In our image-focused culture, the symmetry of our bodies and faces is a hot topic. However, the symmetry of our bodies is not just for our looks but also to help alleviate pain and prevent injury. Muscle imbalances are all too common today, and are a big cause of daily aches and pains and overuse injuries.
Common symptoms of muscle imbalances are muscle tightness, limited range of motion, low back aches, and knee pain. Sedentary people or those with a desk job are likely to experience many of these symptoms. Sitting for long periods of time causes tight hamstrings, pectoral muscles and hip flexors which is a recipe for pain and bad posture. To combat pain and prevent injury, it is imperative to identify these imbalances and perform exercises to correct them.
With imbalanced muscles there is a short tight muscle and an opposing muscle that is longer and weaker. Some larger opposing muscle groups are: chest/back, abs/erector spinae (muscles next to the spine), quadriceps/hamstrings and hip adductors/ hip abductors. One of the most common problems with muscle imbalance involves the chest and back muscles. Those who sit at a desk all day tend to hunch their shoulders and head forward causing tight chest muscles and weaker back muscles. The hip flexors also shorten which pulls the pelvis forward causing low back pain. The trained eye can often spot someone who has this imbalance of the chest and back because of their posture. The shoulders and often head are pulled forward, and the back is rounded resulting in very poor posture often referred to as kyphosis.
The abdominals and erector spinae are another common pair of muscles prone to imbalances. With these muscles typically the abs are stretched and weak, and the muscles surrounding the spine are tight and under stress. Add some tight and shortened hamstrings to this scenario and you have a case of lordosis or swayback. This is obvious in someone whose lower back is “caved” in and the stomach protrudes.
Knee and hip pain can also be a result of muscular imbalances in the legs. Believe it or not this is gender specific a lot of times due to the different ways men and women sit. When seated many women cross their legs, and over time this can cause tight adductors or inner thigh muscles. Over time this position rotates the femur bone inward which can lead to knee pain. The opposite is often true with men since they tend to sit in a more open leg position. Their piriformis or outer thigh muscles that serve as external hip rotators can tighten leading to sciatic pain.
It is obvious now that sitting all day really messes up our muscles, so how do do you fix these problems without quitting your office job? Thankfully there are ways to strengthen those weak muscles and relieve aches and pains. To start, if you do have to sit most of the day, make sure to get up every 20 min or so and take a short walk, stretch or just walk or run in place for a minute or two. Get that blood flowing!
Also, periodically check you posture. I can tell you now that my posture slacked quite a bit while writing this piece, and I had to be conscious of it and readjust. Think shoulders back, head straight and abs tight. If you are shorter, make sure your feet completely touch the ground, and if they don’t get a stool or book to put your feet on. It is very hard to have proper posture when your feet are not flat on the floor.
One of the best ways to help correct muscle imbalances outside the office is to weight train and stretch. First identify which muscles are short and tight and which ones are stretched out and weak. In the earlier example of the chest and back muscles, it would be imperative to stretch the chest muscles and strengthen the back. Lat pulls on a pulley machine, dumbell rows and flys are great ways to strengthen the back.
A strong core will also alleviate back pain and take some stress off of your spine. Basic planks, side planks and other stabilization exercises are a great way to tighten your abs. Also, make sure to add some lunges, squats and even some leg lifts to balance out those inner and outer thighs.
If you are new to exercise and weight training, it is definately worth the time and money to schedule a session or two with a certified trainer. They can help you identify which exercises you will need and the proper way to do them. Bad form while working with weights can lead to injury and compound your problems.
Take the time to evaluate your muscle imbalances and take action to correct them. The longer you let bad posture habits and inactivity persist the more problems you will have, so get in charge of your health by getting stronger and watch the aches and pains go away.