How to Avoid Muscle Imbalances And Stay Injury-Free (Injury Prevention Part 5)

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This is part 5 of our injury prevention series. You can read all the other posts in the series here.

Reading the other posts first is a good idea but not completely necessary. You can read this series in any order you want. Just make sure you do read all the posts and then apply it to your own training.

In this part I am going to talk about common muscle imbalances that come from weight training. This is a topic that is very individual. Different people will have different lagging muscles even if they trained exactly the same way.

It gets even harder once you consider people’s training, past injuries and general lifestyle.

For that reason it is always a good idea to get a qualified doctor or physiotherapist to have a look at the way you move. (This blog does not give any medical advice.) They can actually look at you and get a better idea about the problems you might have. No one on the internet can give you specific advice without seeing you move and performing various tests.

With that said there are some imbalances that often show up with people who lift weights.

Correcting them is exactly what isolation exercises should be used for. Compound exercises will build your base of muscle and strength and then you add some isolation exercises to the end of your workouts to bring up weak muscles.

Some of these muscle imbalances are dangerous and could lead to injury if they aren’t dealt with. Others (for example the upper chest) are more of an aesthetic problem.

What are the most common muscle imbalances?

This obviously depends on your personal genetics and your training program. However there are some muscles that tend to get overlooked because lifters don’t care about them as much. Of course if you are following a proven strength training program like the one I recommend you won’t have this issue. These muscle groups are generally under-developed on people who write their own ‘program’:

  • Upper Back
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Rear Delts

On the other hand people who use a beginner’s strength training program will often develop these lagging muscles:

  • Rear Delts
  • Biceps
  • Abs (Core muscles)
  • Upper Chestposterior chain underdeveloped

The first group focuses too heavily on training the ‘mirror muscles’. They might look good (or not) but they aren’t functional or proportionate at all. They are also likely to get injured if they
continue to get stronger without balancing their training program.

On the other hand the second group will be more evenly developed in terms of strength. Beginner training programs focus heavily on building strength on compound movements. That also makes you gain muscle very quickly. However you might not be adding muscle to the areas you care about most from a physique point of view. The result tends to be underdeveloped biceps and upper chest.

When I talk about people having weak core muscles I am not referring to six-pack abs. Instead I mean that their entire core (meaning the abdominals, obliques, etc) aren’t strong enough to keep up with the prime movers on compound exercises.

The core has an important role in compound exercises: Stabilizing the spine.

Having a weak core will make your technique worse (you can’t stay reasonably upright in a squat) and increase your chance of injury. It will also make it a lot tougher for you to gain strength consistently until you address the issue.

And lastly I’ll address one of the most common weaknesses: Rear Delts

The rear delts are the muscle group that both groups of lifters need to work on. They are a small muscle that most people don’t care about in terms of aesthetics so they are usually overlooked.

The shoulders are heavily involved in the bench press and overhead-press. But those exercises train the front part of your shoulders far more than the middle and back parts. This leads to poor posture and ultimately a higher risk of injury.

There is a really simple way to get around this problem: Start training your rear delts!

How to Fix These Muscle Imbalances (or Avoid Them Before They Happen)

As you have probably figured out, isolation exercises are the way to bring up weak muscles. In some cases (like the incline bench press for the upper chest) you can add other compounds to train weak points too.

I’m only going to cover the muscle imbalances that people who follow decent routines often develop.

Why?

Because if you are part of the first group with under an under-developed posterior chain (all the muscles you don’t see in the mirror) all you have to do is change to a good program written by an expert. There are plenty of routines that you can find for free on the internet. Instead of spending a lot of time researching (=wasting time) just choose between StrongLifts 5×5 and Starting Strength.

Both of these programs are good and will make you stronger while adding muscle to your weak points.

Now let’s look at how to fix the imbalances that people using good programs develop.

How to To Train Weak Rear Delts

Rear delts are important for keeping your shoulders safe while benching. Since we don’t care about how they look all we have to do is train for performance. They way you do this is by using bands and high repetitions.

You read that correctly. You won’t be using weights and low/moderate reps for this muscle group because they are a small muscle and generally respond well to higher reps.

The best exercise for shoulder health and bringing up weak rear delts is the Face Pull.

Check out the video below to make sure you are using proper form.

Remember this isn’t an ego lift. You don’t need to grind out hard reps with Face Pulls. Just do a couple sets of them at the end of your workouts. There’s no need to track how many you do either. But be consistent and don’t skip these to ‘save’ time. A little bit of discipline and consistency will go a long way.

Your shoulders will thank you soon enough.

Personally I like doing Face Pulls with bands. If your gym doesn’t have any bands (or none that are the right strength) you will have to order some online. It’s no big deal, they last a long time and you will definitely get your money’s worth.

Alternatively you could use a cable machine.

cable-face-pull_1

How to Bring Up Lagging Biceps

There is a stupid idea that doing curls is bad and unnecessary. That couldn’t be further from the truth! Sure, most lifters do too many curls and should spend more of their time squatting and deadlifting but that’s not to say there isn’t a place for curls in a well-balanced program.

Curls are mostly done to make your biceps bigger and less for performance.

Having strong biceps can help protect you from tearing them while deadlifting though. You want to train your biceps to be strong when your arms are straight and holding a heavy weight. For that reason I find it very important to go all the way down and use a full range of motion.

Other than that there isn’t much for me to say here. You probably already know how to do a bicep curl anyway.

bicep curls for injury prevention

How to Train Your Core For Performance and Safety

The core is made up of a lot of muscles. Usually when people talk about core training they mean doing crunches or sit-ups. That is only a small part of training your core. If you want to get all the performance benefits of having a strong core you will have to do 2-3 exercises.

Since you need to get stronger you will also use added resistance (weights) and build your strength up. Simply doing body weight exercises is not enough for most people.

Having a strong core will help you gain strength on the main lifts by stabilizing your spine. That’s why it’s so important to train these muscles for strength and not just doing high reps to ‘feel the burn’.

You should do these exercises at least once a week at the end of your workout:

  • Crunches
  • Planks
  • Side-Planks
  • Stomach Vacuums

By the way doing crunches won’t give you a six-pack. But it will make you stronger and improve your overall performance inside and outside the gym.

How to Improve a Weak Upper Chest incline-dumbbell-press

This comes last because it is solely for improving the way you look. But hey, that’s important too even if it isn’t strictly related to injury prevention.

I have covered this topic before in great detail in this post.

To summarise all you really need to know is that your upper chest isn’t trained as much as your lower chest on the bench press. To compensate for this you should add some variation of an incline bench press. Personally I love the Incline dumbbell Press because you can kill two birds with one stone:

  1. You move the focus to the upper chest by using an incline.
  2. By using dumbbells you get a longer range of motion and a deeper stretch which puts more focus on the chest.

Closing Thoughts

So we have covered a lot of ground in this post. The key points to remember are:

  • Muscle imbalances can lead to injury.
  • You should use isolation exercises to correct your specific weak points.
  • If your posterior chain is weak start following a proper program.
  • If you have been following a strength program add a couple of isolation exercises to bring up your weak links.

That’s it for today. I hope you have enjoyed this injury prevention series. Make sure to apply the advice to your own training before it’s too late.

In case you missed a part you can find them all here.

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