Paralysis by analysis a.k.a. overthinking is very common in the iron community.
My lifting background says that the less experienced you are, the more you think about issues that do not really make a big difference.
Back in the day, I used to suffer from wrist and elbow pain. I had an overuse injury known as tendonitis.
This made me overly concerned about muscle imbalances of the forearm. Reverse wrist curls became an integral part of my training routines.
Somewhat ironically, at the time, I couldn’t do five pull-ups, and yet I was reverse curling a juice bottle full of bolts and screws.
The actual reason for my tendonitis was the lack of forearm strength. In addition, l had a Tension myositis syndromes (TMS) – a phenomenon that comes with physical pain in a perfectly healthy area. According to the research, the pain is usually caused by emotional trauma and serves as a distraction from the real problems.
Given my old madness, I am not surprised when people try to make a fitness guru happy by performing assistance exercises for every small muscle in the body. However, sooner or later, you will have to draw the line unless you plan on joining the mad house.
The truth is that problems caused by muscle imbalances are rarer than the fitness gurus would admit in their articles. Moreover, I believe that muscle imbalances are not nearly as scary either. In some situations, they are even needed to excel.
For instance, gymnastics are upper body dominant when it comes to the strength elements. Extra leg mass makes the sport harder. Conversely, skateboarding is lower body dominant.
When your sport is focused on specific body parts, it makes sense to allow them to develop at the expense of something else. In other words, there’s a sacrifice to be made. Is it healthy? Not really, but unless we are talking about something extreme, it’s fine.
Compound Exercises Are The Greatest
Since almost every shoulder problem today is linked to the rotator cuff, people tend to perform all kinds of isolated exercises for the area. And yet big compound exercises like the overhead press target all muscles of the rotator cuff isometrically. If your overhead press is strong, so is your rotator cuff.
To experience the negative consequences of muscle imbalances, you have to go crazy for a long time. Overpowering muscle groups do not develop overnight. You have to neglect an area for months, if not years, before experiencing significant problems. If you are doing compound exercises, the risk is reduced even further.
I am certainly not against isolation exercises when you are working on a specific area, but there is no need to freak out when you discover that you are not covering the made up requirements and/or ratios presented by a muscle construction coach.
In general, avoiding major muscle imbalances is super simple. If you push, you simply have to pull. That’s true for both – the upper and the lower body.
Obviously, if you only do push-ups, your back will be a weak sauce. It’s also rather evident that if you only do squats, your hamstrings will be on the weaker side, but the remedy is fairly simple – deadlifts.
They told me that I should pull this much if I push that much. Is it true?
Ratios are only guidelines and largely unimportant in the long term. Don’t lose sleep over the fact that your row does not match the numbers in a subjective study.
They told me that I will get cancer if I train a body part more frequently than everything else. Is it true?
Not really. You can’t train everything equally all the time. Training goals and priorities change due to various factors. There are periods when you need to focus on different type of movements. Some sports even require you to train a specific body part more often. Nothing bad will happen as long as you know what you are doing.
They told me that my shoulder will disconnect if I don’t perform flies in every position. True?
The shoulders represent a smaller muscle group that works hard during most compound upper body exercises. It is impossible to become a good pusher without developing strong front deltoids. There is also no way to have weak rear delts when you do weighted pull-ups and deadlifts.
With that said, it’s perfectly fine to include isolation for your shoulders, but it’s not needed – you can have strong & healthy delts without it.
They told me that my hands will fall off if I don’t train my wrist extensors with tons of isolation exercises. True?
No. Many compound exercises hit your precious wrist extensors. Whenever you are doing something grip demanding, the wrist extensors work too.
A good example is the bench press which requires you to maintain a somewhat straight/neutral wrist position. You can’t do that without the help of your wrist extensors.
Also, whenever you are doing arm work, the wrist extensors get hit. For example, when you perform hammer curls, the extensors have to stabilize the whole area.
However, in some cases dedicated wrist/forearm work may be needed. If you are doing a lot of handstand work, for example, conditioning exercises could be incredibly helpful.
I am currently doing barbell rows, cable rows, face pulls, dumbbell rows, towel rows, wide grip rows, semi-wide grip rows, narrow grip rows, semi narrow grip rows, a little wider than narrow grip rows, rows on an incline bench, rows on a decline bench, head supported rows, chest supported rows, bodyweight rows…because they told me that I will die unless I do more pulling than pushing? True?
Not really. There are many ways to counterbalance pushing. Rows are certainly not the only option. I would even go as far as saying that something like the deadlift alone may be enough to prevent any back weakness caused by too much pushing. Before starting the usual “will my rear delts get enough work from the deadlift alone”, the answer is – they will get hit much harder than you think.
Just so you know, for a long time the popular powerlifter Andrey Malanichev has been doing only the big three as part of his routine (more).
Will this be the best approach for you? I have no idea. You know better than me.
Bottom line: Muscle imbalances are real, but their negative effects are largely overrated and easily prevented.