Q&A with Coach: How do I Avoid Muscle Imbalances?

by Jason Fitzgerald

Do you have muscle imbalances? Spoiler alert: of course you do!

In fact, we all do.

Muscle Imbalance

Nobody is perfectly symmetrical. We may have a dominant leg, strike the ground harder with one foot, pronate more with one leg, or lean slightly to one particular side. It’s normal – it’s human.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean your running career is over, certain to be plagued by chronic injuries. Muscle imbalances only cause significant problems when they’re not managed properly.

To avoid – and even correct – a serious muscle imbalance requires a multi-pronged approach. Just like running injuries, imbalances are often caused by several factors acting at the same time rather than just one (just like my recent Achilles injury).

There’s no single magic bullet cure. Instead, there’s multiple solutions that should all be used.

Muscle Imbalances: Training, Form, and Strength

Those solutions are the answer to a great question I received from Megan:

I’m rebuilding my fitness after an injury but I notice that my left leg is often much more sore after runs than my right. This makes me think that my left leg is working harder than my right. Do you have any advice on how to correct a muscle imbalance?

I answered Megan’s question with a new video:

Click to Tweet: Check out this video on how runners can avoid muscle imbalances!

Don’t want to watch my beautiful face? I’m hurt, but no worries. Here are the video notes:

  • Avoid the road’s camber – or slope – by switching sides often, finding a more level road, or getting on a sidewalk (better yet, do some trail running!)
  • The track is for faster workouts, not distance runs where the repetitive turns in the same direction can easily cause imbalances
  • Improve your running form by increasing your cadence (or step rate) to at least 170 steps per minute, running tall to have better posture, and ensuring you land with your feet underneath your body instead of “reaching out” in front of you and over-striding
  • Single-leg strength exercises can improve strength, coordination, and balance in your weaker leg. Focus on exercises like pistol squats, hip thrusts, step-ups, and lunges.
  • All of these training subjects are covered in more detailed in Injury Prevention for Runners.

Remember, don’t despair if you notice a strength asymmetry between your right and left leg. Nobody is symmetrical!

As long as you avoid surfaces that promote imbalances, improve your running form and posture, and do consistent single-leg strength exercises you likely won’t have any major issues with muscle imbalances.

Leave a comment: 

  • What imbalances have you noticed with your own body?
  • How have you corrected them?
  • Are you struggling with a specific type of imbalance that you can’t fix?

I’ll do my best to answer every question left in the comments.

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{ 28 comments }

Allison

My R shoulder has much less muscle from a surgery YEARS ago. I know upper body strength is important, but lifting things over my head with that shoulder is supremely difficult!

Janelle @ Run With No Regrets

I have learned from physical therapy that my right hip is much weaker than my left hip, and have done many exercises to strengthen my hips overall. Should I be doing more reps on my weaker side to balance things out?

Jason Fitzgerald

I’m always a bit hesitant to do more reps on one side, even if it’s weaker. But doing just a little bit more (~10%) could help, plus of course single-leg exercises!

Becca

After years of playing tennis I have massive and visible muscle imbalances in my shoulders. I know this affects my posture but I’m not sure if that translates to running performance as well. How important is upper body symmetry to running form?

Jason Fitzgerald

Not as important. Upper body movement (arm carriage) is very dependent on what’s going on with your legs.

Cassie

I wound up with an strength imbalance on my left side that caused a reoccurring hip problem. I went to a physical therapist who gave me exercises to build strength in my weak left hip. I do the same number of reps on both sides. I read a book that said imbalances can often occur on one side after a back injury. Three years ago I had had a bulging disc in my lower back that caused problems down my left side. I’m not sure if the back caused the leg strength imbalance or if the leg strength imbalance caused the back problem.

melody

I have weak hips and glutes and I do sit a lot at work. I currently do functional movement exercises to help correct the issue. My left hip is slightly higher, so all my issues occur on the left..ITBS, occasional knee pain and pain on the left foot, on the outside of ankle. That bothers me the day after a run, but also lately when I get up in the mornings. I don’t want to give up running, so I’m always looking for new, good ideas!

Joy Hargraves

I know I get plagued by imbalances. I had an IT issue for MONTHS before I found you and your Rehab program. (That also seems to work for patellafemoral syndrome, too!!!) Right now it seems as if my imbalance has switched sides. It had been my left side that was in constant pain, but now the right IT Band is wound up like a fiddle. The foam rolling almost made me cry this AM. So I will continue to strengthen, and also swim on off days. And as you know, I’ll be signing up for your Coaching next week!! I cannot wait!! Two marathons this year, so I need to help me as much as I can. Over the months I’ve come to rely on you!! I know hip strength will be key to my success.

