Achieving balance through asymmetry

One of the biggest surprises my new students have is how much harder one side is than the other with asymmetrical exercises. Whether it is differences in strength, coordination, or flexibility, it surprises people how out of balance they are from side to side. One of the biggest flaws in most training regiments is an over reliance on symmetrical training that doesn’t simulate real world activity.

One of the biggest examples of asymmetry was a number of years ago when I took a workshop from a contortionist. When doing the big flexibility moves on one side, she was amazing. To her less developed side, she was just like any random flexible girl in pretty much any yoga class. I worry for her as she ages.

Activity tends to be one sided. We have a dominant hand so we use that side more. It gets stronger and stronger and muscles and range of motion become different on one side versus the other. This applies to more than just the upper body. People usually post on one leg and step with the other when they encounter an obstacle. This causes one side to get tighter and have more balance while the other leg becomes more flexible.

People are fairly aware of an imbalance in something like a racquet sport where they are only using one arm, the biggest surprise is how asymmetrical people function in supposedly symmetric exercises.

When people do pushups or pull ups, they don’t use their arms evenly. They tend to do a disproportionate amount of work with the dominant side arm. This is a huge flaw with barbell based weight training regiments. Having the arms tethered to each other allows the dominant side to take over and do more work without the person realizing it.

I was always surprised how much less weight I could lift when I used dumbbells with a weight in each hand versus a barbell for basically the same exercise. Bench pressing 200lbs on a barbell is MUCH easier than doing dumbbell chest press with individual 100lbs in each hand. In fact it isn’t even close. The bar tethers the hands and also makes balancing and stabilizing the weight much easier.

When I started doing aerial acrobatics, I was surprised how much stronger and more symmetrical my arms became. This was from all of the rope climbing. I really, really like that rope climbing is performed with one hand moving on top and pulling down and then the other. It is an alternating, asymmetric action that makes the arms work individually. It becomes pretty obvious if one side is stronger than the other and is a huge win over a pull up or bicep curl.

I was recently doing body work on a regular student and realized his chest was tight on one side and the triceps were loose whereas the chest was underdeveloped on the other side and the triceps were very tense. I was careful to observe his form on pushups and realized he shifted his arm out away from his body on his left side to recruit the arm more and make up for a lack of strength on that side. It’s amazing how easy it is to take a symmetric exercise and operate asymmetrically.

To combat this, I spend a lot of time doing exercises that are asymmetric where it is obvious if there is a difference from side to side. It’s also more realistic to how we function in life. For instance, the traditional barbell on the shoulders squat is a very flawed exercise to me because very little in life is done with that body position. It’s a very weak position to have the legs positioned in line because it is too easy to get toppled over. We normally stagger stance the legs to get better balance and leverage. We also don’t perform locomotion like that. We take steps. Spending a ton of time training a movement that we are never going to perform in life is a bad idea. This is on top of the likelihood that you will work unevenly through the legs or, worse, the torso. Leg press with the sled is even worse in this regard.

By working with dumbbells or one side at a time, you become aware of over development of one side and are able to counter it. In time, the imbalance will take a toll and cause injury. As a body worker, I frequently deal with people with back pain in which an imbalance somewhere in the body is causing tension that pulls unevenly on the muscles of the back. This causes further shifts throughout the body to counter balance the tension. For instance, I had a recent client with a tight left glute and right shoulder that were causing an asymmetric work load through her middle back. This resulted in a lot of back pain.

If you are doing a sport that is inherently asymmetrical like tennis or an aesthetic based activity like dance that emphasizes a “good side” to showcase in a performance, you should do a lot of training that emphasizes balancing out this asymmetry.

If you are doing a training regimen that is entirely based on symmetrical exercises (ie. Beware the all barbell weight routine), you should incorporate a decent amount of asymmetric training to balance things out. We achieve symmetry by working asymmetrically.

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