Learn How To Identify & Correct Muscle Imbalances

The way our body moves as well as natural movement compensations are a really great indicator of muscle imbalances (overactive and underactive). It’s really important that you identify and work to correct these muscle imbalances to ensure the most successful and injury-free training plan and protocol.

There are a few tests I learned during my training at the National Academy of Sports Medicine (where I became a Certified Personal Trainer & Fitness Nutrition Specialist), but the one I will focus on today is the overhead squat assessment. This is a common tool used by fitness professionals to identify and correct muscle imbalances in clients. But, with the help of a friend to film you, or a video in selfie mode, you can identify some of these muscle imbalances yourself and learn which proactive measures you can take today to help build a more balanced neuromuscular system.

Step 1: Find someone to film you or a way to film yourself

Set up your camera in selfie mode or ask someone nicely if they will film you doing this exercise. You will need to be filmed from both the front (anterior) and side (lateral) view.

Step 2: Do an overhead squat

Reach your arms up overhead, palms facing each other, and stand with your feet hip width apart. Keeping your arms up overhead, sit back and perform a squat. Keep in mind that your knees should not go beyond your toes.

Step 3: Review your videos

Now comes the time to watch and see how your body moves. I am going to teach you how to identify your imbalances and how to correct them.

Step 4: Identify your imbalances and start correcting them

Aim to do the recommended stretches and exercises 2-3 x per week on nonconsecutive days. Think of these stretches and exercises as part of your warm-up. You might have to give yourself a bit more time (or cut your regular workout a bit shorter) in order to make time for this longer warm-up – but it’s so important.

Here’s what your overhead squat assessment should look like:

Woman doing an overhead squat assesment

Woman doing an overhead squat assessment

Common movement compensations, what they mean and how to fix them:

1. Excessive forward lean

Woman doing an excessive forward lean while squatting

What does this mean?

This is a really common movement compensation I see in a lot of people. This excessive forward lean is probably due to overactive calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus), hip flexors and/or abs (rectus abdominis, external oblique) as well as underactive glutes (gluteus maximus), shins (anterior tibialis) and/or medial back (erector spinae).

What can you do to help correct this?

Stretches

  • Calf stretch

Woman doing a half stretch

  • Hip flexor stretch

Woman doing a hip flexor stretch

  • Ball abdominal stretch

Woman doing an abdominal stretch

Exercises

  • Ball Squat

Woman doing a ball squat

Woman doing a ball squat

2. Arms fall forward

Woman is doing a squat with arms falling forward

What does this mean?

You might be surprised how challenging it feels to keep your arms raised overhead while performing a squat. This is probably due to overactive back muscles (latissimus dorsi, teres major) and/or chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) as well as underactive upper back muscles (mid and lower trapezius, rhomboids) and/or rotator cuff.

What can you do to help correct this?

Stretches

  • Latissimus dorsi stretch

Woman doing a lat stretch

  • Pectoral stretch

Your pectoral (chest) muscles are shaped like a fan, so you can position your arm above, below or in line with your shoulder in order to stretch a slightly different part of the muscle.

Woman is doing a pectoral stretch

Foam rolling

  • Thoracic spine

Women is Foam Rolling

Woman is foam rolling

Exercises

  • Floor cobra

Woman doing a floor cobra

  • Squat to row

Woman doing a squat to row

Woman doing a squat to row

3. Low back arch

Woman is doing a squat with a low back arch

What does this mean?

The most likely overactive muscles causing this movement compensation are the hip flexors (a lot of us sit all the time!) and/or back (latissimus dorsi and erector spinae) as well as underactive glutes (gluteus maximus), hamstrings and/or the intrinsic core stabilizer muscles (i.e. transverse abdominis, internal obliques and pelvic floor muscles).

What can you do to help correct this?

Stretches

  • Hip flexor stretch (see above)
  • Latissimus dorsi stretch (see above)
  • Erector spinae stretch

Woman is doing an erector spinae stretch

Exercises

  • Ball squat (see above)
  • Floor bridge

Woman is doing a floor bridge

4. Knees move inward

What does this mean?

I see this one a lot, especially in individuals who try to perform squats fast instead of in a controlled fashion, as well as people who are already fatigued and try to keep going! This one needs to be corrected for sure before you start increasing your squat weight. Luckily, most gyms have mirrors in front of the squat racks or in the weight rooms – so be sure to check yourself out 🙂 The knees moving inward is probably due to overactive thighs (biceps femoris, adductors/inner thighs, TFL, vastus lateralis) and underactive glutes (gluteus maximus and medius) and/or VMO (also located in the thigh).

What can you do to help correct it?

Stretches

  • Adductor stretch

Woman is doing an adductor stretch

  • Hamstring stretch

Woman is doing an harmstring strech

  • TFL stretch

Woman is doing a TFL stretch

Exercises

  • Lateral tube walking

Woman doing a lateral tube walk

Woman is doing a lateral tube walk

  • Ball bridge with abduction

Woman is doing a ball bridge

Woman is doing a ball bridge

5. Foot turns out

Woman is doing a squat with her feet turned out

What does this mean?

When your foot (or feet) turn out, this means that you probably have some overactive calf muscles (soleus and lateral gastrocnemius) and bicep femoris (part of your quadricep) as well as underactive calf muscles (medial gastrocnemius), hamstrings and adductors.

What can you do to help correct it?

Stretches

  • Calf stretch (see above)
  • Hamstring stretch (see above)

Exercises

  • Single leg balance and reach

Woman is doing a single leg balance reach

Woman is doing a single leg balance reach

So, do you feel like a pro now? Try out this overhead squat assessment yourself and see if you can identify and correct your muscle imbalances.

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Lunden Souza Lunden is a Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Coach. She inspires Runtastics around the world with her fitness & nutrition tips and workouts on YouTube. View all posts by Lunden Souza »

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