By Andrew Heffernan
It's ground into you from the first day you set foot in the gym: Keep your workouts balanced to avoid muscle imbalances. Train your lower body as much as you train your upper body; your front side as much as your backside.
That's a decent rule of thumb, but long-term, it's the rare exerciser whose muscle groups respond equally to a balanced workout. Some people develop strong arms but weak legs; others develop big chest muscles and relatively undeveloped shoulders.
Sometimes this kind of muscle imbalance is hereditary. Genetics influence body shape, just as they influence your height, eye color, and whether you can roll your tongue to make it look like a burrito — if your parents have skinny arms and big legs, there's a good chance you will, too. Other times a muscle imbalance is psychological: Some people love working their legs but hate working their arms, and it shows on their physique.
What can you do? First, don't give in to an isolationist approach. That's the notion, popularized in infomercials for the Thighmaster and a dozen ab-blasting gizmos, that you can spend a few minutes a day working a certain muscle group at the expense of all other forms of exercise. If only. To stay lean, strong, and athletic — and to maintain balanced development among all your muscle groups — you have to work the entire body, head to toe.
Instead, keep up a generally balanced approach — but give a little extra love to your weak points by following our top five tips for bringing up a weak body part.
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1. TRAIN LIMBS SEPARATELY
Exercises that work single limbs independently — otherwise known as unilateral training — offer several advantages when you're trying to correct a muscle imbalance:
Each side has to pull (or push) its own weight
When you train both arms or legs simultaneously, your strong side tends to work harder, compensating for your weak side and exacerbating the strength disparity between the two. Unilateral training mitigates this, forcing each limb to act on its own.
You use more muscles
Training one limb at a time also increases muscle recruitment. Squatting on two legs, for example, is balanced and comfortable. On one leg, it's tougher, partly because you have to fire up more muscle in your hips, thighs, and core to keep you stable and upright.
You build more functional strength
Basic human movements like walking, running, and throwing are all performed one arm or leg at a time, so you'll get more carry-over to athletic activities when you go unilateral.
Conversely, this approach works well when your right or left bicep, shoulder, leg, triceps, or other muscle group is noticeably stronger than the other. Single-side moves like Bulgarian split squats, single-leg deadlifts, one-arm presses, and dumbbell rows prevent your dominant side from taking over and exacerbating the muscle imbalance.
You can also use unilateral training to learn exactly how imbalanced you are: If you can press a weight 10 times with your right hand and only eight with your left, you know your right arm is about 25 percent stronger than your left on that move.
Narrow that gap by performing all unilateral exercises with your weak side first. Do as many reps as you can, then match that number with your strong side. When your strong side gasses out on the same rep as your weak side, congratulations — your muscle imbalance is officially equalized.
2. WORK LAGGING MUSCLES EARLY
For decades, physique models and bodybuilders have adhered to the “Priority Principle" — the idea that you should hit a weak area first in a workout, when you're mentally and physically fresh.
Turns out in this case that the broscience was spot-on. Numerous studies show that muscles trained early in a workout respond better than those trained later in the same workout.
One strategy for incorporating this into your routine is to perform a few sets of one or two exercises for your lagging muscle group before each of your regular workouts. If you have weak quadriceps, for example, and you normally do a full-body strength and cardio workout three times a week, start by performing three sets of eight walking lunges one day, four sets of six squats on another, and two sets of 12 rear-foot elevated split squats on a third.
You can also do your weak-point workout (which should take you less than 10 minutes) earlier or later on the same day as your regular workout.
3. FOCUS ON MOBILITY
You can't train a muscle that you can't move. That's why it's essential to work on mobility as well as strength in and around weak or underdeveloped muscle groups. For instance, greater flexibility in your hamstrings, quads, and calves, means more range of motion in the stiff-leg deadlift and squat. More mobility in your shoulder joints means more range in your pressing and pulling moves during resistance training.
To help you limber up, start each workout with a full-body joint mobility routine. The warm-up will improve both performance and range of motion in the subsequent workout
Unlike traditional static stretching, dynamic stretching is fairly quick — you remain in the lengthened position for only a second or two, and perform 5 to 10 reps.
Another useful tool for a muscle imbalance is the foam roller: If you haven't discovered the hurts-so-good delights of rolling tired, sore muscles over high-density Styrofoam, you're in for a masochistic treat — and instantaneous improvements in mobility.
Rolling out overactive muscles (typical culprits: hip flexors, calves, and pecs) helps restore your joints to a more neutral position, and ensures the proper recruitment of muscles in the workout that follows. After a workout, rolling also helps flush sore, tired muscles with oxygenated blood, speeding recovery. Spend 5 to 10 minutes on the roller, working on your tender, sore, or tight spots before or after a workout — or any time you feel tight.
4. VARY YOUR ROUTINE
"A muscle gets bigger and stronger when it's exposed to a new stimulus," says Angelo Poli, ISSA, a strength coach from Chico, Calif. That means more weight, more sets, more reps, a greater range of motion — even different variations of the same exercise. Keep doing the same thing and your muscles have no reason to adapt.
So stop doing the same exercises with the same weight and the same number of sets and reps for your weak points. Adjust the angle — if your back is weak and you've been doing rows off a bench, try single-arm dumbbell rows, suspension rows, and/or rows using an exercise band. If you've been doing three sets of 10, try four sets of six (making sure to adjust the weight upward so each set is still challenging). New exercises lead to new adaptations that, when combined with the other tips outlined here, discourage muscle imbalance.
5. LIFT TO YOUR WEAKNESSES
Everyone has favorite movements and muscle groups. They've probably been strong since you started exercising. You love these moves so much you can't stop doing them, harder and heavier each time.
That's a recipe for muscle imbalance at best, injury at worst.
Take the guy who loves bench pressing and push-ups. He might do 10 sets of presses, then switch to three or four sets of rows or pull-ups as an afterthought. His chest and shoulders, which pull the shoulders forward, become strong and developed, while his back muscles, which perform the opposite function, remain comparatively weak. Soon, his shoulders slump forward, his scapulae pull away from his spine, and the joints start to grind like the gears on a Pinto.
The solution: ruthless objectivity. It's great to be strong on certain moves — now stop worrying about them and free up some time to address your weaknesses. Do you have great-looking arms? Make curls and triceps extensions your lowest priority. Are your quads much stronger than your hamstrings and glutes? Ease up on the squats.
Not sure where your weak points are? Start with the glutes, mid-back (the muscles that pull your shoulder blades back), core, and shoulders. Most people become weak in those areas as they age and/or sit for extended periods over time.