Kim

I tore my right ACL and medial meniscus a few years ago and after the surgery and being on crutches for 6 weeks my right quad was a fraction of the size of my left one. To this day anything that is a single leg exercise comes more difficult for my right leg than my left. During PT we did a lot of hip strengthening exercises and I still do them and I know my right hip is strong. I still experience the lack of strength in my runs so I favor my right leg more than my left. After reading your blog about strength running a few months ago I began incorporating conditioning type exercises that I did in HS track back into my routine, and while I have noticed an overall increase in strength and good form, I still favor my right leg and have pain in my knee when I run. Do I just accept this pain as a part of my running life?

Jason Fitzgerald

There’s probably room for improvement, but the past injury might have changed your gait and the way you favor your left leg. So you may be stuck with the imbalance. Hopefully through a lot of diligent work you can manage it well – and of course make sure you train appropriately so you don’t make it worse.

If it makes you feel any better, my right leg is dominant and there’s no amount of strength work that will fix it. Looking back at my injury history, it’s clear that my left is always the injured so I have to be aware of this with my training.

Kathy

I have 2 bones fused together in my right hip which results in imbalances and I end up with all my injuries in my right leg. I’m working to strength both hips and both legs/feet, concentrating on my right foot. I go to a chiropractor every 4 weeks to get my right side fixed with ART. Is there anything else I should be doing?

Jason Fitzgerald

Besides what’s mentioned in this post, you should make sure your running is as balanced as possible. You’ve bought the IP for Runners program, so you should take every lesson very seriously!

Kathy

Will do! Thanks

Jim H

I have what’s known as Morton’s Foot. My second metatarsals are longer than my first metatarsals, second toe longer than first toe. As feet are foundational for running, this condition causes all sorts of muscle imbalances—toes, heels, calves, glutes. The first place I ever saw that dealt with this issue was the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. It identified the problem and pointed out where problem areas might be. It also prescribed an unusual orthotic which lifts only the first metatarsal. I bought one and constructed others for all my shoes and have seen an enormous improvement. However, because a significant amount of my training (1/2 or more) is barefooted and the rest in minimalist shoes, I still have to pay attention to trigger points. I hope this helps anyone who has these issues deal with the imbalances Morton Toe can cause.

Annie H

Evidently muscle imbalance is my middle name!! I started running seriously in the summer of 2011 (although I played college basketball and spent a couple years competing in sprint triathlons prior to that). While training for a half marathon that summer, I developed significant pain in my right hip, which brought me limping in to a sports doc. After an MRI ruled out other injuries, I was told the pain was due to a muscle imbalance in my hips and glutes. PT slightly decreased the pain on a short-term basis, but never really corrected the problem. The subsequent summer as my running ramped up again, I was suffering from not only hip pain, but emerging knee pain as well. I was advised to try a chiropractor, which I did…to no avail. From lots and lots of internet reading, I had “self-diagnosed” my pain as IT band related and was trying every stretch and exercise I could find to treat it (including your IT band routine), but nothing seemed to help. I was still able to continue running and got my 5K time down to 20:25 in July 2013; however, the pain was steadily increasing, so I gave PT a second go-round. By that point, I was told there was significant imbalances between my left and right sides, but that it would take hours of consistent work daily to try to correct it (which I do not have considering my full-time job would not permit hours of PT daily!) Disheartened, but completely hooked on running, I just kept putting miles in hoping hard work through the winter would translate to a sub-20 minute 5K by spring. Meanwhile, in search of another solution, I turned to an osteopath, which suggested prolotherapy injections in conjunction with PT (AGAIN)!!! So, here I am, in my second week of PT, being told not to run at all and being given very little hope. Not being able to run, with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel is all but unbearable. Maybe I should have titled this comment, “The Doom that Muscle Imbalances can Create…”

Allen

Jason,
After recovering from Achilles’ tendonitis last year I have this nagging tightness on the inside of my right knee. Opposite leg from the Achilles injury. I’m consistant with strength exercises for the leg,hips and gluteus. It just feels tight with pressure. If i increases speed or distance it hurts Moore. Run slow and it’s just a nag. Any thoughts?

