In this post:
2 Types of muscular symmetry and balance
4 Causes of muscular asymmetry
4 Smart strategies to correct and prevent muscle imbalances and asymmetry
Symmetry by nature is very attractive. As humans, we are drawn to symmetry as it seems to be nature’s preference. Organisms have evolved symmetrically to allow for optimal balance and function. Take the human body, each side is a mirror image of the other to allow for specific, purposeful and synergistic movement. We have two identical arms, legs, ears, eyes and so on. When this symmetry is discordant such as one leg being shorter than the other, the body becomes off balance and does not function properly. If one muscle is too tight or stronger than its opposing muscle group, these groups will not be coordinated causing stress on the joints leading to structural damage over time or injury to the weaker muscle group.
As competitive bodybuilders (including my focus niche of fabulous people- bikini, figure and physique woman), symmetry is very important on stage and is more important than size.
For both competitive and non-competitive gym rats, symmetry is significant for form and function and should be considered before trying to build for greater proportions.
Two Types of Symmetry
There are two overall types of symmetry:
1) Front to back: Agonist vs antagonist muscle pairs
This refers to opposing muscle groups. For example, the biceps and triceps. When bending the elbow, the biceps (agonist) contracts while the triceps (antagonist) relaxes. These front to back imbalances commonly cause pain that affects the muscles, ligaments, bones and tendons.
List of antagonistic pairs:
• Pectorals/latissimus dorsi—pecs and lats
• Anterior deltoids/posterior deltoids—front and back shoulder
• Trapezius/deltoids—traps and delts
• Abdominals/spinal erectors—abs and lower back
• Left and right external obliques
• Quadriceps/hamstrings—quads and hams
• Forearm flexors/extensors
Symmetry between antagonistic pairs is important to keep bones in the joints centered when in motion. If there is a muscle imbalance in a set of opposing muscle groups problems occur. For example, when one muscle is tighter than its opposing muscle group, the joints will not move properly as tight muscle will be pulling on the joint it acts upon. Take the quads and hamstrings. These two muscle groups perform opposite motions on the knee joint. If the hamstrings are tighter than the quads, extra stress will is placed on the knee joint not allowing that joint to fully extend or move smoothly. This could then stress the quad muscle and cause issues with the knee cap.
2) Right vs left: Contralateral
This type of muscle imbalance is where I have issues, asymmetry between the right and left. The left shoulder or back muscles being larger than the right for example. This is not aesthetically pleasing and should not be overlooked.
You can also include symmetry between the upper body vs lower body. You don’t want to be that chick who only trains booty and forgets about the arms and back! Or maybe you do….
Okay, back to being serious….
4 Causes for Asymmetry
Biomechanics refers to the structure and function of the body. If the body is not balanced, form and function are hindered. Inversely, if form and function are subpar, the body cannot adapt proportionately or balanced.
Biomechanical considerations that may hinder performance and cause asymmetry and injury include:
- Poor posture or form
- Poor flexibility
- Muscle restrictions due to tension, injury or weakness
- Apparel such as improper shoes
- Vertebrae misalignment
- Leg length discrepancy
- Lower extremity alignment
- Previous or untreated injury
Obviously, the act of not lifting equally on both sides is one cause of asymmetrical muscle development but many factors can cause you to not lift with the same range of motion (ROM) or pressure on each side (I’ll talk further about the latter in #2).
Your conscious and unconscious proprioception (position and self movement) is important to master when lifting. Conscious coordination and proprioception is utilized when performing complex motor activities where unconscious proprioception coordinates posture when sitting, standing or partaking in activities. Understanding where your issues and weaknesses lie is essential to address before training hard for any type of activity. Optimal posture and form, above all is key!!!!
The majority of the population has horrid posture and our lifestyles at desks and spending our days texting away are not helping matters one bit. Postural awareness throughout the day is a great place to start. Check out Kelly Starrett and his take on posture, sitting all day, texting and overall proper form when lifting.
Aside from casting proper posture to the wind, the lack of awareness of range of motion for unilateral exercises causes problems. For example, muscle restrictions (tension, weakness, injury) in the right bicep may inhibit the range of motion during a bicep curl causing the inability to fully engage it as you are able to do with the left bicep. This leads to greater strength and size in the left muscle causing left/right asymmetry.
Also be aware of external factors that could cause biomechanical issues like equipment or apparel. For example, with apparel, the shoes you choose to wear need to be sport specific. Squatting in running shoes places your foot in a different position than if you were bare foot or wearing shoes specifically for lifting. I used to squat in my running shoes until I went barefoot leading me to actually buy myself proper lifting shoes. This made a world of difference for my squat as I could squat deeper and more comfortably bare foot or in lifting specific shoes as I also felt a hell of a lot more stable.
Also considering and addressing previous injuries is especially important to prevent further problems.
