Muscle Imbalance in Women

Mondays are dedicated to female training topics. 

Women come in different types and heights, thick or slight. Yet the time for training is always right…

Two good things will come out of this post: a) the admission that I am a crappy poet and b) regardless of body type, a woman can always improve her lifting efficiency.

Generally speaking, people in their first few years of lifting will have muscular limitations that hold back their potential for progress. Despite the fact that I’ve been lifting for 12 years, it wasn’t until the last couple of years that my musculature distribution — and therefore balance of strength — was balanced. Athletes who have competed in sports their whole lives may exhibit good balance when they start training again, but it’s also the fact that their training history facilitates improvement better than those without an athletic history. In other words, a life-time athlete can address imbalances easier than someone who has recently started training for the first time.

This is especially true for women. Society kind of filters women out of athletics once they leave high school. Sure, I’ve known some tough gals that are in the military, regularly train, or still compete in recreation sports after their sport career ended, yet there is a higher percentage of girls who stopped physical activity once they received their high school diploma. A portion of them attended college and primarily studied, partied, or immersed themselves in social activities at school, and their body adapted to the lack of training stress. Women will have a harder time getting into and excelling in training because of this lack of activity along with the hormonal differences. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all women, but occurs enough even in “active” girls to the point that they need special focus to build certain musculature to avoid an imbalance.

But what is a musculature imbalance? Does it mean their glutes aren’t firing? Barring some kind of abnormal pathology, no. An imbalance means that a muscle, or area of muscles, are under-developed to the point that other muscles have assumed more responsibility in a given movement. An extreme example is the classic experiment with rats; their gastrocnemius (the superficial calf muscle that looks like a “hoof”) was severed, and their soleus (the deep muscle that sits under the gastroc) grew to compensate for the lack of plantar flexion in the ankle. However, in humans, our muscles aren’t normally cut out, and all of the muscles are certainly being activated. It’s just that some muscles may not be contributing to a given movement like they should.

This can be due to many variables. One is that the trainee lifts weights with inefficient mechanics that don’t distribute the force application across the muscles. Another is that the trainee lacks the mobility to achieve proper positioning, therefore not having efficient technique. Poor posture and mechanics can lead to poor mobility, and vice versa. A previous or existing injury can alter mechanics over time or acutely, and create inefficient technique. All of these variables are linked to each other in that they can be the result or cause of one another. This is also why mobility is so important in order to train properly. Even if mobility and mechanics are decent, it can be difficult to perform a movement and use the correct musculature. For example, a pull-up can be done with an emphasis on pulling with the back or the arms. The former is correct and uses larger back muscles associated with shoulder extension while the latter is incorrect and over emphasizes the elbow flexors.

What are common imbalances in women? Typically girls don’t have poor mobility, other than the standard “sitting down for hours each day” hip issues. Instead, they have weaknesses. The most common weaknesses in women are: upper back, lower back, and hamstrings. Interestingly enough, these are the same weaknesses with males too.

When trying to improve the strength and musculature in a lesser advanced trainee, large compound (i.e. multi-joint) exercises that can be loaded are optimal. Pull-ups, rows, and chin-ups are the stock solution for building the upper back strength and musculature. However, many girls aren’t able to do a pull-up, and this inhibits the area’s development. They need to regularly work towards achieving a chin-up, and then later a pull-up. “Developing A Pull-up” and “Programming Pull-ups” show how to do this.

All women can do some sort of rowing to help this musculature. While barbell rows (AKA “pendlay rows”) are effective, I wouldn’t mind if they used a chest supported machine row, like the Hammer strength kind, for 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Egads! Machines!?! Yes, they can facilitate proper muscle activation. Drop them in as regular assistance, drop sets, or even part of the active rest in a high intensity conditioning workout. They’re more effective at helping the area than jumping pull-ups. Note that I would prefer to not worry about single arm rowing — it’ll just take more training time and reduce the load on the structures. Avoid allowing lots of “English”, or body movement during these rows. That kind of stuff is permissible for stronger trainees to allow heavier loads, but it doesn’t apply to someone who has deficient musculature that needs to be worked through a full range of motion.

Don’t be afraid to use the lat pull-down machine with an underhand (chin-up) or overhand (pull-up) grip. 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps can help progress towards that first chin-up. Vary between heavier loads with fewer reps and lighter loads with reps. It doesn’t really matter; it’s more so the fact that the area is receiving regular, accumulating work. If a woman trains her upper back twice a week for six months, it’s more important than if she did it once a week with an anal approach to the set/rep scheme.

