Today I’m talking about balance, but not as we know it. By balance I’m not talking about the chakra balancing, balanced mind, body, spirit kind of balance. I’m talking about muscular balance from a PT perspective. While it might not be the most glamorous of topics, it’s absolutely one that needs to be discussed and addressed as we see so many injuries and posture problems that can be easily avoided with a bit of due diligence in this area.
WHY DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MUSCULAR IMBALANCE?
When I had started getting into my training and kinesiology studies I hit a real lightbulb moment. Probably an obvious one for a lot of people but not something I’d thought an awful lot about. Our muscles work in balance with one another. Muscles work in partnership, one muscle moves, another responds to allow for that movement. For brevity I’ve broken it down into simple terminology so that we can get to the nitty gritty of what you need to know and what you need to do about it to have your best most functional body yet.
HOW MUSCLES MARRY UP
So when one muscle contracts as what we call a prime mover (or agonist) to make a movement happen another works as an antagonist to allow for that movement. Take for instant your bicep. By contracting (shortening) your bicep it allows for elbow flexion. For this to happen your tricep has to lengthen. The same goes for if you want to flex your hip, your hip flexors and quadriceps contract (shorten) and your hamstring intuitively lengthen to allow for that movement. From a PT perspective, our aim is to keep your muscle groups in balance with one another so one muscle isn’t over dominant. If a particular muscle is over dominant it leads to faulty movement patterns whereby incorrect muscles, try to take over the work. How does this translate to your training? If the right muscle groups aren’t working then your hard earned training may actually not be doing what you want it to. Instead you’ll be training dysfunction eventually leading to posture problems and thereafter injury. It also makes your training way less effective.
WHY MUSCULAR BALANCE IS A MUST
By ensuring balance in the body the muscle groupings can work the most efficiently, allowing for full range of motion, correct movement patterns and optimal posture. Our day to day lives (in addition to our training) effects this balance. For instance, if you’re sitting down for long periods of time e.g. at a desk, in a car, on the sofa, your hip flexor and quadriceps can become increasingly shortened. In time this can lead to chronically tight (and shortened) hip flexors and thereafter strain on the muscles and posture (hello back pain). Kind of sheds light on to the whole “sitting is the new smoking” phrase. Our bodies weren’t meant to sit in chairs for long periods of time. More on this in Roger Frampton’s Ted Talk “Why Sitting Down Destroys You”. In PT programs we try to retrain movement patterns, balancing the body. Often this means a lot of work strengthening the posterior chain (all the key muscles on the back of your body) like the hamstrings, glutes, upper back. Then vice versa we try to lengthening muscles in the anterior body, chest muscles, hips, quads, abdominals.
HOW TO BALANCE THE BODY
Let’s talk pulling and pushing exercises. As part of a fitness program we aim to balance out the amount of pulling exercises and pushing exercises that we do. I see it all the time, people at the gym constantly only using pushing exercises. When I say pushing exercises think mountain climbers, bench press, press ups, burpees. All of these exercises require some sort of pushing action. But what about the pull? Most of our days are spent sitting with our chests in a tightened state as a result of arching over mobile phones, desks etc. Pushing motions usually exacerbate this state. Enter pulling motions – notoriously hard to train without equipment but think pull ups, rows, lat pull downs. These exercises allow you to balance out this anterior tightness in the body. By activating and strengthening muscles like in the upper back you allow a balance between the two. This is monumental for your training, your posture and essentially long term in life. This is what will keep you moving, able and strong I try to aim for a 2:1 ration of pulling to push exercises in my training to counteract the imbalances in the body. I also spend a lot of time working on increasing the mobility, range of motion and flexibility of my shortened muscle groups – my hips, quadriceps and calfs are usually pretty tight as a result of my cycling and training! Enter the foam roller and stretch sessions!
DOES YOGA HELP?
What about yoga? Surely yogi’s bodies are all balanced as a result of the flexibility acquired from yoga, right? Wrong. Of course, I am a huge advocate for yoga. It is especially helpful (looking purely from a physical mindset) in helping posture, imbalances, range of motion and flexibility, however it is not a one stop shop to answer all of your muscular imbalance woes. Far from it. A fellow PT and posture specialist I spoke to at Equinox the other day put it in a really interesting way. He said, we tend to find one thing we really love doing, e.g. yoga and assume that it has an answer for everything in our body. That all we need is that yoga and our body will be balanced and happy. In fact many yogi’s suffer imbalances. Take hamstrings for instance there is a lot of hamstring lengthening postures (asana’s) in yoga. This is what allows us to go into postures such as handstands. However, with this constant lengthening can come a lack of hamstring loading strength. If all you do is stretch the hamstring it may not develop the strength it needs to to support loading forces off the yoga mat. Enter common hamstring pulls and injuries of yogi’s. How about all the chaturungas and downward dogs, these are both the aforementioned pushing motions. As yogi’s we do these movements extremely regularly. As a result we have to balance these out with pulling movements.
IN ACTION: TRX PULL EXERCISES
Here’s some simple TRX pull exercise variations for the upper body to help counteract the constant push movements that you see everywhere from the gym to the yoga mat. Think mountain climbers, push ups, bench press, chaturungas & downward dogs.
These exercises work the much under utilised upper back and rear shoulder muscles. Try adding them to your training! 12-15 reps 2-3 rounds should do the trick!
TRX Row Narrow
TRX Row Wide
A DIFFERENT WAY OF THINKING
Although this subject clearly goes far beyond the reaches of this blog posts, I hope this has gone some way in helping to explain about muscular imbalances. From this I hope that it can help you start thinking in a new light about what you train and how. Happy balancing folks.