Asymmetry is an issue that is often painless, in and of itself, and can therefore be very easy to overlook. However, to the trained coach or physical therapist, it is well-known as one of the most probable underlying causes of acute injury during physical activity. In fact, it is the #2 risk factor for athletic injury, with previous injury coming in at #1. What is asymmetry? How does it develop? What can be done to address it?
Asymmetry, in the physiological sense, is a condition in which a muscle on one side of the body is significantly stronger or weaker than the corresponding muscle on the other side. It does not have to be, and usually isn’t, limited to one pair of muscles. It is perfectly possible to have stronger glutes AND hamstrings AND spinal erectors on one side. Furthermore, strength is not the only thing that can be “asymmetrical”. It is also common to see athletes with greater (or lesser) mobility in a joint on one side than in the corresponding joint on the other side. In short, asymmetry is an imbalance between the left and right side of the body.
Most people are asymmetrical to some degree, if only in the sense that they express a preference for doing things with their “dominant” hand or foot. Almost everyone naturally feels more comfortable using one hand or the other to perform tasks that require fine motor control. Baseball players throw with either their right or left hand – few can proficiently switch between them. Hockey players are more comfortable with one hand lower on the stick than the other. Downhill MTB racers have one foot ahead of the other in the “attack position”. Over time, without some sort of training intervention, the dominant side and the non-dominant side begin to diverge in terms of mobility, flexibility, motor control, and/or strength. As this divergence increases, the athlete unintentionally reinforces it, compensating for the weakness of one side by overusing the other. Dysfunctional movement patterns eventually develop, which will ultimately cause injury, given enough time. Injury can then actually create NEW asymmetries by causing the athlete to rely on the uninjured side to to the daily work of both sides. This is likely one of the main reasons that previous injury is such a strong predictor of new injury.
So, asymmetry is natural, to some degree. However, that doesn’t meant that there’s nothing we can do to fix or alleviate it. While many sports and recreational activities will, by their very nature, encourage asymmetries to develop, a well-thought-out strength training program can counteract those imbalances, ensuring well-rounded development on both sides of the body, regardless of the demands of the sport. There are landmines (the blow-you-up kind, not the exercise) in this approach, though. Training a certain movement with an external load (added weight), such as a squat or press, without first correcting any dysfunction in the current movement pattern can actually compound asymmetry and increase your risk of injury. That’s why it’s important to have a coach, trainer, or therapist who can objectively assess your movement patterns, asymmetries, and other issues, and then correctly prioritize them to optimize your performance without increasing your risk for injury.
If you’re concerned about a strength or mobility imbalance that could be holding you back in your sport, set up a free intro consultation with us to talk about how a personalized strength training program can help fix those problems and get you firing on all cylinders.