With almost a decade of experience working in a gym as a personal trainer and osteopath, muscle imbalances are a familiar topic to me.
Courses abound claiming to teach trainers and therapists how to “assess” for muscle imbalances and then “correct” these imbalances with specific stretches or exercises or treatment techniques.
The notion of muscle imbalances that need to be corrected feeds into the idea of an all-knowing practitioner, who can identify the problem causing your pain and then give you the tools to resolve it. I have previously bought into such notions. I was wrong.
Luckily, mistakes are simply lessons, and now I can share my lessons with you.
In the post, I want to outline what a “muscle imbalance” is, why they occur and their relationship to pain. By understanding all of this, you will be able to know exactly what to do about any muscle imbalances you have.
What Is A “Muscle Imbalance”?
Like many questionable concepts in the training and treatment world, there is no clear consensus on what a muscle imbalance actually is. Here are a few examples from page 1 of google:
To summarise, muscular imbalance is seen when the muscles that surround a joint provide different values of tension, sometimes weaker or tighter than normal, thus limiting the joint movement. – Wikipedia
The most common abnormal muscle condition in active and inactive people alike is muscle imbalance, which occurs when two or more muscles don’t contract and relax as they should. This type of problem is referred to as neuromuscular imbalance. – Phil Maffetone, PhD
Simply put, muscle imbalances occur when one muscle is stronger than its opposing muscle. – Dailyburn
What we can deduce, is that a muscle imbalance is a difference in muscle length and or/strength between two or more muscles acting on the same joint.
Why Do Muscle Imbalances Occur?
Are muscle imbalances the problem, or a solution?
If you see muscle imbalances as a problem, in and of themselves, then you will try and correct them with interventions targeted at those muscles.
If you see muscle imbalances as a solution, as I do, then you will try and consider why these “imbalances” exist – if you argue that these imbalances are a solution the body has come up with, then they are not exactly imbalances, but rather adaptations.
So how can a muscle imbalance be a solution?
Well, if we start with the premise that the body, being a biological organism, has an innate mechanism for survival, and will strive to do so above all else, for the sake of procreation (which ensures the long term survival of the species).
We can then deduce that these imbalances are a survival mechanism, or adaptation, aka a solution to a problem.
Back in high school math, my teacher always urged the class to show our working on a problem. If we happened to stumble upon the solution accidentally, then the solution wasn’t that great. Additionally, if we made a mistake early on in the process, but continued with the correct methodology to land at an incorrect solution, then we were awarded consequential marks.
The body is like a math problem.
It’s goal is survival, and execution of tasks (the solution), it doesn’t care how it performs these tasks (working), nor does it care if these “faulty” solutions lead to issues either elsewhere in the body or in the future (consequential marking).
So, if we get back to topic – muscle imbalances are a solution to a problem, which can then be a problem in and of themselves.
What is the problem?
Usually, it boils down to a lack of stability, somewhere in the body.
Now, a lack of stability can co-exist with a lack of mobility within a joint segment – you can’t exactly stabilise/control movement if there is nothing to control, can you?
Why would you lose mobility/stability at a joint?
As mentioned, the body is continually adapting in a way that best serves it, in that moment (however long the moment is), based on the overall exposures to different stimuli.
Thus, a young tradesman who works 50+ hours per week will have a different body to his twin brother who is a uni student who has 12 contact hours and spends another 20 or so reading and using a computer (assuming all other variables are equal, which is very unlikely).
So, What Should I Do Then?
Acceptance is the first step.
Accepting that muscle imbalances happen, and will continue to do so, no matter what. They are often a good thing, as they allow you to accomplish your day to day and recreational tasks more efficiently.
Imagine if you were a recreational runner. Your muscles will adapt, forming “imbalances”, related to your running pattern, in order to make running more efficient for you.
Is this bad? Not always.
Is it good? Not always.
However, if your muscle imbalances are related to another issue – pain, poor function (i.e. you can’t do what you want to do), then you need to assess your environment, your activities and lifestyle and your overall health status.
This will give you an insight to your ability to adapt and deal with said environment and lifestyle, and why such imbalances may be occurring.
Essentially we want to know:
- What you can currently do – ie your absolute ability, in this case, as it pertains to movement. We do this by testing and assessing.
- What you do regularly – your lifestyle and regular activities, that would contribute to your current ability. This is done by having a conversation (history taking).
- What you aspire to do, or cannot not currently (the problem).
If there is a gap between what you aspire to do and what you can currently do, we seek to find out why.
If the problem is something the testing and assessing has revealed, then we can address those findings, within the context that the current state of the body isn’t necessarily a “problem”, but a “solution” to your current situation – sum of lifestyle, environment, your healthy status and health history.
So, that means, if a muscle is “tight” and another is “weak”, but this is because it is more efficient to be this way, we have to regress to progress.
That is, go backwards to go forwards by reducing the complexity of the movement and increasing the stability, so the movement is more easily performed without compensation.
Once mastery in a regressed position is achieved, we can progress.
In essence, you are addressing the muscle imbalance by addressing total body function, that is, the sum of our body’s mobility, stability and capacity, expressed in context.
This means, if you are having issues sitting, then we must improve your ability to demonstrate good function in sitting, but also your overall function, as your functional ability to sit is a subset of your overall function.
Simply put, improve function, and you improve the muscle imbalances.
However, the inverse is not true, if you improve the muscle imbalances, there are no guarantees you will improve function of the body.
Muscle imbalances are real, in that they are described consistently by different people.
They are not, as consistently described, problems that need addressing.
Muscle imbalances occur as a way for the body to adapt (poorly) to a stimulus over time.
In order to resolve a muscle imbalance, we must determine what our bodies are capable of, what we are asking of it and whether there is a gap between the two.
The size of this gap gives us insight as to how and why the body might be adapting/compensating.
We then address this gap by improving global function – that is total body mobility, stability and capacity – in a systematic way, allowing the body to “re-learn” optimal movement patterns that are stored in the brain.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.
Sapolsky, R., Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology