Let’s discuss two different scenarios: “Muscle Imbalance” Causing Injury, and Injury Causing “Muscle Imbalance”.
An example of that in practice is lack of shoulder blade awareness (a common occurrence).
If you’re not aware of the different positions your shoulders can be in, then you aren’t aware of where it should be while doing exercises (such as a push up) and you can end up causing issues. Say you’re right handed, your mind-muscle connection is much stronger on that side, and as a result that arm will have a natural understanding of how to keep a better position on its own – it’s used to being used “correctly” – while your left arm is flouncing around during every push up and things are getting rubbed that don’t like to be rubbed.
For a long time, this won’t be an issue. As you push towards failure you’ll notice that your left arm struggles/gives up, but just chalk it down to a weaker arm and don’t really give any more thought to it… until after thousands of reps over a year or two and your shoulder/neck/pec or elbow starts giving you constant pain.
This is where the knowledge-trap comes in.
So far, you’ve been happily enjoying your training, losing weight, feeling stronger and are scared of losing your gains. In your pained and panicked state, literally ANYONE that appears to have the answer will do – and you’ll be willing to try anything to not lose your progress.
You can get sucked in to doing the most pointless, time consuming exercises involving the lightest resistance and weird, isolated angles that appear to be exactly what they need because the person that demonstrated them was a well-known figure or the sheer boring seriousness of them means they must be right. And yeah, sometimes they temporarily help, but not really because the exercise is what you need… you just made your shoulder “think”, getting some lazy muscles working again because it was something new.
But that’s not enough.
You do that exercise until your pain goes away (and it most likely would have went away on its own) and then you go back to your bad positioned, one arm dominant, sideways push ups (which are no different than they were before) and your issue comes back a few months later.
You now label yourself as having “a bad shoulder” (or hip, back etc) and having a weak “X,Y or Z”, then start “needing” ridiculously long warm ups or fall into dreaded foam rolling addiction (put more pain where there is pain so the original pain goes away without addressing anything movement-based which is the actual cause of the issue).
Injury Causing “Muscle Imbalance”
An “imbalance” can also arise after an injury, not just before. Is your body merely avoiding moving a certain way because of an intense pain you once had?
Your body is extremely smart, the problem is that you are in charge of it.
If a danger is presented to your body it will do everything in its power to stop you from experiencing that again – exactly the same as someone who’s had a scary experience with water as a child and ends up being scared to swim as an adult, that can take a lot of effort to overcome. Your body goes through same process when you injure or hurt something.
An easy example is when someone hurts their back and as a result, they get pain to one side when they try to stand up straight. Your body picks up on that. When you lean to that side, the pain gets worse, so firing those muscles starts to give constant negative feedback. As a result, your body avoids using them, tightening them up, making you you put as much weight as possible through the other “good” side. Classic victims like the QL, Glute Med and Hip Flexor get blamed for everything when all they are trying to do is help you out – poor guys ☹️
Basically, there is nothing wrong with the function of the muscles on that “bad side”. Your body is in protection mode and intentionally AVOIDING using muscles in a certain way to spare you pain – which becomes your “compensation” or “muscle imbalance”.
Some people can be absolutely fine, when their pain goes away all the muscles go back to functioning normally and they don’t run in to any problems – these people generally moved well beforehand and don’t over obsess or make a big deal out of injury (this was not me at the time of my back injury!).
The people that run in to the most issues are those who truly believe that they are broken or have caused proper damage in some way that will be permanent. If you take a heightened sense of pain, unconsciously avoiding moving certain ways all the time and constantly thinking that one or two of your muscles are “imbalanced” or “weak” and you have a recipe for actual exhaustion! Mentally and physically. I know all about it, I was stuck like this myself. But trust me, your body is resilient and can be put through a lot! Unless you are impaled on a spike, or snapped in half, you’ll probably get better, if you do the right things…
How to Fix Imbalances
So what do you do about it?
Number 1: Stop Freaking Out!
You are fine and your body is just trying it’s best to perform movements with a muscle which lacks awareness or trying to help you out and avoid future pain. The only way it has to communicate with you is aches and niggles. If it feels there is a threat somewhere you need to proactively work with your body in fixing the cause, not be annoyed at it and resent moving.
Number 2: Have an Educated Wiggle
The only way to find out the true cause of your pain is by getting to know your body and your weaknesses. Keep a chilled mindset, and before you start spend a few minutes breathing in for a count of 5, hold for 5 and breath out for 5 until you feel really relaxed.
Then go slowly into a movement that you know aggravates you slowly and start to move in and out of it while keeping that relaxed breathing; you will start to notice how everything tries to tense up and it is important for you to gain control of that. Have a “wiggle” and explore the position. Try to activate different muscles or tweak your positions and see what changes.
Staying relaxed and calm doing this takes practice, you won’t nail this in one session.
Number 3: Don’t Obsess
Make working on your weaknesses part of a short, daily mobility routines or throw certain exercises into your warm ups and cool downs WITHOUT obsessing. I hate to see people who end up completely giving up everything they enjoy for this endeavour of a perfect symmetrical body – this is impossible! You can get pretty close, and that is a great aim, but the second you start believing you are riddled with all sorts of things that need to be “fixed” you are never going to feel strong.
Number 4: Move as If Nothing Is Wrong with You.
This is easier said than done – but just the same way that your body learns to avoid certain ways of moving, it will also learn very quickly from you point blank refusing to let it get away with it. It will probably feel very uncomfortable at first, but (as long as there’s no true pain) don’t back down. Your body will start to give in and stop acting up once it’s realised you have not died from walking straighter or pressing with both arms properly.
If your imbalance comes from a lack of awareness then you need to find exercises where you can’t get away with being lazy (such as the Bottom Up Press for shoulder stability) and keep working confidently with a positive mindset.
If your imbalance comes from an injury-hangover, such as a back injury, you need to be vigilant all the time at first: if you feel yourself shifting your weight more to one side when walking – STOP IT. If you feel you roll on to the outside of one foot when walking – STOP IT. If you feel nervous to bend over and round your back to pick something light up off the ground – STOP IT! Just remember deep breathing techniques and try to make each movement non-scary for your body.
Everyone is different and depending on what you have been through and what you read will determine how easily you can overcome things.
Our ethos is this:
Learn how to do “exercise” things properly with correct form and muscle activation and know that you can do them right. But don’t be afraid to have a wiggle. Move all your joints around and dance like a 3 year old full of sugar – you are not made of wood, you are not weak and you are most certainly not broken forever.