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The concept of muscle balance is one of the most underemphasized aspects of fitness programs. But what is muscle balance really, and why is it so important? Additionally, how do you test it? Let’s answer all these questions now.
All joints in the body must be properly aligned to be able to absorb shock. This allows forces to dissipate into the ground and decreases wear and tear. To hold a joint in place, each muscle surrounding it must have optimal amounts of tension in all directions. This requires muscle balance.
Take the knee, for instance. This joint is important to knee flexion and extension. Both the quadriceps and hamstrings help keep the knee in place during these movements. Each muscle group must supply enough tension to support healthy joint movement.
If opposing muscles are not balanced, the joint position is altered. The arthrokinematics of the joint are also altered. If the joint is not moving properly due to poor muscle balance, assisting muscles (synergists) must do extra work to help stabilize the joint.
Over time, the synergists that continue to be overloaded will become ischemic and constricted, and may develop chronic, painful trigger points. The muscles will suffer from a lack of blood flow and eventually lose the ability to completely clear waste products from the tissue. This leads to pain, dysfunction, and decreased performance.
If a joint hurts, you may continue to lift weights. But you will avoid the painful range and alter your movement pattern to accommodate the weak joint. This can snowball into problems in other joints due to faulty movement patterns and decreased neuromuscular control.
This is seen in many common injuries such as tennis elbow and golfers’ elbow. Both conditions can lead to over-compensation in the shoulder, lower back, and other joints. So, we must keep in mind that the entire body functions as one unit.
Muscle balance also supports balance, in general. This includes supporting both static balance and dynamic balance exercise.
Static balance refers to the ability to hold a certain body position with proper form and without falling over. An example of a static balance exercise is standing on one leg. If muscle weakness exists in the front or back of the leg, it is difficult to keep your balance. Your body weight will shift, making it harder to stay upright.
Dynamic balance refers to the ability to keep your balance while engaged in movement. A dynamic balance exercise involving a lower limb would be to jump up and down on one leg. Good balance control is required to keep from toppling over.
One of the most basic causes of muscle imbalance is not working opposing muscle groups equally. If you work the biceps, for instance, you also need to work the triceps. If you work the chest, you also need to work the back. If the muscle strength of one group is greater than the other, it can lead to postural issues. It also increases injury risk due to unequal skeletal muscle support.
Sometimes this imbalance is a result of repetitive movements, such as those required when performing certain jobs at work. Maybe you use your right arm more than your left when doing a specific job function. This can create an imbalance from one side of your body to the other. Or you might rely on your front shoulder muscles more so than the muscle in the back of the shoulder. This can lead to balance issues around the rotator cuff.
Human kinetics helps us better understand different movements and how they impact physical performance. This helps us design exercise programs that build balance equally from front to back and side to side.
A variety of techniques and measurements can be used to assess a client’s muscle balance. For example, research shows that the Community Balance and Mobility scale is a good muscle strength and balance test for people aged 60 to 70. The Star Excursion Balance Test may be better for athletes and physically active clients.
The good news is that you don't need any fancy equipment or measurement devices to assess a client’s muscle balance. Instead, you can simply look at their posture. This can help you determine if impairments exist. It also provides insight into areas of muscle tightness or weakness.
First, take a look at your client from the front. Ask yourself these questions:
Does your client's head tilt to one side?
Are your client's shoulders level?
Are your client's hips level?
Does your client have flat feet, causing their knees to collapse?
Next, look at them from the side.
Does your client's head jut forward?
Does your client have rounded shoulders or do they seem to be slouched forward?
Does your client seem to have a pelvis that tips forward, causing excessive lower back curvature?
Pro Tip:It may be helpful to analyze your clients when they don't know you are doing it. If they know that you are assessing their postural control or looking for balance problems, they may try to change the way they stand or move.
You can also have clients perform different movements to assess whether balance exists from one muscle or group to another. This can also assist with determining balance performance.
One manual muscle testing option is to have them rotate their trunk. Are they able to rotate to one side easier than the other? Can they rotate further to the right than to the left, or vice versa? Either can be a sign of tight hip flexors. They can also both suggest that an imbalance exists from one side of the body to the other.
To test lower extremity muscle strength and balance, have the client lie on their back and do leg lifts. Can they lift one leg higher? Is there a difference in the amount of bend in each knee during the movements? This could signal an imbalance between the hamstrings, a knee flexor, and the quadriceps, a knee extensor.
Creating a safe exercise program requires conducting a number of assessments or tests. This can be frustrating to clients who just want to start working out. Helping them understand the value of each test makes them more willing participants. What’s the best way to highlight the importance of balance tests for muscles?
When conducting muscle balance tests, keep the client’s fitness goals in mind. Try to make the connection between how an imbalance could keep them from achieving what they want. If they want to improve their physical performance, for instance, talk about how muscle balance impacts this. Discuss how muscular imbalance can inhibit their performance, also increasing their injury risk.
Earning your certification as a Performance Enhancement Specialist provides additional tools for helping clients reach their performance goals. In this course, you learn the best strategies for improving muscle strength and speed. It also covers effective techniques for boosting ability and coordination.
Sports have risen to a massive platform. There is big money that requires a large support staff. By getting your Performance Enhancement Certificate, you will gain the tools, knowledge and credentials to enter this powerful and highly valued career. Professional and amateur athletes at all levels -- from grade-school club teams to the National Football League -- need the assistance of expert personal trainers to excel at their sports.
Bergquist, R., Weber, M., Schwenk, M. et al. Performance-based clinical tests of balance and muscle strength used in young seniors: a systematic literature review. BMC Geriatr 19, 9 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-018-1011-0
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