Muscle Imbalances: Fixing Visual, Functional and Strength Asymmetry in Bodybuilding

Learn How to Fix Muscle Imbalance and Asymmetry: When One Side, Arm or Leg is Bigger or Stronger Than the Other.

Here’s what you will learn in this guide:

  • What is asymmetry
  • Types of symmetry and asymmetry
  • Impact and types of asymmetry
  • How to reverse the process of asymmetry
  • Body symmetry as a goal in physical development

Beauty and symmetry – It seems like these two things are always, inevitably connected to one another, and they are no exception in sports and bodybuilding.

Athletes can be models, but models can never be professional sports players.

Of course, in this article, we won’t talk about artificial ways of dealing with disbalances, like scalpels, silicon and so on, but instead, we will talk about how we can naturally reverse the process of disbalance which, in most cases is expressed in the right arm being bigger than the left one.

In this article, we will reach to the problem with a scientific approach and will exclude the philosophical side of the topic about the beauty of the human body.


What is Asymmetry and What is Symmetry in the Modern-Day World?

In anthropometry, the symmetry is linked to beauty in terms of measurements, as there are certain number ratios that could potentially define an aesthetic physique (E.g.- When the calf measurement equals the arm measurement)

Sounds simple, right? Well, not really.

Bodybuilding, since it was created, focuses on the development of symmetric, athletic body.

Throughout the years, the idea of a beautiful, symmetric body changed controversially and the problem of symmetry was not just “an even left and right side” anymore. Symmetry was considered the correct ratios between the left and right side of the body, along with the lengths, circumferences, and shapes of the human musculature.

Symmetry nowadays is a symmetry of choice. The modern athleticism offers a wide variety of options, when it comes to body development, from which we can choose how to look, depending on our own anthropometry and physical properties.

Without certain norms, we can choose how to work on our bodies, what to emphasize on and how much fat to cover the musculature with.

However, there are still certain ratios that may cause our bodies to look unnatural and even place some functional boundaries.

Types of Symmetry and Asymmetry

  • Visual muscle symmetry – Correct ratios between the lengths, circumferences and shapes of the body musculature. Wrong ratios here, we call “asymmetry” or “imbalance”
  • Functional symmetry– The symmetry here includes a good posture, basic joint mobility, basic musculature flexibility, strength, strength endurance and muscle tone. The criteria here are the correct motor patterns of the human body. Any disruptions in those movement patterns can be referred to as imbalance.
  • Strength symmetry– It begins where the normal strength capabilities of the athlete end. Each specialized sport inevitably leads to the superior development of certain muscle groups, involved in it. So, in a sense, we can say that every professional athlete suffers from strength asymmetry.

The perfectly functional human being won’t really be a marvelous athlete in a certain sport if you compare him to a top athlete, but he/she won’t be average either, but rather able to achieve good results if put under athletically-challenging circumstances of any kind.

Visual symmetry

  • Bilateral symmetry or left-right
  • Symmetry of the upper and lower body limbs
  • Symmetry between the torso and the limbs
  • Specific symmetry: Biceps-triceps; wrist-forearms; shoulders-shoulder circumference; chest circumference, waistline, hips; etc;

Most criteria of visual body symmetry were defined during the Golden Era of Bodybuilding.

The Golden Era of Bodybuilding!

Hundreds of classic bodybuilders were researched to collect anthropometric data that would determine what the measurements of the perfect-looking bodybuilders would be.

Let’s take a look at each type of muscle imbalance.

Visual asymmetry

Genetically predetermined asymmetry – This type of asymmetry is caused by genetic factors. Here we include predetermined ratios of the length of certain parts of the skeleton, like the ratios between the torso and limbs, arms and legs, as well as the length and attachments of all muscle groups (the attachments depend on the bone length to a certain extent).

Asymmetry caused by training – The differences in the tension exercised upon different sectors of the musculature is the next factor that causes visual muscle imbalances.

Muscle asymmetry caused by training

There are people who praise big arms and put a priority on them, leading to an imbalance between them and the rest of the body.

Other examples of such asymmetry are when one arm is bigger than the other, which also leads to the problem of one arm being stronger than the other.

Asymmetry caused by insufficient training – This type of asymmetry is caused by insufficient training of certain muscle groups- Skipping leg days, insufficient ab training, rear deltoids and lower back training.

Asymmetry caused by serious injury – Breaking the femur bone, for example, may lead to a long-term muscle imbalance between the left and right legs and glutes.

Other injuries that can cause visual imbalance are muscle/tendon tears or serious joint damage.

Functional asymmetry

When we look at complex movements, that involve many muscles and joints, the body has a serious number of available movement patterns that have the same end result, this means that every movement can be done in a number of ways, under different angles, due to the flexibility of the joints, ligaments and the musculature.

Muscle Balance and Imbalance Around a Joint
Muscle Balance (Left) and Imbalance (Right) Around a Joint

So, for example, if we want to pick something off of the floor, we have a couple of options: To squat on both legs or just on one of them, to bend over or even lunge forward.

Systematically using certain muscle groups and not using others, leads to increased muscle tone of the active muscle groups and decreased muscle tone of the passive muscle groups, which, often also reach the point of atrophy.

Other side effects of such imbalance are the worsened body posture, increased and decreased joint mobility in the respectively active and inactive muscle groups.

So, one actionable step to take towards fixing muscle asymmetry (like one arm being bigger than the other one) is to simply use the LACKING side more.

So, if you are right-handed but your left arm is lacking- Simply use your left arm more. Picking up something? Do it with your left arm. Carrying a heavy grocery bag? Your right arm is stronger but the left needs to catch up- Use it! Make it adapt to more tension and it will eventually even out.

