What is muscle balance? Muscle balance refers to the length and strength of opposing muscles. When the muscles of the body are balanced, we would expect to see good postural alignment, full range of movement through all planes of motion and full range of movement in the joints.
When opposing muscles are the correct length and strength and the body can function powerfully and efficiently.
Problems occur when muscles become subject to ‘faulty loading’ and this can lead to muscle imbalances. Faulty loading may be due to a number of factors including poor posture, incorrect training, driving, sitting at an office desk or trauma and the muscles will respond to these faults accordingly. In parts of the body that are under faulty load, the muscles may shorten or tighten and this will result in the opposing muscles lengthening to compensate. The muscles that are lengthening will be weak and this will lead to imbalances.
If we take the example of an office worker who sits at a desk for a large part of their day, we can identify muscle imbalances. They may well lean forward whilst sitting or bend their neck forward to look at a computer screen. Sitting like this for a long period of time over many days or years will result in muscle imbalances and postural problems. The abdominal muscles may become short or tight which in turn will cause the spine to flex forward. The back muscles will lengthen and this may result in kyphosis of the spine, also known as ‘hunch back’. This example shows how the short, tight muscles will begin to pull the body in a certain direction and without identification and correction, injury and future complications may result.
These imbalances may cause pain and can lead to many muscular and joint injuries. The short, tight muscles will be overly strong and the long muscles weak, which can cause strains or tears and problems for the joints that they act on. A high percentage of low back pain is associated with muscle imbalance causing a forward tilt of the pelvis and thus placing stress on the muscles of the lower back.
Muscle imbalance can also cause faulty posture. Faulty postures such as kyphosis, lordosis, swayback and flat back may be due to genetic spine defects but are increasingly associated with muscle imbalances. It is important to identify and correct these faulty postures to prevent injuries and complications as we age. Read our article on posture and assessment to find out more on these conditions.
Everyday activities can lead to muscle imbalances so it is important to prevent their onset. To do this you need to look at what is possibly causing the imbalance and aim to correct this. If as in the earlier example the imbalance is caused by sitting at an office desk for long periods of time, your seating posture needs to be corrected and positions of screens, desks and chairs looked at to prevent any further postural problems.
If the muscle imbalance is due to incorrect training or exercise you need to have a look at the way you are training. Many people will exercise without realising the damage they are doing to themselves.
They may be lifting weights with poor technique e.g. leaning to one side or lifting heavier weights on one side. They may also become overly strong in certain areas such as the abdominals or pectorals which will lead to imbalances in the opposing muscles of the back. Getting a personal trainer is the best way to ensure you are training correctly. They can observe and assess your training to make sure you are lifting weights in the correct manner to prevent imbalances and injury.
If you are suffering from a long term injury, this may well be down to an imbalance which needs to be identified. Poor postures will effect the biomechanics of the body and can increase the risk of injury. You may be able to identify an imbalance simply by looking at your posture in the mirror. You can check to see if your hip line, shoulder line and nipples are level and from a side view that your back follows a natural curve. You may also notice that a muscle feels tight and that you need to stretch it indicating an imbalance.
If you do notice any imbalances or are not sure what to look for then you should seek the advice of a health professional. Good personal trainers will be able to identify imbalances through a number of tests and assessments. They will then be able to provide you with a personalised exercise program to help correct these imbalances. In some cases you may be referred to an osteopath who can carry out a more thorough examination and identify the cause of the imbalance.
There is no need to panic if an imbalance has been identified as there are ways to correct it as outlined below.
This must be done before any strengthening of the muscles begins. You must lengthen the muscles that are too short or tight by stretching them appropriately. You should aim to stretch daily and before and after any physical activity, holding the stretch for 25-30 seconds. If you are unsure of how to stretch check out our stretching pages or alternatively consult an exercise professional.
Strengthening of the long, weak muscles must only begin once the short muscles have been lengthened via stretching. Correct resistance exercises will help restore equal strength to opposing muscles and prevent further imbalances. It is important for anyone undertaking a strength program that they train opposing muscle groups equally. Many males who want a bigger chest will exclusively train the pectoral muscles and often neglect the upper back muscles which may eventually lead to an imbalance.
We must stress that before trying to correct any imbalance you should obtain the help of an exercise professional such as a personal trainer. They will ensure that you are stretching or strengthening the muscles correctly and help you restore muscle balance and body function.