The fitness industry is riddled with misinformation, gimmicky products, and too many egos constantly combating each other about which methods and opinions are superior, instead of focusing on what is best for any given client. Every new trend brings new techniques, styles of working out, and “buzzwords” that evolve the longer they’re around. That being said, with each new fitness trend we must endure, there are certain buzzwords that get thrown around more often than they should. Just do a Google search of any of these (listed below) and you’ll see a million and one different articles, videos, etc. pop up. These buzzwords often become such a large part of current fitness culture, that they inevitably get lost in translation. The more people that use these terms and the more often these terms are used in everyday fitness language, they start to lose their meaning, or adopt new meanings altogether. How many times have you heard someone refer to something like “corrective” exercise and wondered what the hell it meant?
This purpose of this post is not to go off on a diatribe about how fitness professionals dishonestly market themselves or how annoying it is hear these words constantly misused, but instead to briefly clarify what each of these fitness “buzzwords” even are, and to help you understand how each of these things relates to you and your health and fitness goals. Keeping in mind that there are plenty more than the ones I will go over, here is part 1 on which common “buzzwords” need to be understood more clearly.
“Muscle imbalances” have become almost a default explanation for the cause of any musculoskeletal issues. For years I’ve heard therapists and trainers alike describing to their clients the reasons for their pain, very often relating it back to commonly-referenced sets of muscle imbalances (such as upper and lower cross syndrome). More often than not, these same professionals also have no clue what they are talking about when telling their clients about their muscle imbalances, simply using it as a scare tactic to get them to buy in to their system of training or rehabilitation.
It is pretty well understood how the function of specific muscles strongly relates to overall physical health. A very common example is health professionals often prescribing “core” exercises to help reduce back pain, the explanation being that without functional balance between the anterior core muscles and the lower back muscles, the lower back muscles work too hard and become chronically tight. While there is some merit to this explanation, it is often an oversimplification. Muscles don’t need to be “balanced” (in the sense it’s often described) as much as they simply need to all have proper function in a variety of movements. This is usually the determining factor of whether certain muscles are “balanced” or not.
So…what exactly ARE muscle imbalances?
The best way I can describe muscle imbalances is this: For any given movement, certain muscles have to coordinate with each other in specific sequences and with certain amounts of force produced in order for that movement to happen efficiently. If the the muscles necessary for a specific movement are dysfunctional (hypertonic or inhibited) , or if certain muscles fire with more strength than others inefficiently, you will have issues with that movement. We need to understand the difference between strength and function, as imbalances can occur with both, but they are not the necessarily the same thing.
On the function side of things, if certain muscles don’t have their full function, other muscles in the pattern have to pick up the slack to make that movement happen. Given enough time, repetitively doing a certain exercise over and over again will lead to certain muscles getting stronger (and perhaps overworking), with their antagonists and synergists often getting weaker or losing function altogether. As an example, doing heavy deadlifts week-in and week-out without full function of the glutes might cause other synergistic muscles like the erector spinae to pick up the slack, eventually leading to a chronically tight lower back.
On the strength side of the equation, a training program that avoids certain types of movements or that doesn’t address specific muscle groups as much as others can lead to strength imbalances. This differs slightly from the above scenario, as you can still develop strength imbalances with full function of your muscles. You just choose to utilize some muscles more than others. As an example, if you bench press 3 times per week, but only do rows once a week, you’re likely to eventually develop asymmetrical strength between your pressing muscles and your pulling muscles. Another easily understood example is having a dominant hand. I’m willing to bet 99% of you reading this article are stronger with your dominant arm than your off arm. This is normal, but is indeed an example of strength imbalance. It is very common to find movements that are stronger on side than the other (like an overhead press), but the other side can still have much better muscular balances and efficiency, and thus avoiding eventual pain or degeneration.
Either way you look at it, a lack of balance in the system will eventually lead to problems.
What does this mean for me?
As a fitness or health professional working with clients, you need to have a system for identifying what muscle imbalances your patients or clients may have, and then be able to develop a systematic corrective strategy for helping to restore function to the areas of their body lacking function. Often times it is beyond our scope of practice to correctly identify and address these issues. Because of this, it is important to have professionals in your network to whom you can refer clients. I’ve referred clients many times to other professionals whose skills were better suited to address clients’ issues. By doing this, not only are you looking out for your clients’ best interests (which they will greatly appreciate), but you will also create a scenario where you can better do your job after the issues have been addressed. In addition, if you are a trainer, develop training programs that emphasize restoring and maintaining strength balance. If a client is significantly stronger doing a squat than a hip-hinge pattern, you might want to emphasize strengthening their posterior chain more, as an example.
As a regular gym-goer, your main takeaway here in regards to muscle imbalances is to recognize that they do in-fact exist, and that in order to avoid problems down the road, you should seek out a qualified professional who can help address them. This is perhaps the hardest part of the equation. How do you know who is full of shit, and who actually knows what they are doing? You don’t want to let doctors, therapists, and trainers scare you into working with them just because of your “muscle imbalances.” If you catch a trainer throwing this buzzword at you, make sure you ask them directly HOW they plan on fixing these muscle imbalances. Having the ability to do so is an incredibly complex skill set. While there are tons of incredible health and fitness professionals out there, the truth is that most trainers, therapists, and even doctors do not have the skill set or the desire to actually help fix them in the most efficient way possible. Your goal is to be confident in their abilities to actually help you fix these issues. Tread carefully. If you prefer to tackle things on your own, make sure to not neglect certain movements or areas of the body in your training just because you don’t like doing certain exercises. More often than not, the areas you dislike working on are the areas that need the most work!
Hopefully this was some helpful insight. Stay tuned for part 2…