Jason Fitzgerald

Hard to say. Usually “tightness” isn’t a problem unless it’s a sharp/stabbing pain and it restricts your range of motion – or in other words, if it causes you to change your running form. I’d spend some time on a foam roller around the area and keep your training at a moderate level until it starts feeling better.

Allan

I pretty consistently get soreness in my left hip after a run. I’ve tried medication and even a physical therapist, to no avail. I usually run on the left side of the road to face traffic, which, according to your video would put extra stess on, guess what, my left leg and hip. I’m going to change where I run, and we’ll if that corrects the problem. Thanks for your advice. Allan

Wendy Salucci

I am training for my first marathon and noticed with increased mileage that the botton of my left foot ( ball of left foot ) hurts after about 14 to 16 miles. I have been working on my cadence so that I land on the ground more brisk and even softer, but after a while my form might be compromised due to fatigue and my cadence might be slower. My right foot seems fine, just the botton of my left. I have been stregthening my hips, glutes, and core for the past 1/12 years through many running specific drills , exercises, plyometrics, weight training, etc… and I foam roll every time after a run so I don’t think this is caused from tight IT Band or weak hips, glutes. Is it a biomechanical weakness or defect of my body? If so, what do you think the is best way to alleviate the problem? Thank you.

Jason Fitzgerald

Hi Wendy – it’s probably either a form problem (likely when you’re fatigued your form starts to deteriorate) or you need a different pair of shoes. I’d try those options and then run a little more of your long runs on softer surfaces. Good luck!

Cyndi Cox

I was diagnosed with primary adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder) in my left shoulder last spring. After spending weeks doing physical therapy (ouch!) to get things better, and they are, I have noticed when I do weights, or body weight exercises that my entire left side is much weaker than my right side. I have been doing planks (front and left and right side) and also doing single leg weight lifting on machines to get things back to normal. Also doing lunges to help as well. Hate lunges, they are hard, but I think they help!

Lisa @ Running Out Of Wine

Several years ago I had problems with my left achilles and plantar fascia. I was given orthodics by a potatrist (and basically told to take ibuprofen until the pain was gone). A few years later I had left hip pain and was diagnosed with a labral year and had surgery. After this point I actually started learning how to strenghten my body to be a better runner. I ditched the orthotics and now run in a lighter shoe that seems to work for me. However, a year after surgery had piriformis pain on my right side which lasted for over a year (and visits to 3 chiropractors and 2 PTs), After lots of ART and dry needling it went away, but then suddenly my hip on my left side became tight! I do lots and lots of core work, my cadence is at 180 (I have the garmin forerunner 620 that measures its) and i seem to be flexible enough. I have been told that these issues come from my low back, but it still hard for me to understand the relationships between it all. Right now I feel like my left side is always tighter, and I worry that because of this my form will suffer. I plan to keep focusing on strenght and flexibility, while working with my chiro or PT.

Jason D

Great Article – I find that I sometimes get bad muscle imbalances just from lifting weights. Makes things tougher when I try to stay on track and I can feel that one side of my body is stronger than another for a specific exercise. Good information here, thanks for sharing!

Brett Sanders

Great post. I too have muscles imbalances (lots actually) but I find that it’s one or two that are driving the rest – like, if I land too heavy on one leg, the opposite hip hikes, then so does the same side shoulder, and on and on. I find just striking a balance between performance and conditioning exercises and phases of postural balancing it keeps them at bay.

Rowena Collins-huber

Hi Jason I have a dysfunctional pelvic girdle which causes my hip soreness, It band and
glutes mediums and glutes Maximus problems. I purchased the Ip program and I am following the advanced 1/2 marathon training and strengthening program. Are there additional strengthening exercises I should concentrate to strengthen the pelvis ? My left leg is stronger than my right and I drop my right hip when I run .

Jason Fitzgerald

I don’t think you need additional exercises, you just might need more of them. So for those that focus on the hip/glute musculature, you can add another set. Good luck!

Luke Jones

I have a bit of a twisted pelvis and a few back problems that predispose me to some imbalances. I definitely found that altering my form a little and regular use of the foam rollers (along with regular chiropractic adjustments) has helped a lot.

Thanks for the great video, your site is a great resource!

Christian

It’s funny. Until I read your website I didn’t even realize there is such a thing as muscle imbalances. But you’re right and I just have to simply run or jog the right way if I’m to improve my physique. Thanks for the tips.

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