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.





Experiment for da ladies

Some females that lift still have weaknesses in their shoulder girdle or upper back despite the fact that they have lifted for at least one year. This is more common when the female is taller or has longer limbs because they won’t have large amounts of muscle mass to improve the angle of muscle attachment (this concept was discussed in this post — more on the same topic). Doing presses and rows are good at developing this musculature, but some times a specific deficiency needs specific work.

Band pulls are typically used in powerlifting programs to strengthen the shoulder girdle. Many powerlifters and their coaches despise overhead because it’s labeled as “injurious”. We know that by pressing correctly in external rotation and achieving a good overhead position is not injurious and is exceptional at increasing the strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. My hypothesis is that assistance work like band pulls were created to help keep shoulders healthy because there was an absence in quality overhead work. They were also developed in the realm of physical therapy to address muscle imbalances, which would be the case in a guy/girl who has a weak upper back.

Here’s the experiment: throw them in at the end of your training on a daily basis for at least a month. If “daily” won’t work, then do them at least three times a week. They can be done on the weekend, and could probably be done the day before a lifting session (though I’d avoid it before the heaviest session). Let’s see if there’s a significant improvement in pull-up strength, overhead strength, or the ability to stay in external rotation on the bench or press (elbows staying in and under the wrists). Guys, if you have issues with flaring elbows or a weak upper back, then do this experiment. They will only help the shoulder and won’t cause any harm. Remember that most of these “female topics” also apply to guys.

The video below explains how to do them. Cliff notes:
– use a light band
– use a supinated (underhand grip) that is at or right outside of shoulder width
– horizontally abduct shoulders (reverse fly)
– keep elbows/wrists straight
– control out and in (don’t flop back in)
– use 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
– wear cool sunglasses

60% of a bull’s mass is in his traps.

Hey guys, Shrugthug here.

Let me go off the record in saying this –

I don’t actually think my traps are that big. Well, they aren’t big ENOUGH. I admit they are disproportionate to the rest of my body, sure, and they are probably one of the only remotely visible pieces of evidence of the fact that I lift weights. The bottom line is I weigh 175lbs and this just isn’t a significant amount of mass in general.

But as you all know, I am aggressively working to rectify this.

Justin and I have had several discussions about the need for me to develop more muscular bodyweight, particularly in my upper body, but basically, it’s generally been agreed that I need to fill out 85kg with some quality weight, and eventually 94kg if I’m planning on doing anything cool.

There have been disagreements between us about how I should go about adding that mass though (paraphrased):

Brent: so i want to get more yoked, man

Justin: Oh yeah? What are you planning on doing?

Brent: probably some shrugs, Bill Starr style. i want bigger traps

Justin: (sigh) Your traps are big enough. You have the traps of a 215lbs guy on a 175lbs body. Maybe you should hit some other areas.

Brent: what do you mean?

Justin: I don’t know, maybe the rest of your upper body OTHER than your traps?

We’ve had some other disputes regarding this.

Brent: look, all i’m saying is, i don’t see why there’s a problem with me wanting to be yoked like a bull

Justin: There isn’t, but a big yoke requires the body of a bull, not a calf.

Well, here is my response to THAT:

Shrugging for 17 reps isn’t really standard ops for me. It was kind of a special day since I was training at the WFAC with Mike, and I wanted to get a PR set of 10 in. I typically have been doing these shrugs for a top set of 5 once a week, but I wanted to have some fun. I wasn’t counting reps; I think I was more concerned with telling myself I WANNA BEAT ‘EM. BEAT EM. BEAT EM. BEAT EM! with each rep. I figured at some point that I’d done about 10, and so I did two more “just to be sure.”

I asked Mike if I got 10. He said, “Seventeen. Close though.”

As my friend Chris says, I was feeling reckless.

Assistance Work

Look at you: member of the honor roll, assistant to the assistant manager of the movie theater. I’m tellin’ ya, Rat, if this girl can’t smell your qualifications, then who needs her, right?

(Justin is on a 2-day road trip. Sorry for the mid-morning post).

A couple months ago, Brent wrote how I recommended Kroc Rows to Brent to help his grip work. That recommendation was based on his training and his goals at the time. When he posted up, the comments came alive with questions about Kroc Rows.

Last Friday I wrote about curls. So before everybody runs over Skinny Guy to go do some Preacher Curls, we should talk about assistance exercises.

First off, this is ASSISTANCE. Don’t overthink this stuff. The point of assistance work is to compliment your overall program. You can use it for strengthening a portion of the movement of a major lift (rack pulls), strengthening one or more muscles to support a compound lift (good mornings to squats), reinforcing a major lift by adding volume (and hypertrophy) with a similar movement (bar dips for bench press), balancing symmetry via hypertrophy (shrugs), strengthening the muscle and connective tissue around a single joint (curls), etc. Yes, there is some overlap here.