Building the upper back is important because it plays a role in shoulder stabilization and external rotation during any press, bench, or overhead movement. The area also plays an isometric role during pulling, especially the deadlift. For example, if the upper back rounds when the bar comes off the floor, then the shoulder position shifts, which results in the bar creeping forward. When the bar moves forward from the body’s balance point, the lower back will typically round to compensate for the inefficient lever arm. Therefore, you could say that the upper back helps keep the lower back in place during deadlifts.

Extreme hamstrings

Anybody who has read the site regularly knows that I’m a huge proponent of RDLs to build the hamstrings in non-advanced trainees. They are simple to do, don’t require any special equipment, and are crazy effective at building the hip extension component of the hamstrings. Other exercises to use are Good Mornings, glute ham raises (GHR), and banded good mornings. As with all assistance exercises, they can be done for 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps. I would hit the weak or under-developed areas frequently. The only programming note is that if something like RDLs make the girl too sore to deadlift or squat in her next session (and she’s eating enough protein), then use a lighter stress movement, like banded good mornings, in the preceding session.

As for the lower back, standard lifts like the squat and deadlift will strengthen it over time, but thinner girls will benefit from some direct work. Simple weighted back extensions for 3 to 5 sets of 10 work very well. If the gym has a reverse hyper machine, you probably go to a cool gym, so use that too. The RDLs and Good Mornings from the previous paragraph will also apply some back work too.

Programming these assistance exercises may seem overwhelming at first, but don’t stress it. For lesser advanced trainees, full body sessions work best because they apply a solid systemic stress (whereas the “one lift a day” programs don’t apply good systemic stresses in lesser advanced trainees). A given session can include a main lift (like squat or deadlift), a press, a posterior chain exercise, and an upper back exercise. Technically the two assistance exercises could be done in a circuit if time was an issue. And this type of session would still allow time for a quick 10 minute high intensity conditioning workout at the end of it. There’s not reason a session should be over 75 minutes, and the lifting could really be done in 60 minutes easily (e.g. 20 minutes for the first two lifts, 10 to 15 for the assistance, followed by 10 to 15 for the conditioning).

If a girl had weaknesses or muscular imbalances, following a basic plan like this consistently will turn into progress. Other weaknesses and imbalances can occur, yet these are the most common. Remember that when dealing with assistance work, it’s not about how much weight is used, it’s about how much quality work the muscle receives. Whipping the torso back during lat pull-downs or rows won’t effectively work the shoulder extensors and upper back. At the same time, the main lifts (squat, bench/press, deadlift) shouldn’t be allowed to progress with mechanics that highlight specific weaknesses. Letting a woman deadlift as heavy as she can without any hamstring tension and completely rounded back is standard ego lifting and irresponsible. Get quality reps consistently over time with good technique, and these imbalances will fade away.





22 thoughts on “Muscle Imbalance in Women

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  2. I broke my arm a month ago, so needless to say my training has been altered quite a bit. I’ve used the time, since many lifts I cannot do for the time being, to focus on muscular imbalances particularly in the hips. My right glute and hamstring are much weaker than my left. I’ve noticed my mobility is improving and I think my main lifts will benefit once I’m back to lifting like normal.

  3. Great post. Interesting topic and very comparative to what I have been dealing with. I just started training a group of boy basketball players at the high school I work at (ages 15-17). I have been contemplating the whole risk vs reward of different exercises i.e. squat, deadlift, power clean etc, while simultaneously noticing some glaring deficits in movement patterns.

    I see major issues with the squat movement, the hinge movement, and lumbar/thoracic connectivity but after reading this post it is very similar to what I am dealing with.

    I am finding that I have had to back off the squat (loaded – lighty loaded that is) in favor of the RFESS and the step up to build some lower body strength. After reading your post I may add in RDL’s to teach the hinge movement as a precursor to picking the bar off the floor.

    What are your thoughts on this uncoordination regarding movement patterns? and how to address it (especially in a group setting) without holding back other kids that pick up things faster?

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  5. You know, I’m glad you mentioned that experiment with the mice… It made me realize why my calves are so skinny: I have no Gastroc development, it’s ALL Soleus! Or if there is any Gastroc development, it all in the outside head – nothing on the interior. If I would have to guess why, I’d say it’s because of my horribly flat feet, so, how do I fix it? Looks like standing calf raises… Oh joy.

    • Arnold talks pretty extensively about calves in his first autobiography. As I recall he didn’t get much development until he started going really heavy, reasoning that since one more or less does a calf raise of his bodyweight with each step, the weight has to be much heavier than bodyweight to make any change.

  6. Lady PR: I joined the college gym that my gf trains at to help her in making her first run at SS LP. The idea of accumulated training time seems very true. She’s been working with a trainer for 2 years or so (lots of DB’s, TRX stuff), and that has given her enough strength to start with reasonable weight on the bar (heavy enough to learn the movements, without burning out quickly).

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