by Tony Gjokaj August 17, 2020 8 min read

If you've been through an injury, you know how bad it sucks not only physically, but mentally. One of my most memorable injuries was a mild shoulder tear that changed the course of the way I exercised. The cause of it was poor exercise programming, lack of shoulder stability, and prolonged periods of sitting at work and school.

Shoulder instability is a pretty common issue today that impacts many. Having learned so much from dealing with it, I decided a muscular imbalance post was a necessity.

In this post, we are going to dive into muscular imbalances in their entirety: from experiencing them, to preventing them or overcoming them. We are here to help you avoid them at all costs.

Let's dive in!

About Muscular Imbalances

If you sit at a desk for hours at a time or you train in one specific style, chances are you will encounter tightness or weakness in certain muscles.

Muscular Imbalances are typically encountered when certain muscles in the body overcompensate over others. This could lead to them being constantly active or tense, or pulling them into a direction that is unnatural for long periods of time. They could eventually lead to injury or poor posture... and these things can be problematic to our physical and mental health.

These imbalances can be a result of poor exercise program balance, muscles being overused, bad posture for long periods of time, lack of activity, and more.

We will use sitting at a desk throughout this post as an example. When you sit with a computer at hand, we typically encounter these common issues:

  • Slouching at the desk.
  • Rounded or forward shoulders.
  • Head leans forward.
  • Chest caved downwards.

These things lead to various issues: overactive chest, weak shoulders, fragile rotator cuffs, poor hip flexibility, overactive rhomboids, and more.

Tightness and Overactivity

Muscular tightness is the restriction of movement in the specified area. This can come as a result of soreness, inflammation, overuse injuries, and more. Most long-term tightness issues tend to be overuse injuries or overcompensation of one muscle group compared to its antagonist or opposite.

Muscular imbalances are common if you neglect movement in any of the three planes of motion: the sagittal, frontal and transverse.

For example: powerlifters mostly train in the sagittal and frontal planes. The transverse plane is sometimes neglected, leading to muscular imbalances like a weak core (abdominals).

Your body tends to move together in unison. Sometimes an injury in one area can lead to tightness or overuse in another to compensate. For example, a tight hip flexor can lead to tight upper trapezius muscles. With this, you can see why it's incredibly difficult to figure out what imbalances you may have.

The solution is to go through these common imbalances and work towards improving the following:

  • Mobility (or stretching) in tight muscles. According to one study done on elite athletes, stretching and mobility work is necessary for muscular imbalances.
  • Strengthening weak muscles. In strengthening weak muscles, you are able to provide muscular balance with the antagonist muscles. For example, weak quadriceps typically lead to overactive (tight) hamstrings. Strengthen those quads and as a result, you will loosen up those hamstrings.

The Most Common Muscular Imbalances

There are a plethora of ways that muscular imbalances can occur, from poor mobility to poor workout structure. We wanted to go over the most common muscular imbalances and what you can do to prevent or alleviate them.

Reminder before reading on: always talk with a doctor or a specialist in regards to movement issues, injuries, and other challenges.

Neck and Shoulder Tightness

Neck and shoulder tightness tends to be the more common issues that are encountered as muscular imbalances.

If you have tightness in your neck and shoulders, it could be the following issues:

  1. Lower Trapezius Weakness. Strengthening this area has been shown to reduce neck pain and postural alignment.
  2. Tight Chest with Overactive Back Muscles. This tends to be a very common one for individuals who sit often or train their chest more than their back.

As these two issues can both occur, we recommend implementing the following things for recovery:

  • Utilize overhead movements. Movements like the Barbell Overhead Press and overhead lunges allow you to build stability in your shoulders.
  • Strengthen your Lats. Utilize rows and pull-ups to strengthen your Lats in their entirety.
  • Strengthen your Trapezius muscles. Shrugs are great, but deadlifts and static gait exercises like farmers walks allow you to truly strengthen these muscles.
  • Stretch your pectoralis muscles. Doing Yoga work that focuses on stretching the pectoralis major and minor allows you to open up these tight muscles.
  • Consider doing Face Pulls. Face Pulls are a great exercise for your rear delts and scapular retraction.

For more on the back, rhomboids,and thoracic area, click here.

The Scapula

While the scapula ties into both the neck and the shoulders, we wanted to explore this area separately. The scapula is one of the most intricate muscle groups in our body, as they consist of various small muscles. One small issue can impact the whole muscle group, making it an extremely important area to take care of.

A common cause of this is overdeveloped or overactive trapezius muscles, which can be a result of constant training or even prolonged sitting. One solution can be to stretch your trapezius and scapular muscles to the best of your abilities. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Optimize Thoracic rotation. Thoracic rotation exercises stretch the upper back by twisting the upper back muscles. 
  • Shoulder flexion stretches. Shoulder flexion stretches raise your hands overhead.
  • Serratus Anterior mobility. Using static holds like planks or hand raises against the wall help with strengthening the serratus.

As the scapula is very difficult to mobilize, consider seeing an expert to work on these muscles for you.

Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is another one of the more common muscular imbalance issues we encounter today. As it is usually coupled with upper back tightness, this is one of the areas we put more focus on.

If you have tightness in the lower back, it could be one of three things:

  1. Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Anterior pelvic tilt is caused when the front of our pelvis rotates downward. This leads to tight hip flexors, weak abs, and gluteus maximus muscles.
  2. Posterior Pelvic Tilt. When your abdominals and lower back are tight, they typically pull the back of our pelvis downward.
  3. Weak Knee Valgus. Tight hip adductors of your inner thigh can result in your knees bending inward. Knee valgus can lead to knee, lower back, feet, ankle, and hip pain.

