How many of you have watched a professional tennis match and witnessed what I like to call "the Popeye arm" on some of the players? This is where the player has one HUGE racquet arm, and a normal-sized non-racquet appendage. What causes this? The repetitive hitting of the tennis ball, and the amount of force required to play tennis causes the muscles in the racquet arm to "hypertrophy." Hypertrophy means to increase in size. While this imbalance may be most recognizable by the difference in the size of the forearm on your racquet arm, the truth is that this and other less obvious muscular imbalances can be the result of playing your sport. The dominant side of the body (the racquet side) could become stronger from hitting all of those tennis balls. Or, it's possible that certain muscles on the dominant side of your body can become tighter and less flexible as they become bigger or stronger. For example, there may be some strength disparity in the biceps, or shoulder muscles of your racquet arm as compared to your non-racquet arm. Or, perhaps one set of muscles on your dominant side, such as in your lower back, may become tighter as compared to those on the other side.
In addition to the obvious cosmetic effects (such as with the overdeveloped forearm) that some of these muscular imbalances may cause, they can also have an effect on your athletic performance and risk for injury. For instance, the relative underdevelopment of your non-dominant side could mean reduced production of power on some of your strokes, or could subject you to possible muscle strains. So what's a tennis player to do? The answer is to adjust your training to account for and help counteract these imbalances. Here are two examples of training techniques that I use with my clients to help them maintain or achieve muscular balance.
Work the Muscle and Its Opposing Muscle
After spending countless hours in the gym, I've witnessed many exercisers who favor certain muscles when working out, and ignore their opposing muscles. For example, they'll work on the bench press for their chest, and then forget about exercises for their back. This tendency can actually help exacerbate any imbalances that might already be there from their participation in sports or other activities such as work. So, when you're working out, make sure that, in addition to working the target muscles that you're exercising, you also work their opposing muscles. For example, in addition to performing a bicep curl exercise, don't forget to work your triceps muscles (e.g. a triceps press). Or, while doing a leg extension for your quadriceps muscles (in front of the thigh), do a leg curl exercise for the hamstrings or rear thigh. Following your abdominal crunch exercises with some lower back strengthening exercises (e.g. back extensions) will help you maintain good core muscle balance. This way, if you have some inherent imbalances from your sport or other activities, you're taking steps to counteract them in the gym.
Increase the Number of Repetitions on the Non-Dominant Side
This is a technique that I use with many of my clients who play sports. Since their dominant side will generally get most of the physical work during the course of their athletic activity, I make a point to work their non-dominant side harder during workouts. Here's what I do. If I have a client perform an exercise with their dominant side for say 12 repetitions, I then have them perform the same exercise with more repetitions (say 15 - 17 repetitions) on the non-dominant side. While this may not seem like a lot to you, over time this increased work on the non-dominant side will help to even-out the strength between the two sides, and combat some of these imbalances.
Recognizing any imbalances that you might have, and taking some simple steps to counteract them will help you maintain body symmetry, improve your athletic performance, and reduce the risk for injury.
As with all forms of exercise, you should consult with your physician or healthcare professional, before undertaking any of the fitness training discussed in this article. Any application of the techniques, ideas, and suggestions in this article is at the reader's sole discretion and risk.