Each major muscle or muscle group in our body has an opposing muscle or muscle group, which allows the muscle to create movement. For example, the biceps opposes the triceps (allowing the arm to bend), the abdominal’s oppose the lower back muscles (allowing the back to bend and flex), and the quadriceps opposes the hamstrings, (allowing the knee joint to bend).
It is important that opposing muscle groups both be developed and stretched similarly, for the best results in terms of improved strength and efficiency. In fact, if one muscle or group is stronger than its opposing muscle, a muscle imbalance may develop. Research has shown that muscle imbalances can leave you much more prone to overload injury, pain and poor posture.
As a specific example, if you do push-ups regularly but don’t do pull-ups or rows, it is likely your chest is stronger than your upper back and you have a muscle imbalance. Weight lifters often develop imbalances in their chest and back muscles. Non-athletes can also develop muscle imbalances over time, from picking heavy things up such as children or groceries using poor form, poor posture, or sitting in one position for an extended period of time.
How are muscle imbalances detected and corrected?
No matter how expert you are at sports, you probably have some muscle imbalances that need attention. If you are a recreational exerciser, it’s highly likely. A qualified and certified athletic trainer (ATC), physical therapist (PT) or certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) can provide you with a professional evaluation of your muscle balance, imbalance, and movement issues. A common technique for detecting muscle imbalances is known as a Muscle Balance Assessment (MBA), which consists of a series of tests that evaluate the range of motion in your joints as well as the strength and flexibility of your muscles. Muscle imbalance negatively affects the performance of your muscles and joints, and the MBA will help identify areas that need work to improve strength, flexibility, and efficiency.
It’s important to note that some muscle imbalances are caused by disease, nervous system disorders, or structural problems in the body. Those kinds of muscle imbalances cannot be treated through corrective exercise. If that turns out to be the case for you, your physical therapist will refer you to an appropriate health professional to try to address the root causes of your muscle imbalance.
After the evaluation, assuming your muscle imbalances are due to poor training or technique, the key to correcting muscle imbalances lies partly in choosing appropriate exercises to “balance out” the imbalance, and partly in retraining the movement patterns that caused the imbalance in the first place. Corrective exercises not only help restore balance between the major muscle groups involved, but also among the adjacent muscle groups that contribute to muscle imbalance.
The corrective exercises prescribed by your physical therapist or trainer will likely include stretching exercises, particularly for the stronger muscle group. These stretching exercises will contribute to restoring muscle imbalances and will improve the overall efficiency and resilience of both muscle groups.