Generally, you want to do one or two movements of assistance work for each lift (I like one). And you’ll typically do 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps (20 if it’s bodyweight stuff). Remember, volume is your friend here. Do not go to failure, and do not let this become so taxing that you have to miss a day. Beyond this, don’t give any more thought to set and rep ranges.

The Kurgan made good use of unilateral work after doing his basic lifts.

Don’t ever confuse assistance exercises for the main lifts. A semi-good (Mike Tyson word) program of foundational lifts trumps the best assistance program. Focus on what’s important. If you are still on linear progression, don’t bother with assistance work (unless you’re doing it to build a miniscule of amount of weight room GPP, e.g. supersetting chins with GHRs or hanging leg raises).

For you recovering CrossFitters, assistance work is where you get your variety. A well-thought out program is NOT constantly varied (note the distinction). But I’ll make this deal with you: do your pressing like a normal person (with some progression in mind), and you can trick up your assistance to your heart’s content. Ideally, you would keep an assistance movement in the rotation for a 4-6 weeks, but I’ll take what I can get from you guys. You can get creative with this in terms of conditioning, and I will cover this later. But, and this is a big but, never ever ever never do something stupid like the workout that had high rep good mornings. You will be banned from this site for life and hopefully murdered by Sleestaks.

Good use of assistance exercises will bring balance to your program and your body. Use them appropriately and reap the benefits.

Feedback and Kroc Rows

I received the following e-mail from Heidi, one of the owners of Amarillo Strength and Conditioning (aka CrossFit Amarillo);

I just had to write you to report what has transpired at our gym in the few days following your 70s Big Workshop. Despite the fact that only a fraction of our athletes were in attendance, word spread like wildfire concerning the importance of strength training. Even though we preach this message to our athletes on a daily basis, I think it took someone else to walk in and bring some credibility to our rant. Anyhow, in the last two days we have had some deep discussion about strength training on our blog. Damn near every person at our gym (except for a handful) has decided to begin Starting Strength or your old WFAC CrossFit Program (we dub "S&C" – we always give you credit). Males and Females alike are finally starting to get it! I just wanted to let you know that your workshop was quite effective at informing folks about the importance of strength work, as well as, dispelling the myths associated with strength work. We would recommend that any gym would benefit from hosting a 70's Big Workshop.

Thanks again,

Heidi Coffman
CrossFit Amarillo
Amarillo Strength and Conditioning

If you live in the Amarillo area, I’d check out this gym. The members are all pals and the place had a great atmosphere. Quite a few of the coaches have also attended Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Seminar, and that means they are quite learn-ed in this kind of stuff.


My buddy Mike has been training for years by himself, whether it be when he was deployed to Afghanistan or when he was stationed in England. One thing is for sure; he did a lot of Kroc rows. He wanted to add to the grip discussion since he has pretty decent grips attached to his monkey arms. Bur first, here’s a little vid on what Kroc rows are all about:

We mentioned Kroc rows the other day, but I think they’re worth mentioning again. I always found the most benefit from doing one set to failure with straps. If you look at what Kroc does on his heaviest set, he is using straps, and going all out until there is nothing left. Is there a sufficient amount of body English? Yes. However the point here is to train until failure and increase the number of reps and/or weight every time you do them. Some might say the straps are counterproductive, and to them I pose this question; is being able to do a set of Kroc rows with 100 for a strict set of 8 sans straps more impressive and beneficial to your grip, or is a set of 125 for 15 reps? I guarantee that you won’t achieve the same amount of fatigue in your grip or forearms as you would doing the higher weight and reps.

I would say that Kroc rows would need to be programmed into your training at the end of your session when you aren’t pulling during the following 48 hours and it is preferable to have a few days of rest afterwards. A high intensity set of Kroc rows will be draining, but they are very beneficial to a stronger grip.

I also like to use the Captains of Crush grippers — I recently let Brent borrow these, and I am also interested to see how they help his predicament. First of all, using these grippers is not like sitting on your couch using the “grip tools” you find laying around most “fitness facilities.” These are the real deal. Don’t believe me? There are RECORD BOOKS for the two highest grippers. Using these grippers will definitely develop brutal crushing strength, and certainly assist in your ability to hang onto the bar during heavy pulls. When I started, I could close the trainer and the number 1. The number 2 was so hard for me initially I scoffed at it and focused on increasing my reps on the number 1. However, I eventually was able to close the number 2, and I could rep it out a few times. I believe these also took my grip strength to another level. Before using them I recall rack pulling in the low 500’s and having some grip issues after a couple reps. After using them for a few months I had no problem in the low 500’s, up until about 550-560. I was also told that my hand shake felt a lot more powerful. I think it would be generally agreed upon that someone who is 70’s Big undoubtedly should have an overpowering handshake.