Balancing Act

| July 15, 2008 | 0 Comments


Got aches and pains? Your daily routine could be causing muscle imbalances that are leaving your whole body out of whack.

By Kara Douglass Thom

Lately my right hip has been aching. In addition to the pain, I was trying to prevent a tight iliotibial band from rearing its ugly head and keeping sciatica at bay. I tried backing off training because, surely, I was just working too hard. As it turns out, there were muscles I wasn’t working enough. My tight hips weren’t the real culprit. It was my lazy gluteus medius.

Opposing muscles (one contracts while the other stretches) have a symbiotic relationship that makes it possible to lift our latte, hold on to our handlebars, and sit down at our desk. Problems can arise when certain muscles become overworked, leading to an imbalance.

A muscle imbalance can mean various things: an imbalance in the same muscles on different sides of the body (say, if the right bicep is stronger than the left) or when a mobilizer muscle, such as the abductor muscles on the outside of the leg, doesn’t have enough support from its stabilizer muscle, in this case the adductors on the inside of the leg. Go ahead and stand on one foot to test the balance between your abductors and adductors. Still standing? If not, you likely need to strengthen the muscles in the inner thighs.

Balance Begins in Your Brain
There’s another kind of balance, though, one that’s more prevalent and insidious. According to Katy Santiago, a biomechanics specialist in Ventura, California, the imbalance that most negatively affects our body is when we don’t balance the use of our muscles. “Muscle imbalance is an imbalance in habit,” she says. “We become so strong in certain patterns that it becomes ingrained in the brain, and the body doesn’t know how to use another motor skill.” For example, she says, the arm is designed to move both in front of and behind you. “If you spend six hours a day typing at a keyboard and no time with your arms behind you, the set of musculature that pulls your arms in front of you will become tighter and under more tension.”

When we use muscles in only one direction, the contracting muscle becomes shorter and the opposing muscle tends to become stretched out and weaker. The muscles we contract more are stronger, yes, but not necessarily strong.

“Biomechanically speaking, muscles have an optimal position,” says Lynn Millar, PT, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. “If muscles are too short or too long, they’re not effective.” This may not be a huge problem while you’re sitting at your desk, but once you take up your favorite sport, when you need to engage those underused and weaker muscles, position and technique will suffer.

“If one part of the kinetic chain isn’t working, other parts will compensate,” says Millar. Surrounding muscles may try to move in to help. Once we get away from a muscle’s intended use, chronic pain rears its ugly head or we develop an injury.

Be a Contrarian
Santiago recommends that exercise be focused on strengthening or stretching muscles opposite the way you tend to use them in your daily life, improving those neglected motor skills. “Avoid any movement you just spent eight hours doing,” she says, “and take breaks throughout the day to counter whatever position or movement you’re repeating.”

Strengthening the stability muscles that attach a limb to the trunk (hips and shoulders) will better support these joints. “Stability muscles don’t have a big range of motion,” explains Millar, “but they allow the joint to move freely through its range of motion with control.” Better control, she says, will keep the rest of the body in an optimal position as we move.

Muscle Fix

Do you recognize an ailment or injury in the list below? These are three major muscle group imbalances and ways you can seek equilibrium. If you balance out your movement, you can balance out your body.

Lower-back pain
Sciatica: “pain in the butt,” often shooting down the leg
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) weakness in the knee and the surrounding joint

Muscle Pair Imbalance
Hip flexor and hamstring and/or gluteus muscles

If you spend any time sitting at a desk, you’re shortening your hip flexors. Many other common activities do the same, from stair climbing to cycling—anything that calls for a bend at the knee. Meanwhile you’re lengthening your hamstrings (which might also become tight with bent knees), and the gluteus muscles get neglected and less able to support your hip joint.

Make yourself look as little like a chair as possible. Stretch out the hip flexors and strengthen the stability muscles for the lower extremities, particularly the gluteus medius and the piriformis. Do hip extensions in a standing position on a cable machine. Reach one leg behind you with a straight leg. Or, if you’re in need of a sit break, just stand up and tap your toe behind you 20 times on each leg. Helpful activities include ice skating, in-line skating, and cross-country skiing—movements that push the leg behind the body.

Thoracic output syndrome: numbing or tingling in the hands
Cervical spine issues: neck pain
Chronic headaches
Shoulder bursitis
Rotator cuff tears

Muscle Pair Imbalance
Deltoids and latissimus

Often the shoulder does work that the upper back is supposed to do, resulting in kyphosis, or rounding of the shoulders. When our arms hang in front of us, it’s like weights hanging from our spine, which curls it forward when we don’t engage the upper back.

Pull the shoulder blades down. Do exercises or stretches that press the arms back behind you. Use a cable machine to pull weight behind you with a straight arm. Walk with poles, pushing off behind you. If you’re a swimmer, end your workout with a backstroke.

Lumbar disc issues
Pelvic floor pain and/or incontinence
Hip pain
Groin pain

Muscle Pair Imbalance
Abdominals and spinal muscles

Sitting with poor posture, whether sticking your bum out or tucking it too far under, can cause inappropriate curvature of the spine, placing too much pressure on the discs between the vertebrae. Weak back muscles (the culprit again can be too much sitting) can’t support the spine in an upright position.

When strengthening abdominals or lower-back muscles, aim to keep a neutral pelvis with the legs straight so you don’t engage the already overworked hip flexors. Yoga and Pilates work to balance both muscle groups equally. The Pilates roll-up (lying prone and then slowly rolling up to a sitting position starting with the head) and yoga’s boat pose (balancing on the sitz bones while keeping straight legs raised off the floor and the upper body lowered toward the floor) are ideal exercises that engage both sets of musculature. A good way to stimulate the stability muscles on either side of the spine is to get on hands and knees and lift a leg and opposite arm.

Options for the Off-kilter

Take a yoga class.
Search for instructors and studios. One of the reasons why yoga was created some 5,000 years ago was to offset the effects of sitting in meditation for hours. Yoga can benefit desk dwellers as well as it does monks sitting in lotus.

Try Pilates.
Introduced in the early twentieth century as a form of physical therapy to balance the body, Pilates is one of the most popular ways to exercise today. Learn more and find a studio at

Biomechanist Katy Santiago (www.restorativeexercise. com) recently released a series of videos to address common ailments. They include: Restorative Exercise for Foot Pain, Restorative Exercise for Spinal Alignment, and Restorative Exercise for Bone Health. Find them online at

Category: Health

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