What is Muscle Imbalance?
You’ve seen me write about it in several posts. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper into the meaning of muscle imbalance. What muscle balance is, is a discrepancy in length and strength between two opposing muscle groups. An example of opposing muscles are biceps and triceps. The biceps flex the elbow and triceps extend the elbow. The relationship between the opposing muscles should be mutual, both should be able to oppose the other to allow the joint to move within a normal range of motion. If a muscle becomes tight, it requires more attention from the central nervous system. Your body becomes aware that the tight muscle requires more energy because it’s being used frequently.
The tight, shorter muscle becomes tighter and shorter on conversely, the opposing muscle becomes lengthened and weaker because that muscle group is not sending the same “I am being used, send me energy” feedback to the central nervous system. If muscle balance is left unaddressed, altered movement patterns will be the result, which will potentially lead to various musculoskeletal injuries.
So why does this relationship become so one-sided for so many individuals? The main reasons are listed below.
What Causes Muscle Imbalance?
Habitual Postures and Work Environment
Think about your posture while you’re driving, sitting at work, at school, sitting on the couch, etc. If you are someone that does a lot a slouching, that constant slouching become ingrained in your physical characteristics. Your anterior (front) muscles are likely to become over tight, and your posterior muscles are likely to become weakened. This imbalance impacts your joints because muscles move bone. Even if you are relatively inactive, your muscles move bone with even the slightest movements. In this case, the tight, shortened muscles are pulling your bones into a potential postural distortion.
Repetitive movements will lead to imbalance as well. The muscle involved in the movements become tighter and stronger in order to continually perform the repetitive action. I get a lot of clients that say ” I didn’t do anything, I don’t even use these muscles, why are they so sore”. That is a common misconception about muscles. As mentioned in the paragraph above, muscles move bone. If you lift your arm, muscles are working, if you turn your head, muscles are working, if you hold your head down while looking at your phone, muscles are working. Lifting weights and exercising aren’t the only ways your muscles work or move.
Past Injuries and Surgeries
It’s no mystery why past injuries and surgeries can cause muscle imbalance. I personally have not worked on one client that had a previous injury or surgery, that didn’t have some sort of muscle imbalance. Any lack of movement or function in one group of muscles or joint, your body will make up for it somewhere else. The body uses the path of least resistance. Whichever muscle or joint can perform the action your body calls for, your body will use.
Let’s say you have an injury at the right knee joint. Your knees are primarily stable joints, meaning they provide stability. That injury causes your knee to lose some stability so your body will compensate by adding more stability to an adjacent joint. SO, let’s say it calls on your right hip joint to become more stable to pick up the slack. Your hips are primarily mobile joints and they lose some mobility aspect, in order to compensate for the lack of stability in the knee joint.
If you do not actively work on keeping your hips strong and functional, your hip joint will start to become overused and it will cause another joint to compensate for the lack of stability and mobility coming from the hip joint. This phenomena is why so many of you that have had knee injuries or surgeries begin to have hip pain, ankle instability, low back pain etc. Your body is constantly trying to bail you out the only way it knows how. A big reason why strengthening and releasing is absolutely necessary to prevent this form of muscle imbalance and compensation.
On a muscular level, if there is injury in the muscle belly, scar tissue is formed as part of the healing process. Scar tissue does not provide the same elasticity and flexibility as the muscle itself so that means a muscle that is full of scar tissue does not lengthen or stretch like a health muscle would. This lack of flexibility can effect how the muscle group performs its action at the joint, leading to potential injuries at the joint.
Improper Physical training
This type of muscle imbalance is a very very common one I deal with on a daily basis. How I would describe improper physical training is someone with tight/shortened pecs continuously performing chest exercises 2 or more times a week without stretching or releasing. They would essentially be making themselves dysfunctionally stronger. Not only will that lead to more muscle imbalance, it can lead to potential shoulder injuries and muscle/tendon tears do to the amount of stress caused on both the overactive and under-active muscles.
Another example would be a baseball player. Every time they swing and throw, assuming they are using the same side, that can cause muscle imbalance on one side of the body. The amount of swings and throws they need to perform, especially in MLB, can add a large amount of stress to the muscle tissue and tendons. Again, with a well balanced exercise regimen and stretching and releasing techniques, a significant amount of muscle imbalance can be prevented.
Preventing Muscle Imbalance
It’s not enough to just try to maintain good posture while your sitting or standing, you must release the tight and strengthen the weak muscles. Get massages if you are unaware which muscles are tight. The tight muscles are typically the ones you don’t necessarily feel any tension until pressure is placed on them. Read my post on 8 Typically Tight Muscles to get an idea of where you may have some muscle imbalance then apply the different foam rolling and release techniques.
If you have had previous surgeries it is imperative that you work on breaking up the scar tissue at the site of the incision. You can use your hands or you can use a tool like a theracane to break up the scar tissue. Be consistent, scar tissue is very dense and it’ll require a fair amount of work to break it up.
Again, stretch often, foam roll often and strengthen. Your muscles need to be strong, there’s no way around it, It is the only way to truly prevent or correct muscle imbalance.
I encourage you to take the time to really get to know your body. What are you doing with your body throughout the day? How is it moving when you walk or run? It’s amazing what you can discover just by listening to your body.