How to Fix Muscle Imbalances and Prevent Them

A good workout is all about balance and coordination! Learn how to treat muscle imbalances and avoid them in the future for a better fitness journey.

How to Fix Muscle Imbalances and Prevent Them
Photo by Alora Griffiths / Unsplash
María Rubio María Rubio
8 min read

Have you ever felt like one side of your body often needs to catch up to the other? Maybe your left arm goes up easier than the right one during bicep curls or one of your legs has a harder time pushing against a resistance than the opposite leg. This might be due to a muscle imbalance in your body, a very common issue among gym-goers and all kinds of active people. And while it might sound unpleasant, it’s definitely fixable!

During a workout, your opposing muscle groups coordinate and work together to perform a seamless motion, whether it’s going up and down, side to side, pushing and pulling, you name it. But sometimes your muscles might be unbalanced due to a variety of reasons, and this can negatively impact your workout performance significantly. Because of this, it’s important to understand what muscle imbalances are and how to tackle them.

In this detailed guide, we’ll go over the most common causes of muscle imbalances as well as how to spot, fix, and even prevent them in the future so you can have a more effective fitness journey!

What are muscle imbalances and how do they happen?

When looking at your body, you can mentally trace a vertical line in the very middle, dividing it into two parts – left and right – and you can see that almost every major muscle in your body has a counterpart on the other side. There’s the right triceps and then there’s the left one, and the same goes for your pecs, glutes, lats, hamstrings, etc.

A muscle imbalance is essentially having one of those muscles be bigger or stronger than its pair. When working out, both muscles should be working at the same level so you can have proper form during the exercise and be able to hit your muscles the intended way. If one side of your body is weaker, you will recruit the muscles around the working area to compensate during the movement, possibly leading to injuries due to overworking. On top of that, the stronger side will actually work harder because it also needs to compensate for the weaker side, making it a never-ending cycle of growing one muscle more than the other and putting the overworking muscles at risk.

Every workout routine should be well-balanced, meaning that both big and small muscles groups should be trained with enough rest time in between. If you already trained your traps, but you’re recruiting them again to compensate for a muscular imbalance in your deltoids or rhomboid area, chances are that the muscle will be tired already and you won’t be able to perform correctly, risking a trap injury in the process.

Muscle imbalances occur for a variety of reasons, but these are the most common ones:

  • Bad workout form: Performing any exercise with an incorrect form will cause other muscles to overcompensate, and the targeted muscle that isn’t being trained properly won’t be able to grow equally bigger and stronger than its counterpart.
  • Bad posture: Your gym form isn’t the only thing you need to be mindful of. Keeping a good posture in your daily life, whether you’re sitting or standing, it’s also important when it comes to having balanced muscles. A bad posture can mess with that, and also with your workout form, so straighten that rounded back!
  • Daily activities: We all have a dominant side for everyday things. You might brush your teeth with your right hand and comb your hair with the left one. Really small actions won’t significantly change your muscle balance, but let’s say you’re a cook and tend to stir a lot with your right arm. Naturally, that arm will grow slightly stronger than the left one, causing an unwanted muscle imbalance that might impact your workouts.
  • Unbalanced workout plan: As we mentioned earlier, every workout routine needs to be well-balanced. Isolation and unilateral exercises are important, but you need to be careful when choosing them and make sure you’re putting the same effort on both sides of your body or you’ll end up experiencing a muscle imbalance.

How to spot and fix a muscle imbalance

Having a perfectly balanced body isn’t possible since we’re only human after all, so slight muscle imbalances are a normal thing that you shouldn’t be worrying about too much. But it truly becomes an issue when you’re able to notice during your workouts that one side is working harder than the other.

To spot a muscle imbalance, all you have to do is make sure you’re using the correct form during your workouts and pay close attention to both sides of your body during the full range of motion. Let’s say you’re doing an overhead press with an appropriate weight for your fitness level. Do you notice one arm going up faster or easier than the other? Maybe your right arm is going up a little bit higher than the left one? If that’s the case, you might have a muscle imbalance.

Of course, you can’t always tell just by feeling it, which is why a lot of people don’t even notice their imbalances until they start negatively impacting their workouts. Exercising in front of a mirror is a great way to see where you might be going wrong, or take pictures or videos during your workout. Even having someone else, like a workout buddy or a personal trainer, helps when it comes to spotting muscle imbalances since they can notice small details such as a slightly-off shoulder position or an incorrect leg rotation.

