Muscle Imbalances: When one side is stronger than the other

We no doubt have “sides” that are stronger in our bodies. It is usually an arm or a leg that is markedly different in strength but it could be any muscle group.

Sometimes there are visible differences, like one of your shoulders are bigger than the other or one side of the barbell is moving faster in a bench press.

This can be due to an underlying injury, favoring one side over the other, everyday life activities, or even other things.

The question of “Should I use different weights on different sides of my body due to one side being weaker?” commonly comes up. Here are some methods to help this problem!

1. Perform unilateral exercises/use dumbbells

single leg ball hamstring curl
Single Leg Ball Hamstring Curl

Your stronger side will, most likely, always take over when both sides are being trained together. For example, a barbell overhead press. If your right shoulder/arm is stronger than your left, your right will do more work pressing than your left will. You may not even know it’s happening because the stronger side will naturally take over.

To combat strong side takeover, you will need to start replacing some of your bilateral exercises (both sides working together) with unilateral exercises (each side is working individually).

Instead of a barbell overhead press, think of using a kettlebell or dumbbell overhead press, done together or, even a bit harder, done one side at a time. Therefore, both sides will have to do an equal amount of work and one side won’t take the spotlight.

2. Start with the weaker side.

One of your sides is getting a little something-something and you need to start sharing with your other side because it’s getting sassy.

Your everyday activities can show you which side you favor. Which arm do you usually carry your kid, your groceries, your bags? Which leg do you balance on most when shutting a door, holding your kid, just waiting in line somewhere?

Whichever side it is, you most likely use that side first when doing unilateral exercises as well. Think of a Bulgarian split squat, a 1-arm bench press, single leg deadlift, etc, do you start with your ‘strong’ side or your ‘weak’ side? If you usually start with your strong side, it’s common that you are already fatigued when you get to your weak side, thus making it harder to perform the exercise.

Start with your weaker side and give it some special treatment. Your strong side will deal with the extra tiredness you are feeling better than your weak one will.

3. Let your weak side be the boss of your strong side.

You must allow your weak side to catch up to your strong side. If you keep taxing both equally you’ll never get both sides to even out. If you were 1-arm overhead press a dumbbell for 10 reps on your weak side and yet, you are able to get 14 reps on your strong side, you are keeping your strong side strong and your weak side weak.

If you keep allowing them to both ‘equally’ do hard work, you probably won’t get caught up in terms of strength. Therefore, you need to let your weak side dictate what your strong side does. If your weak side can only give 5 reps, then only give 5 reps on your strong side. You will be able to give your strong side a break, while pushing the weak side. And hopefully, from there on out you can progress both sides equally together.

4. Fix any underlying issues.  

In our everyday life we are constantly picking up things, carry things, moving things. Most of the time it is using our dominant side but repetition can also be on the non-dominant side. Take a look at what kind of everyday movements you are doing that are not in the gym.

Muscle imbalances in strength and size occur over time. There may be an issue with flexibility, mobility, stiffness, etc in joints that limit your range of motion and ability to perform exercises correctly. Those issues need to be taken into consideration before using the aforementioned methods.

NOTE: These methods are for someone who does not have a serious issue in one side. Example, shoulder surgery, a hip replacement, pins in your ankle, etc. There are times in training when it is perfectly fine and required to use two different size weights for different sides.

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