The term ‘muscle imbalance’ is quite popular these days. Muscle imbalances are often noted to be a leading cause of pain and injury. But what exactly is a muscle imbalance?
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), a muscle imbalance is an alteration of muscle length surrounding a joint. An example of a muscle imbalance would be hips that rotate more in one direction than the other in the transverse plane. Great, now that you’ve identified the issue you can fix it right? Not so fast.
UNCOVERING THE ORIGIN
As you’re probably aware of, the body works as a kinetic chain. Meaning, movement of a body part does not exist in isolation, but rather is the result of a complex combination of interrelated actions by the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems (NASM 2011). To correctly address a muscle imbalance, it requires a solid understanding of the aforementioned body systems to be able to trace the cause of the muscle imbalance back to the root. An analogy to this would be complex financial fraud. The term, ‘follow the money,’ is often used to describe the method used to uncover the origins of financial fraud. Uncovering financial fraud typically involves very complex investigations due to the sophistication of the fraud (i.e., fake companies, money laundering, ponzi-schemes, etc…). If a detective were to just stop at the first layer of information uncovered, the chance that they would unearth the whole fraudulent scheme is highly unlikely. The reality is that it likely takes digging down multiple layers to find the truth. This is the same with finding the origin of a muscle imbalance. In other words, the initial or most visible cause of a muscle imbalance is likely not the root cause.
Just as a stock broker shouldn’t try to uncover financial fraud, unless you are a physical therapist, chiropractor (or like clinician) or orthopedic physician, it is not advised to try to find the root cause of a muscle imbalance. Yours truly is a corrective exercise specialist – CES (read: one that helps to improve muscle imbalances and movement efficiencies) through NASM and while the knowledge required to become a CES was, and is very helpful in recognizing muscle imbalances, I would not, and do not feel comfortable or proficient at addressing muscle imbalances. Being able to identify and correct muscle imbalances are two very different things and require very different skill sets.
What if I told you that the root cause of an elevated shoulder might be the ankle. And even if you knew this, could you trace the neuromuscular areas from the origin (ankle) back to the shoulder, thereby addressing all of the impacted areas along the way? As you can see, what might seem on the surface to be a relatively basic fix (stretch trapezius/strengthen lower trapezius/rhomboids) requires a complex investigative process.
SCOPE OF PRACTICE
Additionally, ‘fixing’ a muscle imbalance often involves a clinician working with their hands. Unless you are a clinician or massage therapist, other than stretching, it is illegal to do any type of manual manipulation on a client.
In summation, being educated to be able to identify muscle imbalances is one thing, however, it is best to leave the corrections to a trained clinician.
Note: No one is perfectly symmetrical and many asymmetries have no negative effect on performance and are not indicative of injury.