Neurological issues such as differing myotomal patterns or damage to the spine or nerves can cause asymmetrical muscle development.
This will mostly affect your strength. We all have one stronger and weaker side by nature but considering that each muscle in the body is supplied by a particular segment of the spinal cord and its corresponding spinal nerve is important to understand with age, injury and activity or lack thereof.
The muscle, and its nerve make up a myotome. If the nerve root is inhibited or damaged in anyway, it will not function correctly causing the muscle to improperly engage.
This is where spinal alignment becomes important. Your spinal cord connects your brain to the rest of your body through the vertebrae up the center of your back.
If the spinal cord is pinched in anyway, it will hinder the function and circulation that so importantly needs the freedom to run through the center column of your spine to the rest of your body.
The following is a list of vertebrae where segments of nerves connect to muscles in your body:
- C3,4 and 5 supply the diaphragm (the large muscle between the chest and the belly that we use to breath).
- C5 also supplies the shoulder muscles and the muscle that we use to bend our elbow.
- C6 is for bending the wrist back.
- C7 is for straightening the elbow.
- C8 bends the fingers.
- T1 spreads the fingers.
- T1 – T12 supplies the chest wall & abdominal muscles.
- L2 bends the hip.
- L3 straightens the knee.
- L4 pulls the foot up.
- L5 wiggles the toes.
- S1 pulls the foot down.
- S3,4 and 5 supply the bladder. bowel and sex organs and the anal and other pelvic muscles.
You can undergo myotome testing in the form of isometric resisted muscle testing but for the average person that has no inherent or serious injury or pain, this is probably not necessary.
Improving circulation and vascularity can aid in fueling muscles. You may find that you have one side that fatigues faster than the other. Make sure to incorporate high rep work with unilateral dumbbell exercises to increase capillary density.
We unfortunately cannot change our genetics. We may not be able to change our bone structures and the natural proportion of our body such as shorter or longer limbs compared to our trunk or a naturally tiny waist (which I totally lack). Some build muscle faster, better and more symmetrically but, never fear! With a proper workout routine written specifically for you while monitoring your proportions over time will help you maximize what you have to work with.
4 Smart Strategies to Correct Assymetry and Train Symmetrically
1) Do unilateral isolation exercises
Do unilateral isolation exercises with dumbbells as opposed to a barbell or a machine like dumbbell curls, dumbbell chest press, and dumbbell shoulder presses. For the lower half of the body do one legged leg extensions, hamstring curls, calf raises and so on.
2) Start on your weak side
Start on your weaker side, then match the stronger side to the weight and reps of the weaker side. You could also increase total volume on the weak side by adding more sets or reps depending on your goal and severity of asymmetry.
3) Focus on posture and form
Make sure you have proper posture and are using the full range of motion on both sides for that exercise.
4) Address issues with your bod- seek help
Address previous injuries, muscle tension, structural imbalances and flexibility issues! Seek help from a professional if necessary such as a knowledgeable upper cervical chiropractor, massage therapist, physical therapist or personal trainer. Do your research to find the best possible path for you.
You have all heard the standard advice for every workout or diet program stating that you should see your physician before you start any fitness or diet program… well, that may be true to make sure you don’t have a heart condition or some such thing but otherwise, I think its crap! Why… because my doc can’t tell me squat about my postural issues or take the time to figure out if my skeleton isn’t balanced. I learned how unbalanced my skeletal structural was from my upper cervical chiropractor and my physical therapist. The improperly managed imbalances of my skeletal structure over time is what caused the majority of my issues like a shoulder impingement and over developed muscles on my left side.
After having focused on lifting to compete in figure competitions for the last 2 years, it is now evident how off balance I am. I thought I was lifting with the best possible form and posture as well as symmetry utilizing unilateral exercises as much as possible. But overtime, my whole left side- glutes, back and shoulders (which was always my weaker side) are now bigger and stronger than my right.
My take on the causes for my assymetry …with a little history
19 years ago I was in a pretty bad car accident causing my neck to take on an unnaturally straight form, much like the neck on the right.
This severe whiplash trauma causes the loss of lordosis, aka, the loss of the shock absorbing curve in my neck that can hold my head up in a balanced position. When your cervical vertebrae are unable to hold your head perfectly level, your body will compensate. My head sits forward which stresses out my neck muscles, which stresses out my shoulder muscles which stresses out my upper back muscles and so on. Its like if you try to hold a 12 pound weight straight above your head vs straight out in front of you… which is harder?… holding the weight straight out in front. Its like that with my head. My neck muscle are trying to support my head which now sits more forward rather than balanced on top.
