Muscle balance important to weightlifting programs

Sarah Schultz

Author: Joel Mason PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS at Agnesian HealthCare's Sport, Spine & Work Center

There are many components to safe weightlift, including correct breathing, proper technique, spotters when necessary and progression.

One key component that often gets overlooked is muscle balance. Probably the most commonly seen muscle imbalance that results from weightlifting is inadequate rhomboid and middle trapezius muscle (mid-back) exercises in relation to pectoral or chest exercises. The result is short and strong pectoral (chest) muscles, and over-lengthened and weak mid-back muscles resulting in forward rounded shoulders. These forward rounded shoulders can be the source of numerous pain syndromes in the shoulders, mid-back and neck including rotator cuff impingement, rotator cuff tears, nerve impingement syndromes, mid-back strains, neck pain and headaches.

Young athletes that participate in baseball, volleyball and swimming are at particularly high risk of developing injuries from muscle imbalances. Football quarterbacks, javelin throwers and tennis players carry moderate risk for this as well. The reason for this is that the overhand motion commonly utilized in these sports will create shortened and relatively strong pectoral (chest) muscles even without weightlifting. When weightlifting is added to these athletes training, the scale of imbalance can rapidly shift into a severe situation.

To prevent such injuries from occurring, muscle balance must be of primary emphasis in any weightlifting program and it must be emphasized from the beginning. Once an imbalance is established, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse the longer it is neglected. It is not uncommon for a baseball pitcher or a swimmer to go through months of rehab to reverse the imbalance created by their sport and/or their weightlifting program. In some cases, surgery becomes necessary and even then the muscle imbalance must be corrected to prevent re-injury.

To reverse the type of muscle imbalance described above, the injured individual or athlete will want to emphasize their mid-back muscles and hold off on working their chest muscles for a few weeks or months depending on the severity of the imbalance. It is essential that the mid-back muscles are emphasized with exercises, such as seated rows, bent over rows, Lat Pulldown and stabilizing exercises such as the Y, T, W, and Ls  While straight leg dead lifts are a back exercise, they are a low back (not mid-back) exercise and therefore will not help counter this type of muscle imbalance. During this time period, it is a good idea to work on strengthening the rotator cuff muscles as well. Once pain free and alignment appears more normal, the individual or athlete can resume doing chest exercises but the number of sets should not exceed the number of sets of mid-back exercises performed. A good rule of thumb is to perform two “pulling” (rowing) exercises to every one “pushing” (bench press, push-ups) exercise.

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