When it comes to fixing muscle imbalances, the main thing you need to do is place your focus on your weak muscles. This is how you can do it:

Choose the weight according to the weaker side

When working out, measure how much weight you can comfortably lift with your weak side and stick to that one during your routine instead of favoring the stronger side. This will help even out your imbalance by giving your strong muscles less resistance to work against, slowing down the growth process on that side, while also giving your weaker muscles enough work to break from that imbalance.

Doing this will also help shed some light on the imbalance, allowing you to actually feel and be aware of the difference in weight or volume that both sides can handle.

Train each side separately

If there’s something that unilateral movements are great at is helping fix unwanted muscle imbalances.

The exercises that you perform with both sides of your body at the same time are called bilateral exercises, and they’re the most common types of exercises you see in strength training. But when it comes to muscle imbalances, unilateral exercises will help you give each side an individual resistance to work against, reducing the number of muscles that can be recruited and pushing your weaker muscles to the limit. Don’t forget to give both sides the same number of reps and weight so you can even them out!

A good way to change your routine to include more unilateral exercises is by swapping the barbell with a pair of dumbbells. For example, instead of a regular barbell press, you can perform a dumbbell press. Eventually, your weaker side will catch up to the stronger one and you’ll be able to perform bilateral exercises more effectively.

Begin your workout on the weaker side

When doing unilateral exercises, it’s only natural to start with your dominant side, and more often than not that side of your body is stronger than the other. This is because you usually start your workout fresh and when it’s time to switch to your non-dominant side you’ve already spent a good amount of energy on the dominant one.

By starting on your weaker side, you’ll be able to put extra focus on it and push your muscles to the limit without struggling too much!

Do additional work on the weaker side

Whether you add a few more reps or use a slightly heavier weight on your weaker side, giving it additional work to do can help you break off the muscle imbalance. Of course, you don’t want it to be too much that it creates an inverse imbalance! Make sure you start with slow increments of volume or weight while you keep testing both sides to make sure you’re getting closer to your goal.

How to prevent a muscle imbalance in the future

Now that you know how to test for muscle imbalances and fix them, the final thing you need to know is how to prevent them. This way, you won’t have to keep repeating the same spotting and fixing cycle over and over – or at least not as often!

Here are a few tips to keep in mind in order to keep your muscles balanced and coordinated:

Include variety in your workout routine

A big part of keeping your muscles balanced and well-trained is by including a number of different exercises and variations of those exercises in your workout routine. Variety helps to keep your workout interesting by allowing you to hit your muscles from different angles and recruit both big and small groups of muscles so that you don’t neglect any area of your body.

If you stick to the same routine and repeat your favorite exercises over and over, chances are that your neglected muscles will grow weaker with time, not only allowing for muscle imbalances to happen but also halting your progress in the process. So try to maintain a healthy exercise rotation to keep this from happening!

Work on improving your flexibility

In order to increase your muscle strength and size, you need enough flexibility and mobility to be able to perform complex exercises through the full range of motion. And if you want to be able to prevent muscle imbalances, this is something you’ll want to keep in mind at all times.

A flexible body is able to perform very well when it comes to physical activities, as well as keep your muscles from hitting plateaus. Your dominant side might be more flexible since you tend to use it for more activities, both inside and outside of the gym, so try to focus on improving your mobility equally on both sides of your body.

You can do a few stretching movements before and after your workout or implement a flexibility routine each morning, so your muscles can get used to different positions with ease. Another great way to improve total body mobility is by practicing yoga, whether you do it a couple of days a week or make it into a daily routine – your choice!

Pay attention to your form

Most of the time, bad form is the main culprit of muscle imbalances. Whether you learned the technique wrong, don’t have enough flexibility, or maybe you’re just not focused enough, having bad form can truly change the trajectory of your progress.

Even a slight change in foot positioning can completely change how an exercise will hit your muscles. Be mindful of your form while working out, particularly if you’re dealing with a heavy weight such as a barbell, because you don’t want to overtrain other muscles by compensating for the ones you’re neglecting by mistake. Always practice the range of motion and the overall stance with a lighter weight so you can get used to it, and you can begin adding more weight after you’ve mastered it. Don’t rush it!

Take care of your body for a better fitness journey

Muscle imbalances can be a serious issue when they start impacting your workouts in a way that puts your supporting muscles and joints at risk of injury. Now that you know more about them, you can take the steps necessary to fix them and even actively prevent them during your workouts! And remember, always do what’s best for your body and avoid neglecting certain muscles just because they aren’t as big as the others – they all serve a purpose!