Forget size and shape – muscle balance is the hot topic among fitness gurus.
There are endless fitness considerations for our muscles – their size, shape and tone – but their symmetry is the latest preoccupation of the experts who tell us how best to stay in shape. In recent months personal trainers and physiotherapists have gushed excitedly that most of us have a lopsided musculature, a sure sign that the workout world has developed special ways and means to straighten us out.
So it is that I find myself running round the perimeter of a garden square in central London with sensors gelled to my skin. They are providing feedback to Andy Curtis, a physiotherapist who is monitoring my imbalances on a screen in the Bowskill Clinic, just off Oxford Street.
Using a revolutionary system called ViMove that is available at selected physiotherapy practices around the UK, Curtis is able to measure intricate muscle and movement balance patterns, recording data from an extensive range of tests at 200 frames a second. Curtis will also have me stretching and twisting to assess the alignment of my lumbar spine and pelvis and from the findings be able to pinpoint where I am a bit wonky.
“Around 99 per cent of humans display some patterns of asymmetry,” Curtis says. “Our lifestyle habits, our workouts and our jobs all influence the degree to which this is the case.”
Always holding your phone to the same ear, carrying a bag on the same shoulder or leaning on the same elbow at your desk can lead to overdevelopment of muscles in one side. Unwittingly, we also exacerbate it at the gym. “We tend to work on the muscles that we can see and ignore the ones that we can’t,” Curtis says. “In men we tend to see big chest and arm muscles that aren’t balanced by strong back muscles.”
Allyn Condon, a former Olympic athlete and the fitness director of the Gym Group in Bristol, says he sees daily evidence of muscle imbalance among clients. “Women overwork abdominal and gluteal muscles, men overlook them,” Condon says. “Focusing too heavily on one body part is never a good idea.”
In some cases, he says, shortfalls in symmetry are so subtle that they are barely noticeable, yet the lack of body balance can lead to all sorts of problems. “Essentially, the body is plastic and we each mould it in different ways until the day we die,” Curtis says. “If we continually mould it in a bad way, emphasising one side over the other, then we are likely to be predisposed to problems like back, shoulder and other pain.”
Muscle imbalances can also make workouts seem harder work. David Kingsbury, the founder of Opus Fitness in Notting Hill, west London, says it can influence every aspect of your fitness. When cycling, walking or running, for example, an imbalance between the left and right legs means the stronger side must work harder to compensate for the weaker. “It’s a recipe for fatigue and injury,” Kingsbury says. “And a lack of symmetry in one area of the body can throw other parts out of alignment.”
He cites a client who presented with upper back pain that, it transpired, had arisen after surgery to ankle ligaments in one foot caused him to rely too heavily on the other. “He began to walk in a lopsided way, which threw his pelvis and hips off balance,” Kingsbury says. “It meant his pelvic girdle was off kilter and that caused referred pain in his upper back.”
It makes sense that your body moves and glides with more efficiency if it is aligned. In human and animal studies scientists have proved that all-over body symmetry not only makes movement easier but helps to conserve energy. Much of this research has been conducted by a team of evolutionary biologists at Rutgers University, led by Robert Trivers, a professor of anthropology and biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. The team has been probing the links between symmetry and fitness for two decades as part of the Jamaican Symmetry Project. In 2013 it assessed all-over body symmetry in a group of 285 Jamaican eight-year-olds, from research conducted between 1996 and 2010. It was discovered that the children shown to have good knee symmetry in 1996 and 2006 ran faster in 2010, suggesting that it was a good predictor of running speed.
Two years ago the team extended its research to look at whether the knee symmetry of Jamaican athletes might explain their world dominance. The team recruited 74 elite Jamaican runners including Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, twice an Olympic gold medallist in the 100m, and Nesta Carter, a double gold medal-winning member of Jamaica’s Olympic sprint relay team, and a control group of non-athletic Jamaicans matched for age, sex and weight.
