Muscle Imbalances: Tips and Tricks to Avoid Overthinking

Paralysis by analysis and overthinking are quite common for the lifting 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.

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Back in the day, I used to suffer from wrist/elbow/forearm pain. I had an overuse injury that one calls tendonitis. This made me overly concerned about muscle imbalances of the forearm musculature and overall gripping system. I would always make sure to include some sort of a reverse wrist curl in my training to strengthen the extensors which open the fingers. Somewhat ironically, at the time I was not able to do five pull-ups, yet I was pumping reverse wrist curls using an old orange juice bottle full of bolts and screws.

Looking back, the reason for my tendonitis was really the lack of forearm strength. My particular case was one of those Tension myositis syndromes (TMS), which consist in experiencing physical pain in a perfectly healthy area. The research says that in those cases the pain is usually in your head and is caused by emotional trauma.


Given my old madness, I am not surprised when people try to make some fitness guru happy by performing exercises for every small muscle in the body. Question is, when does all of this stop? Where do you draw the line?

The truth is that problems caused by muscle imbalances are much less rare than the fitness gurus would admit in their articles. In addition, I believe muscle imbalances are not as scary either, and to some point even needed to excel in various sports.

Very few sports develop the body in a balanced manner. Gymnastics is primarily upper body dominant when it comes to the strength elements. Skateboarding is lower body dependent. Arm wrestling is another upper body sport…etc. When your sport is more focused on one part of the body, it makes sense to allow it to develop in 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 all fine. At the end of the day, sports were not created to better anyone’s health. There’s a risk involved,and if you think too much about it, you may be risking lack of progress.

If you are doing a lot of compound exercises, you are less likely to suffer muscle imbalances. A good example is the overhead press/ handstand versus the rotator cuff madness. Since almost every shoulder problem today is linked to the rotator cuff, people tend to perform all kinds of isolated exercises for the area, which is perfectly fine. However, big compounds like the overhead press target all muscles of the rotator cuff isometrically. You cannot lift heavy weights overhead, using only upper body strength, and still have weak rotator cuff. Thus, in some situations you will be perfectly fine staying away from exercises done with the pink dumbbells.

To experience the negative consequences of muscle imbalances,  you have to go crazy for a long time. It does not happen overnight. You have to neglect an area for months, if not years, before you are even likely to experience significant problems. If you are doing compound exercises for every part of your body, 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 some closet roid user/self-proclaimed, banana muscle coach.

With that said, 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. It’s obvious, that if the only thing you do are push-ups, your back will be weak sauce. It’s also rather evident that if you only do squats/leg press, your hamstrings maybe be somewhat weaker, which is easily fixed by a pull – Romanian deadlifts for example.

FAQ:

They told me I should pull this much, if I push that much. Is it true?

Do you realize that all of those ratios are completely made up. Who says you have to pull this or that, when you push this or that? It’s made up. The only certainty is that you are more likely to have a balanced physique, if you do counter exercises and try to get stronger. That’s it. Ratios are only guidelines and largely unimportant in the long term. I don’t think there’s any need to lose sleep over the fact that your row is not what a banana muscle coach says it should be, because he read so in a subjective study.

They told me 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 my shoulder will disconnect, if I don’t do all kinds of flies in all kinds of positions. That true?

The shoulders represent a smaller muscle group that works hard during most compounds upper body exercises. There is no way to become a strong pusher without having strong front deltoids, just like there is no way to have weak rear delts when you are also strong on various back exercises. It’s absolutely impossible. This is also the reason for the existence of the so-called non-direct shoulder training method, where you don’t train shoulders directly at all.

With that said, it’s perfectly fine to also include isolation for your shoulders, but it’s not needed, and you can still have strong & healthy shoulders with or without it. If you feel it helps you, you need not the permission of anyone.

They told me my hands will fall off, if I don’t train my wrist extensors hard with tons of isolation exercises. That true?

Yes and no. The truth is that many compound exercises hit your precious wrist extensors. Whenever you are doing something grip demanding, the wrist extensors also have to work, usually isometrically.

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 also have to work. For example, when you are performing hammer curls, the extensors have stabilize the whole area once again.

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 my head will fall of unless I do all kinds of rows for every portion of the traps? That true?

Not really. There are many different ways to counter balance pushing, and 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 be hit hard enough, if I only deadlift”, the answer is: they will be hit much harder than you think.

While this is an extreme example and I see no point in only doing deadlifts, there is no doubt that it works. You certainly don’t need a specific row for each part of your traps to avoid imbalances. Just so you know, for a long time the popular powerlifter Andrey Malanichev has been doing basically only the big three as part of his routine (more). Will this be the best approach for you? I have no idea. What you do should always be based on your goals, current abilities and health status.

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