Practicing and playing a sport causes athletes' bodies to adapt to the movements they regularly perform. Unfortunately, this can cause muscle imbalances, which might impair your performance or worse, cause an injury.
A muscle imbalance is a weakness or mobility issue, typically resulting from lack of use or underdevelopment of a specific muscle or muscle group. Although initially problematic, imbalances can be corrected with strength and/or mobility exercises.
Each sport has specific muscle imbalances associated with it. We spoke with strength and conditioning experts in the major sports to help you stay ahead of potential injuries by eliminating nagging imbalances.
Basketball: Right- and Left-Leg Strength Differences
"A good portion of basketball is played on one leg at time," says Alan Stein, owner of Stronger Team and strength coach for the DeMatha Catholic boy's basketball team. "Most basketball players have a difference in strength, power and stability between their right and left legs."
Your dominant hand plays a role in this imbalance, because you tend to favor shooting from your dominant side. Stein says this is particularly prevalent with the lay-up, because you jump up off your dominant foot.
It may not seem like that big a deal, but favoring one side can eventually lead to an injury. Stein says, "You will subconsciously prefer to use your stronger leg, which in essence increases the chance of injury when you are forced to use your weaker leg."
Perform at least one single-leg exercise each workout to eliminate imbalances. Stein recommends:
- Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squats - 3x10 each leg
- Single-Leg RDLs - 3x10 each leg
Football: Strong Front Muscles, Weak Back Muscles
According to Mark Roozen, owner of Coach Rozy Performance and a former assistant strength coach for the Cleveland Browns, many football players focus too much on the Bench and Squat—even at the professional level. He says, "You get a lot of quad and chest development, but very little hamstring and back work."
This causes a number of problems, especially with respect to the hamstrings and groin. Football players constantly decelerate and change directions. Lack of strength in these muscles makes them more susceptible to pulls and tears. Also, performing too many pressing reps without strengthening the back can lead to back pain and potential shoulder injuries.
"Combine the lack of hip mobility with scapular mobility, and you have some serious issues and problems that can lead to a decrease in performance and compensation in movement patterns that lead to injury," Roozen adds.
Perform at least one pulling exercise for each pushing exercise. Here are Roozen's favorites:
- Kettlebell Swings – 3x10
- YTWLs – 2x8 each
- Nordic Hamstring Lowering – 3x10
Baseball: Depressed Shoulder Girdle
Most people suffer from elevated and forward hunched shoulders caused by poor posture. But baseball players are at the opposite extreme. "They are programmed to do copious amounts of band work, which forces them to pull down and together with their shoulder blades, eliciting a state of downward rotation," says Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Performance (Hudson, Massachusetts).
Overhead athletes need to be able to upwardly rotate their shoulder blades. Gentilcore says, "If they're in a state of shoulder depression and downward rotation, this can cause impingement syndrome or, in the worst of cases, something called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome—the impingement of blood vessels that can lead to clots."
To test whether you have a depressed shoulder girdle, look at the angle of your collarbones. If they are horizontal to the ground, you have depressed shoulders. Ideally, look for a 10- to 15-degree upward slope from the sternum to the shoulder.
Gentilcore suggests strengthening the upper and lower traps. He recommends focusing on the two exercises below:
- Forearm 135-Degree Wall Slides – 2x10
- Prone Single-Arm Trap Raises – 3x10 each arm
Soccer: Weak Glutes and Hamstrings, and Limited Ankle Mobility
Soccer players make quick and rapid changes of direction, which puts stress on their knees if they have an imbalance. Brock Christopher, U.K. performance director for Michael Johnson Performance, who also works with the English Football Association, identifies three common problems: Weak adductors, weak hamstrings and a lack of ankle mobility.
These three issues put the knees at a biomechanical disadvantage, meaning the joints are not positioned to handle the force and stress placed on them. Ultimately, this could lead to an injury.
"Weak glutes, hamstrings and lack of ankle mobility all cause the knee to become unstable and force movement in all planes," Christopher says. "This leads to a great many meniscal and ACL injuries."
To correct each issue at the root of its imbalance, Christopher prescribes the following four exercises.
- Single-Leg RDL – 3x10 each leg
- Nordic Hamstring Lowering – 3x10
- Side Plank – 2-3x30 seconds each side
- Inchworm – 2x15
Hockey: Anterior Pelvic Tilt
If you sit during most of your day, there's a good chance you have some degree of anterior pelvic tilt. The hip flexors become overactive and tight, causing the pelvis to tilt forward.
This is particularly problematic for hockey players, because they tend to skate in a forward-flexed position. It's even been called an epidemic. Sean Cromarty, owner of Competitive Edge Training and a former Division I hockey player, says it can lead to "possible hamstring injuries, a decreased stride and a slower leg recoil." Those affected will be slower and at a higher risk of injury.
Cromarty recommends strengthening the backside of your body with exercises such as Deadlifts and RDLs. You also need to release tight muscles by performing exercises such as:
- Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Strength – 5x10 second holds
- Reverse Lunge With Overhead Reach – 2x12 each leg
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