In addition to tensed muscles, my top two cervical vertebrae, the atlas(C1) and axis (C2) are usually misaligned or “out.” When these top two vertebrae are not supporting your head in a level position, the rest of your skeletal structure will compensate all to keep your head level. In my case, C1 has been an issue for the last 12 years causing my left shoulder to be higher than the right shoulder, and my left hip to continually be rotated forward causing my left leg to be ¾ of an inch short. Now squat heavy weight over and over on a wonky skeleton and see how your muscles will compensate and develop asymmetrically. I saw chiropractors for the last 12 years as they would crunch away at my hips, back and neck but I never really improved… now I know why. My atlas wasn’t properly adjusted.
Also, C5, C6 and C7 of my neck look like a 70 years olds’. The disks between the vertebra are nearly gone and this worries be greatly because I am only 35! I have a good 50 years at least on my life! How is my neck going to hold up! This freaks me right the eff out! AND, what is it doing to my nervous system which affects my whole body!
Random fact: All land mammals have 7 cervical vertebra, this includes giraffes… so fascinating!
In the case of my shoulders, my right and left shoulders blades do not rotate symmetrical. My left shoulder blade rotates in a way that rubs on my AC which causes major irritation. After 6 moths of lifting 6 days per week. I eventually had to go to physical therapy because I ignored it until it was so bad I couldn’t drive or lift my arm. At that time, I didn’t understand what the actual issue was. I thought my form was spot on and I was doing my best to take deload weeks when needed but when my deload weeks kept getting closer and closer together, I knew I had to do something.
During this time I also starting noticing the asymmetry in my right and left shoulder and lats. My left side was bigger than my right. How could this be, I lifted symmetrically and tried to keep the best form possible….I just didn’t get it.
The only things I could think of that may be causing this asymmetry could be the postural issues are causing me to engage muscle groups differently as well as possible nerve damage from the car accident I was in 19 years ago.
My physical therapist really helped me understand the issues I was having with my shoulders as my posture due to my neck will always be in issue for me. She showed me how to maintain my shoulders by strengthening muscles like the lower trap which I was neglecting and to keep my muscle supple by stretching and seeing a physical therapist. Exercises similar to the thrower ten are helpful.
As far as my lower half goes, I didn’t know my left side was more muscular than my right until I started getting regular massages after my physical therapy was through. My massage therapist noticed these imbalances and this really got me thinking.
A few weeks ago, I switched chiropractors. Over the past 12 years I have seen chiropractors that crunched my neck which would last a day or 2, maybe a week but I had to visit frequently. When I was pregnant in 2009, my mother law gave me some literature from a conference regarding those types of adjustments and how they may cause serious neck issues especially in pregnant woman due to the ligaments being more relaxed and such.
There were also a handful of chiropractors that couldn’t adjust my neck properly… why… they were not addressing the C1 and C2 issues. They were cranking away at my neck, side to side leaving me frustrated. I wish I would have known about upper cervical chiropractors years ago! In just 3 adjustments thus far, I feel more stable, my hip doesn’t hurt as much of my neck pain has subsided. My leg length went from 3/4″ off to 1/8″ off in 2 weeks and is holding. My leg has always been off 3/4″-1″ for the last 12 years every time I went into my previous chiropractors each week and it never improved! This is huge! Now, being able to perform heavy lower body and other compound exercises on a more balanced skeleton is amazing!
Hopefully over time with a more balanced skeleton and keeping up with massage therapy I will have better muscle engagement and range of motion. I have also incorporated more lower body unilateral exercises to strengthen my right side. As far as my upper body, I am continuing with the unilateral dumbbell exercises but making sure to engage the muscle on my right side properly as well as keeping the best posture with my shoulders. This is difficult due to years of have an unbalanced skeletal structure. It is actually a lot of work to keep my shoulders in the correct position but when I do they don’t click or pop and I feel pretty strong. It also become easier with massage therapy and proper upper cervical chiropractor adjustments (for me anyway).
A side note just to give you more options on some pretty cool non-steroidal, non-toxic treatments…..
Another therapy I am seeking out are prolozone injections in my neck to aid in pain management. “Prolozone is a form of non-surgical ligament reconstruction and is a permanent treatment for chronic pain. Prolozone is a connective tissue injection therapy of collagen producing substances and ozone gas which can reconstruct damaged or weakened connective tissue in and around joints.”
There are two docs in Minnesota that can do this and my treatments will cost $150 per session for 4-6 sessions. It takes about 15 minutes. My Step-Mother in-law has this done on her knees in North Carolina and the treatments were only $50. Other sources say these treatments should only cost about $20… as I think $150 is really over priced for and ounce of oxygen (air essentially) to be injected into my ligaments, its worth it for a permanent non-toxic treatment that works.
Make sure to look up reputable docs that do ozone therapy on the american academy of ozone therapy. website.
This blog is for the sharing of information and not to treat or diagnose illnesses or injuries! Seek professional help for the proper treatments for you! And just plain use your head and do your research.