While working to build a solid and stable foundation is certainly a critical component to personal health and athletic performance, Chicago physical therapist Hatice Yavuz warns that focusing only on muscle strength can, over time, make a person more susceptible to injury.
“Achieving optimal muscle balance, not just strength, is critical both for improving athletic performance as well as preventing injury over the long term,” said Yavuz, chief physical therapist at Loop Physical Therapy in Chicago. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of well-intentioned people who tend to overwork and overuse certain muscle groups while others remain largely ignored, leading to imbalances in the body.”
According to Yavuz, all everyday movement and function requires a balance between sets of muscles – their strength, their tone and their length – surrounding a particular joint in the body. When muscles surrounding a joint provide equal levels of strength and tension, these muscles are considered “balanced.”
However, when one muscle is tighter, stronger or puts more tension on a joint than “opposing” muscles (i.e., hamstring tightness around the knee, coupled with weakness in the quad muscles), the added tension can increase strain on the joint, affect natural movement, and lead to injury.
“We don’t just see these muscle imbalances in the gym; it’s something we can easily point out in pretty much any office setting,” Yavuz said. “Bad posture in the workplace, such as slouching in the back and shoulders, is often caused by muscle imbalances where muscles in the front, such as in the chest and abdominals, are stronger and tighter than those in the back and shoulders, naturally pulling our bodies forward.”
These imbalance can lead to pain in the back, neck and shoulders. Over the long-term, Yavuz added, the discomfort, pain and injury resulting from this can compound the issue, causing even worsening posture and imbalance for the sake of relief. It can even lead to the use of medication to relieve long-term pain.
Common ailments often attributed to muscle imbalances include back pain, shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tendonitis, headaches, neck pain, knee pain, hip flexor tendonitis, hamstring strains, IT band syndrome, and many other sports- and movement-related injuries.
The good news? Yavuz said it’s possible to test for muscle imbalances and provide people with individual strategies for improving and eliminating such imbalances – strategies that don’t just treat the symptoms, but which focus on the root cause of pain and injury.
“An experienced physical therapist can provide a muscle imbalance or functional movement screen, which will allow us to pinpoint exactly where a person’s strength, weaknesses and possible abnormalities reside,” Yavuz said. “From there, we can work to correct many issues well before injury has occurred.”