Strength symmetry

This type of asymmetry is often linked to the visual and functional asymmetry. Sometimes however there are hidden disbalances like massive, but weak hamstrings, that impede the trainee from involving their glutes during deadlifts for example. This lack of strength in the hamstrings is caused by the over-developed quadriceps.

Dealing with such strength asymmetry is the main target of professional bodybuilding and sports medicine.

Common variations of such strength asymmetry are:

  • Imbalances between the pushing and pulling muscle groups
  • Bilateral strength symmetry – expressed during maximum effort sets of 1 to 2 repetitions. (E.g. Doing a one rep max, during which one of the arms manages to push more than the other one)
  • Bilateral explosive strength asymmetry
  • Bilateral strength endurance asymmetry (one of the limbs reaches failure earlier)

Influence between the types of asymmetry

Functional asymmetry is one of the most common imbalances in sports, even though most perfect athletes tend to fix it in the stages of early development, so it doesn’t escalate.

The correct functional symmetry begins with control over the physical development from a young age. This gives a possibility for optimal sports potential development, which therefore grants good health and sports longevity.

However, for amateur trainees who grew without the attention of a sports family, course or a specialized sports routine, the fixes for this muscle imbalance can be found in the neighborhood training room.

Every athlete, who doesn’t suffer from genetically predetermined imbalances in the motor apparatus, can do adjustments to their workout routine to overcome the imbalances caused by incorrect training and avoid long-term damage.

However, even with a strong fundament and lack of functional asymmetry, there is still a border between training purely for visual change and training for functionality.

So, the big biceps don’t grant a powerful, heavy bicep curl and vice versa- Being able to curl a heavy weight doesn’t necessarily mean you will have big, full arms.

How to Fix Muscle Imbalance

There are three basic approaches when it comes to correcting muscle disbalances, such as one arm being bigger than the other.

Close up of muscular bodybuilder guy doing exercises with weights.

Priority approach

With this approach, you target the given lacking muscle group with specialized techniques and a bigger training volume. To completely target the lacking muscle group you can use unilateral movements, such as dumbbell curls and dumbbell triceps extensions, which will allow you to completely isolate the lacking muscle group on the respective side.

Other tools to use with the priority approach are the isolated cable exercises for the specific muscle group.

Corrective approach

With this approach, you correctly exercise the movements that lead to a muscle disbalance with an accent to the weakly developed muscle groups.

So, for example, if you instinctively used inertial forces to compensate for the lacking strength of one of your biceps, using this method, you will pay close attention to the exercises that involve curling a dumbbell, and avoid swinging your arms during the movement. Rather than that, you would put complete focus on the engagement of the biceps musculature, with an extreme concentration on the weaker side.

Excluding approach

This is a ‘final resort’ in a sense, and it is used for extreme cases of muscle imbalances. With this approach, you exclude the overly developed muscle groups from your routine, to allow the lacking muscle groups to catch up. This approach is mostly used for synergistic muscle groups.

So, for example, if your triceps are really strong, that may cause them to take most of the tension during pushing chest exercises like the bench press. In those cases of excessive arm development, triceps-specific training is excluded from the routine so the lacking chest can catch up. Along with the exclusion of the strong synergist, isolated exercises for the lacking muscle group should follow up.

Of course, with every type of asymmetry, there are approaches which are not generally well-known but are extremely effective.

Correcting visual asymmetry (Muscle imbalance)

Visual asymmetry in bodybuilding is corrected during the muscle-building period or the so-called off-season.

During this time, the trainees choose which muscles to prioritize.

So, in order to fix muscle imbalance, you need to build your off-season workout regimen around the weak muscle groups.

Correcting functional asymmetry

This is often done by excluding movements that target the dominating muscle groups and focusing more on the weaker ones.

The dominating muscle groups are then trained with low levels of intensity, or even isometrically.

The weaker muscle groups need specialized workouts, which prioritize them.

The most common imbalance is when one of the arms is bigger than the other.

To treat such imbalances, the most often used techniques and methods are isolation, stretching and isometric training, which drastically improves the mind-to-muscle connection, which therefore leads to better quality of the workouts and higher muscle contraction efficiency.

The mind-to-muscle connection is a SKILL and possibly one of the most important aspects of highly-effective training that you can learn and improve over time. Here is a video of Tyrone Bell explaining the importance of Mind Muscle Connection and more importantly how to strengthen it.

Learn How To Strengthen Mind-to-Muscle Connection

Symmetry as a Goal

Reaching optimal functional symmetry should be a goal for every beginner athlete. Only after that, the trainees can dedicate themselves to training for visual and muscle strength symmetry.

Otherwise, sooner or later every intermediate athlete with bad functional symmetry reaches the point where they have to deal with strongly pronounced muscle disbalance, or strength disbalance, expressed by excessive strength development of either the pushing or pulling muscle groups (E.G.- You can barbell row 140 kilograms but only bench 80 kg)

Muscle Imbalance Wrap up

So, if you have one of the muscle imbalance problems listed above, it is about time for you to fix it, by using these summarized approaches:

  • Fix any functional issues that you may have – Learn how to completely engage your muscles, throughout the correct execution of each exercise. Avoid using inertial movements and instead, try to use as much of the muscle as possible.
  • Build your workout around your lacking muscle groups, so that if you have a disbalance between two muscle groups or two sides of a muscle group, your workout will prioritize those lacking body parts.
  • Fix any injuries that may hold you back from using 100% of your lacking muscle groups.
  • Make use of exercises that target muscle groups locally (isolated exercises), as these dumbbell and cable exercises are your main imbalance-fixing tools!
  • Make sure to build a better mind-to-muscle connection with the lacking muscle groups, as that will drastically help them grow and shape up.

If we had to give you advice on fixing muscle imbalance with just 3 words, they would be –

Prioritize, attack, grow! Period.