Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Oct

The Danger of Muscle Imbalances and the Importance of Symmetry

Symmetry is a beautiful thing. It seems to be nature’s preferred state, at least in the structure of organisms: two eyes for stereoscopic vision (the better to hunt you with), two legs of equal length for injury-free traversal of the environment, two hands, two arms. For all intents and purposes, the two sides of the body are approximate mirror images of each other, with corresponding muscles and ligaments and tendons. Our anatomical symmetry is obviously a product of evolution, because a balanced body simply works better. Kids born with right legs an inch or two shorter than the left are more prone to injury, just as cars with bigger wheels on the left will be more prone to disrepair. Objective human beauty is determined by symmetry of the facial structure, as if we’re innately drawn to balance. A balanced body structure, too, is objectively attractive, because it connotes strength and competence in matters of survival (war, hunting, protection). It becomes clear that if symmetry weren’t important for survival in this environment, it wouldn’t have been selected for, we wouldn’t be drawn to it, and plants and animals would have assumed entirely different forms. Maybe we’d be amorphous blobs just kind of oozing around (as opposed to the amorphous blobs with legs and arms that presently populate our planet).

But we’re not all amorphous blobs (not yet at least – the American populace sure is doing its darndest). Our bodies want to be perfectly balanced. They function best when everything – muscles, tendons, bones – are equally healthy and strong. When we make a movement, every muscle has to pitch in and do what it can (to the best of its ability). If a single muscle falters, the others have to pick up the slack, and the entire production is compromised. Sounds a bit like Communism, eh? It may not work in government, but it’s definitely the best way to govern your body.

Art de Vany talks about the X-look: a “symmetrical balance of mass in the shoulder girdle, upper chest and back, the calves and lower quads.” The X-look indicates muscle balance – a very, very good thing. Balanced muscles allow our bodies to function the way they’re supposed to function. Injuries become rare, strength and performance optimize, and you start to give off the positive evolutionary cues that say, “Hey, strong, capable human here! I can hunt, slaughter, and haul a deer back to camp, then pass on my superior genetics to my kids!”

But despite the obvious importance of maintaining muscle balance, people seem to have missed the memo. Oh, sure, things are getting better, and “functional fitness” is growing by leaps and bounds (take Crossfit, for example, which only gets more popular), but the average gym goer is still woefully ignorant of muscle balance. And if he or she is familiar with the term, they’re probably just focused on keeping their biceps symmetrical with no consideration of overall function. Just how prevalent are imbalanced muscles, really? Well, take a quick look at your gym’s inhabitants. You’ve got the old guys pouring buckets of sweat everywhere despite languishing on the chest fly machine for hours at a time. Or how about the over-the-hill bodybuilder who has somehow managed to keep up with some semblance of a routine while failing to keep up with the regular waxing and deodorant applications (there’s nothing quite like discovering a cache of curly black hairs in your gym bag upon returning home). Then there are the frat boys twisting their bodies into unnatural contortions just to target their medial tricep and get that pump going.

But my absolute favorite has to be the top-heavy, dreidel-shaped buffoons sporting massive chests and bulging biceps along with bird shoulders, chicken legs, and the back development of young boys. These guys are the perfect pictures of muscle imbalance. Still, they thrust these chests proudly forward and strut around the gym, pausing only to scratch their arms in contrived positions that show off their biceps whenever there’s a nearby mirror. Oh, and they love doling out unsolicited advice. They now know better than to accost me (especially when I’m lifting) with that nonsense, but I see at least a few guys fall for their “charms” daily. It might actually be funny if it weren’t so damn dangerous. For every newbie they pressure into working out their way – isolation exercises, for the most part – that’s one more human who’ll be plagued with chronic muscle imbalances, possibly for life.

Muscle imbalances can manifest with devastating consequences. Take lordosis, an abnormal inward curve of the spine, which is sometimes caused by weak hamstrings. Heavy squatters who focus solely on the quads without engaging the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings) often fall prey to lordosis of the spine. In fact, squats that ignore half of the lower body aren’t technically even squats; they are fundamentally flawed free-standing quad presses. Continue to overwork your quads without including your hamstrings, and you’ll probably end up with poor posture.

Muscle imbalance is also terrible to look at. The guy with huge arms and skinny legs might impress his buddies at the gym, but most casual onlookers will be horrified. The balanced, symmetrical X-look is far more aesthetically pleasing – even if we aren’t quite conscious of it, we are attracted to that body structure.

Muscle imbalances set you up for injuries. Like the boy with a shorter left leg, the guy with weak hamstrings is setting himself up for tattered cartilage and bad knees. The knee is designed to work with everything working in perfect harmony, but when your muscle balance is out of whack, undue stress is placed on the joint. Same goes for other areas of the body, too. In the real world, functional movements require the enlistment of multiple muscles. Carrying a buddy who sprained his ankle and is unable to walk requires leg, core, and shoulder strength. If you’re lacking in one area, the rest of your muscles will try to make up for it. That means muscles that are designed for one thing will have to do another (in addition to performing their original task) – and you know how opposing one’s natural inclinations usually goes.

