Are Muscle Imbalances Your Issue?

Normally, when we think of muscle imbalance, we think of the guy with a huge upper body and tiny legs. While that is imbalance, it isn’t what health and fitness professionals use the term as. Muscle imbalances occur when one muscle is stronger than its opposing muscle causing restricted range of motion of the joint, increase risk of injury, and lack of efficient movement patterns.  The cause of muscle imbalances is typically due to repetitive movements and/or  constant poor posture.  Since the mid 1980’s to the present, the abundance of technology has begun to take a toll on public health.  The work and home environments are flooded with televisions, personal computers, cell phones, and other technology than ever before.  We are now less active and are no longer spending as much of their free time in physical activity.  For example, lets go through a typical day of most Americans.  First, we wake up and sit down for breakfast, then get in our cars where we sit down.  Next is work where we sit behind a desk and in front of a computer monitor for 8 hours.  After that super hard days work we get back in our cars where we sit again.  Next, we probably go home to make dinner and sit on the couch for a couple hours only so that we go to sleep in the flexed fetal position.  It appears that we are living in a flexion-addicted society.  After long-term periods like this our muscles will adapt and tighten to these movement and postural patterns.  This makes the opposing muscles weaker because they are not being utilized.  This typically creates a protruding forward neck, rounded shoulders, low back arch, a forwardly tilted pelvis, tight calves, and flat feet.

Most of the population has a variety of muscle imbalances throughout the body. There are many ways to see if you have any imbalances or movement dysfunction.  Most personal trainers are equipped with the knowledge and experience to properly assess muscle imbalances through a variety of movement testing and screening.  Not everyone has access to a personal trainer or gym but there are common imbalances that a majority of people display.  One main area of concern are the muscles surrounding the hip joint.  The main reason being that since most of us are primarily in a seated position, as mentioned earlier, our hip flexors tend to be tight and overactive.  This leaves our body to develop a semi-flexed position at the hips.  When we go to stand up we are not allowed to stand straight up and down due to the restricted range of motion at the hips.  This forces us to hyper-extend our lower backs to get in a fully upright position.  This is called a compensating movement pattern.  What this does to our bodies is put the opposing muscles in an inactive state because they are (reciprocally) inhibited by the active muscles.  This causes the inactive muscle to become weak.  We are not no longer optimally set to perform movements efficiently and safely.  In time this can lead to low back, knee, hip, and ankle pain.

A simple way to relieve this particular imbalance is to foam roll and stretch the tight muscles. In this case these are the hip flexors.  A good stretch would be a kneeling hip flexor stretch.  Since this muscle is tight and shortened, stretching and foam rolling will release and lengthen the muscle.  It’s recommended to foam roll and stretch two to three times a week.  Hold each stretch for 30 seconds for two sets.  The other half of the solution is to strengthen and activate the week muscles.  In this case are the abdominals and glutes.  Two great exercises to achieve this are the plank and glued bridges.  The main focus will be on utilizing these two muscle groups. Proper form is essential in these exercises to get maximum results.  Perform their sets of 10 reps two to three times per week.  A great way to prevent muscle imbalances is to be more active and to perform exercises that require multiple movement patters to fully develop and strengthen the muscles around a joint.  One excellent example is a step up.  Perform it in its traditional way by facing the platform and stepping on and off the step. Progress this by side stepping onto the platform. Finally, to advance it further by standing with the side of your body facing the platform and step with a rotation.  This will ensure that all planes of motion are being utilized.

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Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Health Studies department