It’s a recipe for fatigue: lack of symmetry in one area of the body
Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers revealed that the knees and ankles of the top 100m sprinters were the most symmetrical. While symmetry was less significant among other runners (those competing at 200, 400 and 800m), it was prominent enough to predict the fastest race times. Beyond this, everything from the degree of nostril symmetry – shown to enhance oxygen uptake and to predict distance-running ability – to foot symmetry – a sign of physical aggressiveness in boys – were reported as factors that influence physical capabilities.
While there is not much you can do to correct your nostril symmetry, there is plenty that can bring your muscles into better balance. Curtis works with Olympians, the England netball team and Premier League football clubs and says that often even they are not entirely in balance when he first sees them. Someone with highly symmetrical muscles will have variations of less than 4 per cent when each side of their body is tested with the ViMove technology. “The majority of serious athletes fall within around 3-8 per cent variation, while recreational runners and gym-goers tend to have around 11-18 per cent differences when different sides of the body are compared, a figure that is leaning closer towards injuries occurring,” Curtis says. “Although there’s no rule and some elite athletes have huge body asymmetry.”
So where does that leave me? A keen runner for most of my life, pounding pavement and trail almost daily for 37 years, I am yet to suffer an injury. Not so much as a knee niggle or hamstring strain has afflicted my battered and ageing body in all that time, a streak that makes me the envy of my running friends, most of whom spend a large part of their salary on orthotics, physiotherapy and a multitude of foam rollers. It has occurred to me that perhaps I am in some small way genetically blessed, not to move particularly quickly, but to do it in a way that presents minimal jarring and impact on my joints.
Back in his clinic, Curtis asks me to hop on the treadmill so that he can assess me running at different speeds – snail pace to a steady 6mph – and finds that the faster I go the more symmetrical my body becomes.
At the top speed tested, it transpires that I am something of a physical rarity in that my imbalances measure up as 0 per cent. This means that I land with pretty much identical force and impact on either side. It explains my blemish-free injury record, but how has it happened? I certainly haven’t taken huge precautionary measures to ensure that one side of my body is a mirror image of the other. At best I am flighty with stretching, yoga, Pilates and other exercises that purport to help to keep the body aligned. There could be some genetic determinant, but it is likely, Curtis says, that my body “has just adapted to this economical and proficient running style over the years” and now uses it as default.
Not that it is all good news. Tests on my lumbar spine and back muscle symmetry show much larger discrepancies, a result of too much time at my desk and a warning that I need to take action. Perhaps, I may soon have to reach out to Denver Spine Surgeons for a medical opinion on how I should proceed further. On my right, my side-bending movement is very restricted and I have stiffness in my back, both of which could lead to “adverse loading of the spine and pelvis as well as altered walking and running gait”. Curtis prescribes a series of moves that I am diligently carrying out to correct my unevenness. I’m hopeful. A recent randomised clinical trial showed that patients who underwent the ViMove analysis and a ten-week follow-up plan were 2.5 times more likely to have “clinically important” improvements in movement.
Symmetry, Curtis insists, is the truest marker of fitness, the most reliable predictor of injury we have to date. We could all do with ironing ourselves out.
Equalise your muscles
1 If you are deskbound, make sure you perform daily stretches to even out the inevitable muscle imbalances. Curtis recommends the mermaid stretch: start in a side-sitting position on the floor with one palm resting on the ground. Then reach upwards with the hand that was on the ground until arm and hand are vertically skywards. Then reach over the body and stretch trunk. Hold. Repeat on both sides.
2 If you are a cyclist, find a stationary bike that will measure your power output from each leg as you ride to discover if you favour one side over the other. The Wattbike (wattbike.com), used in many gyms, allows you to monitor this.
3 A simple test for runners and walkers is to check the soles of shoes for more wear on one foot than the other. It is a way to identify on which foot you apply more load and pressure and could mean that you require specialist orthotics or corrective running shoes to redress imbalance.
4 At the gym, include exercises that work just one limb or side at a time so that you can manage your training in a balanced way. For example, perform the biceps curl with your weaker arm first, noting how many repetitions you can manage at a particular weight. Then work your stronger arm using the same weight and number of reps. You can do the same with leg exercises by including moves such as the single leg squat, leg press and lunges.