What causes muscle imbalances? For one, poor form. Taking the squat example from above, it doesn’t mean much if you’re squatting (or deadlifting, or pressing, or doing any of the compound lifts) with poor form. At worst, you risk injury, and at best, you risk favoring one muscle group over another. A true squat is supposed to be a total body effort, with the quads pushing, the hamstrings pulling, and the glutes activating (not to mention the torso-lever supporting it all, which requires equally competent abs and lower back muscles).

Isolation exercises also contribute to muscular imbalance. As a rule, the leg extension machine doesn’t work anything but the quadriceps. Unless you’re a bodybuilder going for ridiculous quads, you should avoid this machine at all costs. Even if you supplement your “leg day” (arm, chest, back, and leg “days” are another pet peeve of mine, but more on that later) with some hamstring curls, calf raises, and glute pushes, you’re still contributing to muscle imbalance. Each individual muscle might be strong in its own way, but they don’t work together. Try to lift a heavy rock after a year of leg extensions, hamstring curls, and calf raises, and you won’t know how to coordinate each muscle to complete the movement. Isolation exercises don’t improve your performance in functional activities (sports, hunting, lifting heavy things in real world terms); they increase your ability to only perform that specific isolation exercise. A machine lover who can leg press a thousand pounds can’t squat the same amount, but a guy who squats a thousand pounds can probably double that amount on the leg press. The woman who curls a ton and loves the reverse back fly may have big biceps and a defined back, but I bet she can’t do fifteen pull-ups like the devoted Primal fitness buff might.

The very idea of “leg days” or “arm days” is counterproductive to real fitness and contributes to muscle imbalances. Did Grok have “leg days”? Did he ever spend a few hours just curling a heavy rock so his biceps would grow? No! The body is meant to function as a machine of interlocking parts, every single one of which is integral to overall performance. When we mentally separate our lifting days and focus on specific body parts, we start to think of our muscles as islands unto themselves, and eventually they’ll start to function like that – imbalanced and totally cut off from the rest of the muscles. What’s ironic is that the people who do this really think they’re balancing things out. If they only knew…

How do we promote muscle balance and fight muscle imbalance? Pretty simply, by exercising the right way. Luckily, Primal exercises are all about promoting proper muscle balance. Big, compound movements force us to use every muscle in our bodies correctly, and the best way to train for these big, compound movements is to just do them. Even if you’re worried about the size of your biceps, resist the urge to curl. Instead, just do a few more pull-ups and know it’ll all work out in the end. Also, be aware of your form, and get coaching (either in person or via videos/info on the web) on the more complex lifts to ensure you’re actively engaging all the requisite muscles.

And so, perfect Primal muscle balance is about symmetry on the micro level, between opposing muscles – the hamstring/quad, the bicep/tricep, the abs/back – and on the macro level – the entire body working in concert to perform a task. Total body muscle balance, then, requires individually balanced muscles. To isolate our muscles and go for an imbalanced look is to reject our essential natures – that of symmetrical beings constantly searching for balance in all areas of life – and invite ruin and chronic injury. To use our muscles as a cohesive, united force is to promote optimum health, freedom from injury, and better results.

On a final note, thanks to reader Sterling for a good laugh:


You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I started strength training 2 years ago for basketball. I developed big toe pain right below the ball from sprinting so I got orthotics. They seemed to help at first but it kept recurring, so I went back to the chiropractor and got an X-ray, finding out I had scoliosis and leg length differences.

    I made the mistake of continuing to play basketball for about a year and I developed a significant strength imbalance between the hip adductors and hip abductors (abductors were overpowering). These imbalances were always there but sprinting with poor form made them worse.

    The symptoms of this were not only medial gluteus,hamstring, and gastrocnemius tightness, but a worsening of the toe pain, and eventually outer knee pain after running.

    I highly recommend anyone with less than great genetics (scoliosis and leg length discrepancies) to almost obsessively pay attention to what muscles you’re using during certain activities, and I wouldn’t recommend doing any high intensity exercising before talking to a physical therapist.
    If you can’t afford one (like me) you need to be all the more vigilant in becoming conscious of the imbalances you have.

    Core work I would say should be top priority for anyone with imbalances. I’ve been doing variations of the plank exercises, such as getting in the plank position and moving one leg forward, pausing and then returning it, then switch legs, etc. You’ll really feel it in your lower abs and that will do wonders for your posture.

    Another really important thing I never did before cork work that became easier after strengthening my lower abs, was engaging my spinal erectors and gluteus maximus during basically any activity.

    I’d highly recommend that if you have hip muscle imbalances (even if you don’t) to walk around more often barefoot or with FiveFingers on. It will force you to not only use your gluteus maximus, but you’ll more easily be tell if you’re overusing the outer or inner hips.

    Andrew wrote on October 19th, 2010
  2. I would strongly disagree with not doing isolated workouts. If you’re looking for maximum results per muscle group they need individual attention.

    With every muscle being strongly developed when you go and dead lift you will see the result, but you must work every group!

    There is no evidence to support claims against isolated workouts. Look at Arnold in his prime, he trained by doing a lot of isolated curls. YouTube his biceps workouts. Working the body as a whole will take much longer for results nit to mention you’re not 100% tearing your micro fibers in all muscles equally to isolated.

    Some Guy wrote on October 25th, 2010
  3. Being symmetrical is nice, and I’m sure significant asymmetry has its issues, but the problems are over-blown, and over-stated.

    Check out:
    http://saveyourself.ca/articles/structuralism.php

    and

    http://www.cpdo.net/Lederman_The_fall_of_the_postural-structural-biomechanical_model.pdf

    and

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18801772

    Heavy reading… but necessary if you are afraid of muscle imbalances.

    Tony Ingram wrote on February 16th, 2011
  4. Just coming through here and in response to Tony, I gotta say…first article is just meh. Second one, better presentation but extremely one sided view of the available research on the subject matter. On a side note, realize that both of these gentlemen are “putting down” one method to elevate their own insights and programs. Not the worst thing in the world, but just realize were they are coming from. Anyhow there are obviously “ranges” of normal variation, and you may be asymptomatic even to some degrees outside of those ranges depending on other lifestyle factors. For many pain relief once they seek care from say chiropractic occurs quite quickly. Structural rehab and corrective care is “next level” type of treatment. In other words is being asymptomatic good enough? Maybe, but if your looking to optimize performance or you look through life from the paradigm of wellness and prevention then you may want more. This is just one example of the other side of the coin in structural research….
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15855907

    Jay wrote on April 8th, 2011
    • For anyone who might have some advice on muscle symmetry when the muscle imbalance is congenital (atrophy) – where the left and right side is not symmetric and a result from complications at birth (hydrocephalus). Can these muscles still be developed? Would such damage be permanent even if the muscles are strong and functioning well?

      Thanks,

      Jen wrote on October 17th, 2015
  5. Very late arriving at this post…sorry.
    Muscle balance is not just to do with appearance – excessive use of/focus on ‘mover’ muscles will lead to dysfunction of invisible ‘stabiliser’ muscles. This is the danger for posture. You can’t fix a postural problem by working on a muscle designed for movement – so your lower abdominals and lower gluteal muscles will help correct an excessive lordosis, not your hamstrings.
    Speaking from the innate bias of a Pilates teacher, it seems that CF are working on a similar principle to Pilates – a system of exercise to ready you for anything. The crucial difference is that Pilates emphasises CONTROL, sorely lacking in the CF video clips I’ve seen. Grok probably didn’t have to think about it, living as he did. With the disadvantages of 21st century living we won’t achieve efficient functional movement without exercise that strengthens with control.

    Mike Perry wrote on August 16th, 2011
  6. You really make it appear so easy with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be really one thing which I believe I might by no means understand. It seems too complicated and very wide for me. I’m looking forward in your subsequent post, I?ll try to get the dangle of it!

    improve eyesight naturally wrote on December 8th, 2011
  7. Great stuff Mark. I have never heard of the X look or Arthur De Vany. Will have to do more diggin on him.

    Thanks,
    Todd

    Todd Kuslikis wrote on December 16th, 2011
  8. I agree that imbalances occur with improper training methods, poor form and such. In my case, I’v practiced all the things that go into having a good body but one thing messes me up, curvature of the spine-I wouldn’t call it a humpback but it would be if it were much worse. When I”m ‘thin’ and in shape, my posture isn’t bad but, when I put on weight, my posture falls forward and so I slouch. Anyway, I also notice that my back makes me sort of twist if you will, one side slouches more than the other-if I”m concious of it-I can correct it but working out, I feel though that this has caused my right chest to lag behind my left. My upper righ pec is flat-as is the lower, but my left is perfect and I even have the left mid pec growing out where as the right mid pec is flat. It’s pretty fucked up and makes me lose interst furthering my training because I fear I’ll only make it worse. The only thing I can do is to be conscious and be careful not to make it worse and to lose the 100 fucking pounds I’v put on in the last 5 years of hell I’ve been through. I suspect that being leaner will make it less noticeable. But either way, it sucks being born this way and not having any say. Least I have a big penis though, that helps make up for some of the other short comings..lol

    mmv wrote on August 1st, 2014
  9. Great Post… Focusing on the postural alignment and symmetry will solve lot of life style related problems. Regular practitioners must read this article to reap maximum benefit

    Shammi Gupta wrote on February 2nd, 2015
  10. my left hand is shorter than my right hand from the shoulder level itself. i noticed it after i had a broken ulna when i was 15 years old during a football match. after the plaster was cut, my hands were of uneven length and my left hand is not strong. still i am having difficulty with my left hand. i am not able to do push up. i cannot do pull up. i tried hard and now i can do only beginners push up only. is there any options for me to get my hands in even order again? now i am 27.

    Joseph Mathew wrote on July 4th, 2015
  11. For anyone who might have some advice on muscle symmetry when the muscle imbalance is congenital (atrophy) – where the left and right side is not symmetric and a result from complications at birth (hydrocephalus). Can these muscles still be developed? Would such damage be permanent even if the muscles are strong and functioning well?

    Jen wrote on October 17th, 2015

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