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Balancing your muscles, a change that would do you good

  • Special To The Washington Post
  • Published Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, at 12 a.m.

You know about balancing everything from your checkbook to your work life. But how about your muscles? Yes, they can become just as imbalanced as your finances can if you’re not paying attention.

“In terms of muscle imbalances, there are certain things you see consistently,” said Robert Gillanders, an endurance athlete and physical therapist at Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy in Washington. “Women tend to lack stability and are more likely to be hyper-flexible, while men tend to lack flexibility.”

These imbalances can cause pain in the neck and back, bulging discs, shoulder impingement syndrome and more, said Chris Estafanous, a physical therapist with Set Sports Physical Therapy, also in Washington.

“It starts like little aches and pains and becomes chronic,” Estafanous said. “Because your brain begins to process an abnormal movement as normal movement, and because the body wants to prevent pain at any cost, it will start compensating.”

The culprits

Some imbalances come down to differences in sex and genetics. But our muscles are also affected by our lifestyle and the forms of physical activity and workouts we engage in.

“In my experience, people will do exercises they like, rather than exercises they need,” Gillanders said.

In other words, the hyper-flexible woman goes for yoga, and the already-tight-shouldered man goes for anterior (front) body strength training. Or think of the runners, both men and women, who do nothing except run – increasing calf and hamstring tightness and decreasing strength in the upper body and core.

The solution

Along with a physical therapy regimen, Estafanous and Gillanders teach their clients ways to improve habits in every part of their life, including workout routines and work environment.

“For example, pretty much everyone needs stronger glutes,” Estafanous says. “It’s the power center of the body.”

One exercise he often does with clients is the “clamshell,” in which you lie on your side with a resistance band looped above your knees, then open and close your knees. This strengthens the gluteus medius, which in turn prevents muscle imbalances in the leg that can create knee pain and injuries.

Another exercise is a glute squeeze. Lying facedown on the floor, place a pillow between your feet and squeeze the pillow while at the same time engaging your glutes. Hold for three seconds and repeat 30 times. It’s a small movement, but after 30 reps “your glutes will be on fire,” Estafanous said.

Another typical muscle imbalance is tight front-shoulder and chest area.

He also incorporates poses such as one he calls “camel,” in which you rest your knees on the floor and elbows on a chair, stretching the front body while strengthening the back.

Carol Shuford, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer, says it is key to make sure the back body gets as much work as the front.

“For every push exercise, you should do a pull exercise,” said Shuford, who is also a longtime marathoner and triathlete.

In other words, if you spend time doing bench presses and biceps curls, you need to spend equal time doing rows and triceps extensions.

“Or you will look like a caveman,” she says.

To her endurance athletes she emphasizes the importance of strength training – which includes gluteal and core muscles along with adductors (inner thigh) and abductors (outer thigh).

Too often, she says, endurance athletes overemphasize hamstrings, hip flexors and quadriceps, creating an imbalance that includes weak adductors and abductors along with weak glutes.

“If you keep doing the same thing every day – like running every day – it’s almost the same as sitting at a desk 10 hours a day,” Shuford said. “You will get muscle imbalances and overuse injuries.”

Gillanders agrees.

“In the active community, if I ask, ‘What do you do besides biking or running?’ they look at me as if I am crazy,” he said.

But he tells athletes it’s important to move in more planes than one because muscles that create stability in the body are not necessarily part of the repetitive motion in running or biking.

“Stability muscles are all over the place,” Gillanders said – such as core and abuctors and adductors.

For women, all three experts agree that hyper-flexibility can be a liability rather than an asset if you’re not careful.

Going beyond a normal range of motion can destabilize joints, Gillanders said, especially without sufficient muscle bulk to protect them. “In some ways it’s better to be a little less flexible.”

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