As some of these can occur simultaneously, here is what we recommend for recovery:

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

  • Loosen up your hip flexors and quadriceps (mobility and stretching) while strengthening your abdominal area and glutes.
  • To strengthen your abdominal area, train them with raises, twists, and crunches. This will reinforce the entire core area.
  • To strengthen your glutes, do single-leg glute raises, glute bridges, and more.

For more on the abs, click here.

Posterior Pelvic Tilt

  • Strengthen your abs, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • For the abs, optimize more raises or crunch work.
  • For the hamstrings, focus on leg curls.
  • For the glutes, focus on glute kickbacks.

For more on the glutes, click here.

Knee Valgus

  • Stretch the calf muscles, hamstrings, and adductors.
  • Strengthen the calves, hamstrings, and tibialis. 
  • The tibialis is strengthened through raising your feet (toes pointing upward).

Knee Pain

When it comes to knee pain, one of the issues is a weakness in the quadriceps muscles. The Vastus Lateralis and Vastus Medialis tend to be the muscles that need to be strengthened.

To strengthen these muscles, you should implement these Quadriceps-strengthening exercises into your program:

  • Lunges or Split Squats.
  • Leg Extensions.
  • Single-Leg Raises.

For more on Quadriceps training, click here.

Rotator Cuffs and Shoulder Stability

The rotator cuffs are the muscles that stabilize the shoulders. It is one of the most common areas of injuries in lifters and people who work at a desk for hours at a time.

When it comes to lifting, rotator cuff weakness is common in men who tend to focus on beach muscles (the chest, shoulders, and triceps) and neglect the back and leg muscles.

While the rotator cuffs are not sexy muscles to train or work on, they're a necessity for overall health and longevity.

Strengthening the Rotator Cuffs

As we tend to sit for hours at a time, shoulder instability is inevitable. With shoulder stability, a lot of the issues encountered by muscular imbalances can be corrected (to some extent).

Examples of Shoulder stabilization exercises (these will target the rotator cuff muscles):

  • Overhead lunges (one-arm or barbell)
  • Overhead squats
  • Gait exercises (farmer's walks or other loaded carries)
  • Grip strengthening exercises (heavy deadlifts and rows)
  • Face pulls

I would recommend doing these exercises or variations of them to improve the intricate rotator cuff muscles, restoring shoulder stability.

Biceps Tendinopathy And The Rotator Cuff

Bicep Tendinopathy is known as a weakness in the long head of the biceps. It is typically a result of shoulder instability, which could ultimately be a rotator cuff issue. When doing an exercise like the barbell curl, you should feel extreme levels of tightness in the biceps area.

If you encounter tight biceps, consider strengthening shoulder mobility and stability. Building stability will loosen up your biceps and keep them from potentially getting strained or injured.

For more on the rotator cuff, click here.

Hip Flexors

The hip flexors are the muscles that support and stabilize your core and walking capabilities (also known as your gait). It is one of the biggest issues you can encounter if you sit for hours at a time. 

When your hip flexors are tight, they tend to pull down your pelvis, leading to lower back pain (and an anterior pelvic tilt). Tight hip flexors also contribute to issues like knee pain, quadriceps weakness, and more.

How we would build strength in the hip flexors is the following:

  • Rectus Femoris (Quadriceps) stretches.
  • Overhead lunges.
  • Single leg raises. Raising one of your legs allows you to strengthen and mobilize the hip flexors.

    Muscular Balance Rundown

    As muscular imbalances are very individual, we decided to provide the best tips to optimize muscular balance.

    Here is a 10-step checklist of things you can utilize to optimize muscular balance:

    1. Work your core (abdominal muscles) in various planes of motion. Consistently do leg raise variations, twist variations, and crunch variations.
    2. Build shoulder stability through strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, overhead static exercises, shoulder presses, and more.
    3. Make sure you're doing more back volume (sets and reps) compared to bench volume. Keep it on an almost 2:1 ratio.
    4. Do neck mobility drills when you can.
    5. Consider utilizing gait exercises like the farmers walk, or overhead farmers walk.
    6. Focus on doing rear delt exercises like the rear delt fly or face pulls.
    7. If you bench a lot, do less anterior shoulder work (less volume on shoulder pressing).
    8. Do not neglect unilateral (one-legged or one-arm) exercises. These will cover any overcompensation from barbell exercises from one arm or leg.
    9. Do not neglect glute work. Glute bridges or deadlifts and their variations apply here. Hip hinge exercises are important.
    10. Stretch and bring mobility to your hip flexors. Hip flexor mobility can be improved by raising your knees or legs up. This provides health to your lower back as well.

    We cover most of these in our Muscle Compendium eBook, which you can get for free here.

    It Will Take Time.

    Remember that it could take months to years and even some expert help to alleviate muscular imbalances. Think about all of the hours and days we have spent with poor posture or bad workout planning.

    Be patient with yourself. While my shoulder injury was one story, I have had a time where I could not squat anything past 135lbs without pain. It was not until I implemented strengthening my quadriceps and opening up my hip flexors that I stopped feeling the pain.

    I wanted to take the time to thank you all for reading this guide. We truly hope it helps you to some extent to understand more about your body. While you can attempt these to alleviate any imbalances, make sure you speak to an expert in regards to these issues.

    Any questions or comments? Throw them below, or email me at tony@reforgedperformance.com.

    Until next time, Reforged Legion!

    Tony Gjokaj
    Tony Gjokaj

    Tony is the Owner of Reforged Performance Nutrition. He has been in the fitness space for over a decade, previously coaching individuals in body recomposition and strength training. His goal is to connect others with the knowledge they need to reach their greatest potential.


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