Yes, a big benefit of exercise is looking better and feeling healthier. But another important aspect to long-term health is maintaining symmetrical strength. That basically means that you want to be equally strong and flexible on your right and left sides.
Over time, it’s not uncommon to develop strength imbalances due to injury or poor movement habits. Some asymmetries can be justifiable and okay, such as the increased strength in the dominant arm of a tennis player. While other asymmetries should always be corrected, such as any one-sided weakness in your core or legs.
The approach you should take to fix these asymmetries depends on where the asymmetry is, and the typical sports and daily activities you perform. For instance if you are a high jumper, you will naturally be stronger on your jumping leg. But this can become a problem if that strength imbalance causes you to walk or run asymmetrically, which can eventually lead to imbalances and injury elsewhere.
Have you noticed that one arm is stronger than the other? Many people who grow up playing sports can have a natural asymmetry in their upper body.
In the average population, there is approximately a 4° difference in how much the humerus (the upper arm bone) twists1 , which leads to an increase of 4° of external rotation.
The amount of retroversion (how much the arm can bend or tilt backwards) has also been found to increase with overhead athletes, including baseball and basketball players. This means that it’s common to have more external rotation in your dominant arm.
The more important number to look at is the total arc of motion, or the sum of external rotation and internal rotation.
In terms of strength, it’s very natural to feel stronger and more coordinated on your dominant side. While this may be fine for your sport, it may not always look the best or help you perform your best.
To help increase symmetry, do exercises where your arms are isolated from each other and have to stabilize independently. For instance, do dumbbell chest presses instead of bench press. Use the same weight on both sides, and perform only as many reps as you can on your weaker side.
This asymmetry may not be as obvious, but your spine can have strength imbalances as well. If you have scoliosis, or a small curvature in the frontal plane, your main goal should be to strengthen your trunk muscles to help stabilize your spine.
Some health practitioners may want to target and isolate individual segments and muscles in your trunk, but if you’re not having problems (pain or dysfunction), then just maintaining your strength and keeping good form should be enough.
The worrisome asymmetries are the ones that develop after acute or chronic back pain. Studies have shown that you may lose strength in your multifidus muscle after just one temporary incidence of back pain, causing multifidus to atrophy.
Multifidus is a deep spinal stabilizer that’s especially important during rotation movements. Thankfully, performing specific exercises that challenge your core stabilization have been shown to help this muscle recover.2
Because the multifidus muscle fibers are oriented diagonally, you must either rotate your spine, or resist rotation, to strengthen it.
The best exercises to strength this muscle are ones that involve moving opposite arm and leg, for example dead bug and bird dog. Perform these two exercises until you feel symmetrical, and then progress to exercises like the standing push-press.
For long-term symmetry, perform chops and lifts equally on both sides to maintain a good balance of rotational strength. Additionally, perform side plank, which is another excellent exercise that strengthens your obliques without adding too much compression to the spine.
As noted earlier, asymmetry in the legs is only a problem if it leads to poor movement mechanics. Make sure that when you perform two-legged exercises, like squats and deadlifts, you execute them with proper form.
To make your non-dominant leg stronger, simply perform the exercises asymmetrically by loading more weight (or all of the weight) onto the targeted leg. Single-leg exercises have the additional benefit of improving your balance and biasing your lateral hip muscles, which are key to maintaining proper alignment and for injury prevention.
If you want an exercise routine to help fix your strength imbalances, try this workout that’s designed to build total body strength and symmetry.
|Turkish Get Up||3||1, each side|
|Cable Chops||3||10, each side|
|Cable Lifts||3||10, each side|
|Single-Arm DB Chest Press||3||8, each side|
|Single-Leg Deadlift||3||8, each side|
|Single-Leg Lunge||3||8, each side|
The Turkish Get-Up (TGU) is an incredible exercise that builds strength, flexibility, and core control. Perform this exercise on both sides, alternating sides between each rep.
If you’re unfamiliar with the TGU, I highly recommend learning how to perform this exercise from a SFG certified instructor or physical therapist with a strong background kettlebell exercises. Before you add weight, practice the TGU with a shoe balanced on your hand. The video above shows how to do a TGU with a shoe, and with a weight.
Resistance Band Chops:
Resistance Band Lifts:
During almost every powerful, athletic motion, your trunk has to transfer forces between your feet and your hands. By doing cable chops (for the anterior trunk) and lifts (for the posterior trunk), you’ll target all the powerful rotators around the spine. Make sure to keep your spine straight as you rotate it to prevent excessive wear and tear on the joints.
Instructions: For chops, set your anchor point high. Place your feet in a neutral stance about hip-width apart. Hold the handle in both hands, and then pull the cable down towards your opposite hip. Bring your hands back to the start with control, and repeat. Keep your spine long and core tight throughout the movement.
For lifts, set your anchor point low. Your feet and hands will be in the same position as they are in chops, except your hands will start by your hip. Pull the cable diagonally up above the height of your opposite shoulder. Return to the start with control, and repeat.
Not only will you strengthen the one arm that you are targeting, but your trunk muscles (especially the obliques) will also be working.
Instructions: Lay on a bench holding one dumbbell above your chest, arm straight. Bend your elbow outside of your body bringing the dumbbell towards your armpit, and then press the dumbbell strongly back to the start. Keep your shoulders and hips square, and your core tight the entire time.
Single-leg deadlifts increase the challenge to your lateral hip muscles and your feet, which will help with injury prevention.
Instructions: Stand on your right leg and find your balance. Keeping your spine neutral, start to reach your left leg back as you reach your left hand towards your right foot. Your hips and shoulders should stay square throughout the exercise. Bring yourself back up to standing on your right leg, and repeat. Perform the exercise on both legs.
Make this exercise more challenging by keeping your balance the entire time, or by holding a weight in the opposite hand.
Bulgarian Split Squats will challenge your balance, activate your glutes, and challenge your lateral hip muscles.
Instructions: Place your right foot on a step or bench behind you. Your left leg should be far enough forward so that, when you lunge down, your legs create 90° angles. Find your balance, and then bend your knees until your right knee hovers just above the ground. Drive strongly through your feet to straighten your legs, and repeat. Keep your chest up and spine long throughout the exercise.
To increase the challenge, hold a weight in the opposite hand of your front foot, or hold a dumbbell in each hand.
Include this workout once per week as a part of your normal weight lifting program, or perform it as often as 3x per week to really focus on building symmetrical strength. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!
If you have more questions about how to correct your muscular imbalances, feel free to reach out.