak leg.  If you can do the same 80 lbs by 8 reps, that’s fine. 
If you need to drop weight, do that.
Second and final set with the strong side.  Match it to the second set with the weak leg.
Third and even a fourth set for the weak leg

Take about a minute between opposite legs and perhaps 1.5-2 minutes on the final two sets (since you’re working the same leg).  You’d do the above twice per week and, of course, apply progressive overload as things got stronger.  IF the weak leg improves to 90lbsX8 reps, bump up the strong side to match it.   And again, retest every month or so.  Once you’re within 1-2 reps difference between sides (nobody is ever perfectly symmetrical) you can move back to more compound movements.

As a final comment, one thing I’ve noticed and perhaps any rehab oriented readers can chime in in the comments is this: once people have had an imbalance the body often shifts back towards it even if you seem to have fixed it.  It’s probably due to well established neural pathways but there may be good reason to throw in some one-legged work in from time to time (e.g. finish quads with one-legged leg extensions after squats or leg press) to both ensure that the sides stay symmetrical as well as doing a spot-test from time to time.  Otherwise the same imbalances seem to come back gradually over time.  And it’s always easier to prevent a problem than fix it.

I’d also note that imbalance can also be caused by reasons totally unrelated to anything that the above can fix.  Nerve pinches or other things that only a competent physio can address are potential causes here.  If you apply the above and nothing is happening, it’s worth getting checked out by someone to see if there is a bigger issue at work.

Hope that helps, good luck.