What are muscle imbalances?

Have you ever experienced that certain muscles are more sore following a workout compared to others? Have you noticed chronic muscle tension after sitting in one place for too long? Do you feel the effects of training too specifically in one sport for example, especially after you change activities or training regimens?

If you answered yes to one or all of these questions then you have experienced a muscle imbalance.

An imbalance in the muscular system is when one set of muscles become too tight and short where the opposite muscles become too long and weak. Synergistic muscles that assist the movement of primary muscles can also become overworked if the primary muscles are not able to fully perform their job, or become fatigued from repetitive use. Muscles imbalances in general, fall within this framework, however the structural definition is not the only form of muscle imbalance.

Why do muscles imbalances occur?

Muscle imbalances occur most commonly due to repetitive activity that leads to compensations in the drive for our bodies to be as efficient as possible, work around pain, and survive. Our nervous systems control our muscular system, so when one muscle is fatigued, other supportive muscles are recruited to assist. This can be true for athletics as well as the sedentary individual. Postural muscle physiology changes within at least 30-minutes of sitting in one spot and increases with time. One reason cross-training has gained popularity is that using the body in various ranges of motion, intensities, loads, and volumes allows the neuromuscular system to be utilized in different ways. This helps to train weaker muscles, recruit muscles in varying timing sequences, and fatigue muscles on a different level activity to activity.

Here is a more comprehensive list of why muscle imbalances occur:

  1. Incomplete motor learning through development (rolling, crawling, squatting, walking, running). I’ve read up to 70% of us didn’t fully develop our motor skills.
  2. Social conditioning (we mimic those around us, often our caregivers. Think similarities in gait and posture).
  3. Type of work (sitting at a desk vs manual labor).
  4. Environmental factors (walking terrain, polluted air, allergies, lighting)
  5. Footwear (high heels vs zero drop with no heel lift, squished toes vs barefoot)
  6. Sleep position (folks with wider hips who sleep on one side every night can develop weak glutes and lower trap muscles)
  7. Nutrition (vitamin/mineral deficiencies, such as vitamins B, C, and magnesium can affect nerve and connective tissue)
  8. Hydration (water and electrolyte levels affect nerve, muscle, and connective tissue physiology and performance)
  9. Injury (if you’ve ever had a limp, a cast, or surgery, you’re familiar with the pain and re-training process).
  10. Illness (polio was a common virus that resulted in nerve damage which could affect gait).
  11. Genetic conditions (cerebral palsy is one example of a condition that affects fine motor skills and muscle tone).
  12. Mental/Emotional state (sad, defeated, angry, joyful emotions can all change our physical expression of self).
  13. Trauma holding (sometimes holding happens at a deeper level in our bodies, often the diaphragm, psoas, sacral root chakra, or heart center).
  14. Stress (holding from chronic stress is often held in the upper shoulders, neck, jaw, and gut).
  15. Repetitive movement (done to the point of fatigue, exhaustion, or without adequate cross-training to combat the affects of compensations).

So, how does one correct muscles imbalances?

Correcting muscle imbalances can be relatively simple or be very complex. One common example is weak glutes, especially in today’s modern world of sedentary work. Weak glutes can be a simple fix. Merely strengthen the glutes! But…from my experience it’s not that straightforward. Playing detective to figure out the big picture of why the glutes aren’t firing is vital. Are the hip flexors tight thereby inhibiting the glutes? If so, why are the hip flexors tight? Is it due to sitting everyday, cycling, or something deeper like stored trauma? Are the inner thigh muscles tight inhibiting the abduction action of the glutes? What about the rotational fibers of the glutes?

As you can see can see just jumping to glute strengthening is overlooking so much more! The human system is complex and often takes a holistic approach to develop the ideal plan toward balance. Even though 100% balance may not be achieved, it’s well worth the journey!

Here is the general way I use to help my clients correct muscle imbalances:

  1. Listen to them (verbally share their story, their history of sport, injuries, work-life balance, habits, problems, goals, etc)
  2. Observe (posture, movement, energy, lack of energy (stagnation))
  3. Assess (range of motion, muscle testing, sensing texture, tone, temperature, and tissue type)
  4. Intuit (let-go of rational thought momentarily to allow for maximum use of the senses for gathering all kinds of information)
  5. Analyze (put all the gathered information into a working hypothesis for further testing and exploring)
  6. Test (actively test to observe positive or negative results)
  7. Develop a plan together (explain assessment and observations and expected results)
  8. Track (taking accurate notes to track progress over time)

Muscle imbalances can take time, energy, and focus to correct. But, it’s well worth it to prevent injury and enhance quality of life!

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