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A Deeper Look Into Muscle Imbalances

Updated on December 23, 2019
BingXi profile image

Bing Xi is a Rehab Essentials certified personal trainer who helped clients overcome muscle imbalances.

What is a Muscle Imbalance?

Muscle imbalance is a deviation of the actual relative activity levels from the optimal relative activity levels of the involved muscles, causing compensations, inhibition of muscles and inefficiency in movements. Depending on the severity, a muscle imbalance can spread and cause more imbalances, increase injury risks, cause poor posture and contribute to chronic pain. It is common for everyone to have some form of muscle imbalance, though not everyone have to be concerned about it if they do not cause major issues.


To illustrate a muscle imbalance simplistically, imagine a rod being pivoted on one end with two strings attached to the rod on the other end. The strings' tension are pulling the rod to pivot in opposite directions. Both strings need to have certain tension in them to stabilize the rod either when stationary or when pivoting in either direction, in different positions and speeds, depending on the rod's weight, center of gravity, position and properties of the pivot. If either string does not have the ability to withstand certain amount of tension, the rod would be unstable under certain circumstances. That would lead to jerky and inefficient movements of the rod as well as wear and tear on the the rod, pivot and the strings.


The rod in the previous paragraph can be someone's limb while the two strings can be two different muscles attached to the limb that facilitate movements of the limb. A muscle imbalance would lead to inefficient movements of the limb, instability of the joints and greater risks of injury. To minimize these, it is important to strengthen both muscles to enable them to take more tension and also to be optimally activated relatively to one another in order not for one to be overly tensed up compared to the other.

Pivoting wooden rod

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Concerns of a big Muscle Imbalance

When the extent of a muscle imbalance is big, certain muscles will work harder to overcompensate, which can lead to pain and injury to both muscles and joints.

Overtime, compensations can spread to other body parts, leading to more imbalances, potentially causing a vicious cycle of injuries and chronic pain.

Common Muscle Imbalances

In general, the common muscle imbalances involve over-active "pro-gravity" muscles and under-active "anti-gravity" muscles. Some of these "pro-gravity" and "anti-gravity" muscles are commonly targeted muscles in physiotherapy and rehabilitation in both recuperation and prevention from injuries.


To illustrate "pro-gravity" and "anti-gravity", imagine someone standing tall, weight evenly distributed on both feet, arms hanging loose by the side, head, chest and hips facing the front squarely. If this guy were to lose consciousness without any warning, he would collapse with certain movement patterns. These patterns are the common muscle imbalances with involved shortened muscles being "pro-gravity" while the lengthened muscles being "anti-gravity". Since tensing a muscle usually involves shortening it while relaxing a muscle usually involve lengthening it, "pro-gravity" muscles are usually over-activated while "anti-gravity" muscles are usually under-activated. These terms "pro-gravity" and "anti-gravity" are used because muscles that contributes to the movement patterns in favor of gravity are considered "pro-gravity" while those that oppose these movement patterns are considered "anti-gravity".


Some of the commonly targeted "pro-gravity" muscles include TFL, pec minor/major and levator scap. Some commonly targeted "anti-gravity" muscles include glutes max/med, lower trapezius and serratus anterior.

Commonly targeted Lower Body Muscles

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Commonly targeted Upper Body Muscles

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List of common Muscle Imbalances

From my learnings in school, Rehab Essentials and other courses' materials, as well as my experience as a fitness coach, I have come across a number of muscle imbalances spanning across the whole body from top to toes.


From the lower body, imbalances can occur at the hips, knees and shins.

At the hips, the imbalances can occur at the abductors, extensors, flexors and in the manner of multi-directions.

At the knees, the imbalances can occur in the manners of lateral vs medial and posterior vs anterior.

At the shins, the imbalances can occur in the manner of ankle pronation vs supination, at the plantar flexors and in the manner of tibial external vs internal rotation.


From the upper body, imbalances can occur at the shoulders and elbows.

At the shoulders, the imbalances can occur in the manners of elevation vs depression, downward vs upward rotation, external vs internal rotation and global vs local.

At the elbows, the imbalances can occur in the manner of pronation vs supination and at the flexors.


From the spine, imbalances can occur at the low back and neck.

At the low back, imbalances can occur in the manners of anterior pelvic tilt and posterior pelvic tilt.

At the neck, imbalances can occur in the manners of forward chin and head tilt/turn.


Apart from the lower body, upper body and spine, there are many other possible muscle imbalances due to a huge range of muscles in the body not involved in those mentioned above.

Muscle Imbalances overview

Lower body
Upper body
Spine
Others
Hips
Shoulders
Low back
Any part of the body
Knees
Elbows
Neck
 
Shins
 
 
 

Muscle Imbalances

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Lower Body Muscle Imbalances overview

Hips
Knees
Shins
Abductors
Lateral vs Medial
Ankle Pronation vs Supination
Extensors
Posterior vs Anterior
Plantar flexors
Flexors
 
Tibial External vs Internal rotation
Multi-directional
 
 

Tibial External vs Internal rotation

Source

Upper Body Muscle Imbalances overview

Shoulders
Elbows
Elevation vs Depression
Pronation vs Supination
Downward vs Upward rotation
Flexors
External vs Internal rotation
 
Global vs Local
 

Downward vs Upward Rotation

Source

Spine Muscle Imbalances overview

Low back
Neck
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Forward chin
Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Head tilt/turn

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Source

Conclusion

To conclude, everyone has very high chances of having muscle imbalances due to the nature of us gravitating towards certain movement patterns. Most of the issues faced by everyone having muscle imbalances would be as mild as the daily minor aches and pains. However, in the event of sever cases, someone can get injured or trapped in a chronic pain vicious cycle.


Among the three different regions of muscle imbalances, lower body, upper body and spine, which region do you think you have the most imbalances? Share with me in the comments below!

© 2019 Bing Xi

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