Q&A: Correcting Bilateral Strength Imbalances

Question: You’ve written a lot about intensity, advanced HIT techniques, training programs etc. but, correct me if I’m wrong, you haven’t written about muscular imbalances? I mean a situation, for example, where left hand is stronger than right hand.

Sometime ago I thought that my other hand was stronger than the other, but there was no significant difference, and now it seems that there either never was an “imbalance” or it has evened out, so to speak. I rarely do single-arm or single leg exercises, it just doesn’t “fit in my program”.

So, what is your view on this? How to fix imbalances, and how to properly detect them?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about this. Some people suggest that you should train that weaker part more etc.

Answer: Since there are different types of muscle imbalances it is important to first specify we are talking about bilateral strength imbalances, as opposed to strength imbalances between agonist and antagonist muscle pairs, or size imbalances between different muscle groups or body parts. We are also not talking about imbalances resulting from a major injury or a neurological damage, which may require very different solutions depending on the type and severity.

Nobody is perfectly bilaterally symmetrical and it is normal for there to be a slight difference in strength between your right and left sides. Many people will have a little more difficulty on one side during the last few reps of a barbell exercise, or are often able to get one or two more reps with one side on unilateral exercises. Slight bilateral strength imbalances usually balance out pretty well over time with normal training if the resistance progression is the same for both limbs.

If there is a larger imbalance, you don’t need to do extra sets or exercises for the weaker side and doing so may actually overtrain it and worsen the imbalance. Instead, you should only increase the resistance when you are able to complete your upper target rep number with both sides in good form, even if you are able to perform many more repetitions with your stronger side.

If you have access to properly designed machines with fused movement arms they are your best option, since they allow your stronger side to assist your weaker side. As long as you are contracting on both sides with equal effort the stronger side will not do all of the work resulting in the weaker side being underworked. If your stronger side is producing much more force initially it will fatigue faster, making the weaker side work harder towards the end of the exercise. If you do not, you can still correct the balance using machines with independent movement arms, free weights, or bodyweight.

For barbell exercises only increase the resistance when you are able to complete your upper target rep number while keeping the bar perfectly level.

For dumbbell exercises performed bilaterally or when using machines with independent movement arms if you are able to perform more reps with one side after that side reaches momentary muscular failure continue the exercise with the other side with a five to ten second rest-pause between reps until you have matched the number of reps completed on your stronger side. Or, if you are working out with a training partner, if one side fails before the other have them assist you with forced reps for just that side, giving you just enough help to match the speed of the other side. Increase the resistance when you are able to complete your upper target rep number with both sides without rest-pause or forced reps.

For exercises performed unilaterally, like one-legged squats and dumbbell heel raises and one-armed dumbbell rows, work your stronger side first. Then attempt to match the number of reps completed with your other side, using rest-pause or forced reps if necessary. Increase the resistance when you are able to complete your upper target rep number with both limbs without rest-pause or forced reps.

Some recommend performing unilateral exercises with your weaker side first claiming you will have more energy for it, however few unilateral exercises are demanding enough to significantly compromise your ability to work your strong side effectively afterwards, especially if done earlier in the workout. The problem with working your weaker side first is it sets the bar low for your stronger side. When performing unilateral exercises people tend to try to match the reps completed with the first side worked when working the other, and if there is a bilateral strength imbalance this can result in the stronger side not being worked as intensely as the weaker if it is worked last. While this can also help reduce the imbalance by slowing down the progress of the stronger side, it makes more sense to try to increase the progress of the weaker side instead.

One-legged dumbbell heel raises on the UXS bodyweight multi-exercise station

For example, my left calf has always been slightly stronger than my right, the difference being enough that I am usually able to perform one or two more repetitions with the left with the same weight. I found when I work my right calf first I would not try as hard with my left calf after matching the reps. However, if I work my left calf first, I usually work my right even harder. I have noticed the same thing with clients who I have perform unilateral exercises, and because of this whenever someone does a unilateral exercise I have them start with the side they completed the most reps with previously, if there was a difference. This approach has worked well both to correct imbalances, and to prevent them from developing.

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