Strength Imbalances Can Cause Big Problems

By, Scott Williams

Strength imbalances between muscles can develop over time for a few reasons. Posture, lifting technique, and overuse of certain muscles can lead to imbalances over time. Muscle pulls often result from a strength deficit in the surrounding musculature and their inability to assist and stabilize during movement. For example, hamstring tears and lower back problems are often result from weakness in the gluteus and abdominal muscles. Similarly, ACL tears often result from a muscle imbalance between the quadriceps and hamstrings.

The good news is this: Muscle imbalances and associated injuries can be prevented or rehabilitated by incorporating specific movements and “unilateral” exercises. Unilateral exercises involve single leg/arm movements, like a lunge or one arm row. This type of training can address imbalances by assuring that each side of the body performs and equal amount of work.

It is wise to train unilaterally because you want to have a strength balance on each side of the body. This relates to sports because running is a series of one-leg movements. During double leg movements, like squats, our strong side may do more work thus creating a pull around the pelvis and spine in one direction. This can lead to some serious back problems if left uncorrected for a period of time.

Besides strengthening the neglected muscles themselves, unilateral training also targets another area of the body indirectly. Incorporating unilateral exercises into your workout program will significantly strengthen your core musculature without ever doing one sit up or “crunch”.

While the primary muscle is performing much of the work, the muscles of the trunk must remain engaged to ensure balance and stabilization of the lift. Maintaining correct posture against the load being lifted is a tremendous strengthening exercise for the abdominal, back, and hip muscles.

Strong and balanced core muscles do not only stabilize the spine. They also facilitate the transfer of power and strength between the lower and upper body. In nearly every sport, an efficient transfer of power from the lower body to the upper body is necessary for quick, agile, and explosive movements.

Although many traditional training programs call for a “split routine”, dividing the upper and lower body workouts to different days, you must remember that the body is one entity. All areas of the body are related and affect each other.

Unilateral vs. Bilateral Training

What Is Unilateral Training

Unilateral training is a movement that trains one limb at a time, rather than both. Common examples are:

Bulgarian Split Squats
Single-Arm Pressing
Single-Arm Rowing
Single-Leg RDLs
Any variation (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, cables, bands, bodyweight, etc) can be used.
Most athletes train strength, power, and competition lifts using bilateral exercises, such as; snatches, cleans, squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc.

The idea of unilateral training offers athletes a training stimulus to maximize performance, attain better balance across the body, limit injuries, and possibly enhance bilateral outputs.

Over time, poor movement mechanics and compensation movement patterns can lead to inefficient bar paths, overuse injury, and finally stalled progress.

By addressing certain neuromuscular (movement patterning) and muscular (strength, hypertrophy, explosiveness) with unilateral training exercises, coaches and athletes can better develop and maintain muscle mass, connective tissues strength, and joint integrity.

Absolute strength is important for the prevention of injuries and performance in sport, however, I believe balance is more important. The body’s ability to take on external forces and absorb impact in stride can be of greater importance to any sport that involves contact.

Soccer, basketball, rugby, football, and hockey are all example of sports that involve contact and thus require an efficient transfer of forces and a strong ability to deal with external forces. Effective preparation involves training unilaterally and dynamically.

Exercises involving medicine balls, lunges, cleans, squats, one arm row, and press can improve the body’s ability to transfer forces, deal with external forces, and improve balance, which over time will lead to better balanced athlete for your chosen Sport.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.


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