An introduction to correcting muscular imbalances using strength and conditioning
Updated: Jan 19
featuring founder of AthLife Performance Lab and strength and conditioning coach Nevash Nair who personally hates lifting weights
"Imbalances lead to altered movement patterns, which in turn leads to poor form and injury"
My first experience with strength and conditioning was after I tore my ACL, a key ligament that helps stabilize the knee joint, while doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I had just enrolled in a strength and conditioning studio in KL when the injury occurred and decided to do strength and conditioning work around the injury instead of going for surgery. I wanted to explore the strength and conditioning option first as I had read about several athletes who had successfully done the same. Of course, this was not my doctor prescribed, and by defying his orders I was taking a risk. (Please do not make your doctor angry the way I did and always consult them before making a decision).
Strength and conditioning can be broken down into two parts: strength refers to building muscle and getting stronger, while conditioning basically means targeted training to increase speed, endurance, flexibility or any other physical attribute, depending on the goals the individual wants to achieve. Put together, strength and conditioning utilizes a variety of exercises to make you available for what you want to do and improve your quality of life.
The strength and conditioning exercises you do will depend on your goal. A professional athlete may do strength and conditioning to become less injury-prone so they can play more games. A father may sign up for a strength and conditioning program because he wants to have enough endurance to run after his kids. Some professional gamers are even known to do strength and conditioning exercises because being physically fitter helps them focus better. For me, the main focus of my program was to strengthen the stabiliser muscles around my injured knee as this would take some load off the ligaments and allow me to go back to doing sports. To strengthen these muscles in my injured knee, my coaches prescribed a lot of single leg exercises such as single leg Romanian deadlifts, single leg step-ups, and single leg glute bridges. By doing single leg exercises, I wouldn’t have been able to use my uninjured leg to compensate for my injured leg, hence preventing me from getting injured and becoming more imbalanced in my legs.
Imbalances in the body are extremely common, but they’re never good news. For instance, if you do a bench press, you may notice that one hand moves up higher and faster than the other because it is stronger. Many people brush this off as normal. But the stronger side is actually compensating for the weaker side, which may lead to injury in the former. Imbalances lead to altered movement patterns, which in turn leads to poor form and injury. This is why I start off every client’s program addressing their imbalances, regardless of what their goals are.
Imbalances can be corrected using unilateral exercises - single-arm or single-leg exercises. By only using one side of the body at a time, you can ensure that both sides of the body are worked; bilateral exercises allow the stronger side of your body to do more work to make up for your weaker side. I recommend unilateral exercises for the six basic movement patterns - the push, the pull, the squat, the hinge, the lunge and the carry. Movement patterns are everyday movements we use in everyday life that we should all train. Training these six movement patterns would not only mean that you’re constantly utilising all the muscle groups in your body, but would also make you more mobile in daily life. But don’t carry heavier weights using the weaker side of your body to try to balance it out. For example, if you are trying to strengthen your weaker left arm, you should start out doing unilateral exercises that utilise the same amount of weight on both sides. Go with a weight that both strengthens your left arm and maintains or under-trains your right arm. Once both arms are more or less of the same strength, you can move on to using heavier weights to get both sides uniformly stronger.
My knee will probably never go back to the way it used to be - that’s what injuries do to your body - but I can confidently do single leg box jumps and single leg box drops on it now. I am also back to getting tackled in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and judo. But it was a long road. There is no instant gratification in strength and conditioning. It’s hard for people to buy into it, especially if they want to feel like they’ve worked up a great sweat. You’ll feel bored at times, and you won’t feel like you’re working out at others. It is not always tiring. But people also need to know that feeling tired does not always mean that your body is getting stronger and better conditioned.