As a runner, you’ve no doubt experienced some random, nagging pains when you least expected them. Sometimes it’s a hot spot in your calf, foot, hip or even your shoulder. More often than not, we brush these pains off as a frustration that will go away in due time. But what if these pains are actually being caused by a weakness we didn’t know we had?
Sometimes, the pains you feel on the run are caused by weaknesses in your muscles. It’s fairly common for any person to have one side of the body that is stronger than the other – but as runners these weaknesses eventually worsen from our continued activity. Muscle imbalances are quite a bit more common than we even realize.
Muscle imbalances anywhere in the body, particularly imbalances in the legs, can trigger major problems down the road. A weakness in one hip may alter your stride, as you unknowingly compensate for the weakness by favoring the stronger side. A muscle imbalance somewhere in the legs can cause one side to be overused and eventually lead to injury.
Fortunately, finding muscle imbalances only takes a few minutes and a few simple exercises. These exercises will help you uncover any muscle imbalances that may be hiding, and test to see which side is stronger than the other. Once you are aware of your muscle imbalances, you can begin to incorporate some simple exercises to fix and correct these imbalances.
Here are a few simple exercises you can use to find muscle imbalances, and address the problem before it worsens.
The Best Exercises to Find and Fix Muscle Imbalances
Single Leg Squat
The single leg squat is incredibly effective in highlighting side to side differences. Completing this exercise on each leg helps you to feel the difference in strength from side to side. You may immediately notice that one quad, hip or glute is stronger than the other when you complete this exercise. If you don’t notice that squatting on one leg feels harder or easier than the other, then you’re off to a good start. But what happens if you do (like most of us)?
How to find a muscle imbalance: the key sign of a muscle weakness in the upper part of your leg is the angle of your knee. When you perform this squat, take a look at the knee of your grounded leg. When you squat down, your knee should ideally face straight ahead, with your thigh in a straight line. If your knee angles to one side or another your muscles are weaker on this side.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: strengthen your hips, glutes and quads. Regular squats, jump squats, lunges, and single leg squats standing on a stair are a great way to do this. Complete these exercises slowly, focusing on keeping your knees straight without letting them shift out to the sides with each repetition.
Related: 20 Minute Bodyweight Leg Workout
Single Leg Bridge
Another isolating movement that will highlight any imbalances is the single leg bridge. Completing a single leg bridge on each side is a simple way to find out if one hip is stronger than another. Just like the single leg squat, you will immediately be able to tell if one side feels easier or harder than the other. Complete a single leg bridge hold for 30 seconds on each side, and also try completing a few single leg hip lifts. Both of these exercises will give you a good idea for which side is lacking in strength.
How to find a muscle imbalance: the biggest indicator of a weakness in this exercise will be your hip alignment. As you complete a hip lift or hold the single leg bridge, notice whether one side of your hips dips lower than the other. Pay attention to this when you complete the exercise on both sides. If your hip consistently dips lower on each side, this may be an overall weakness that you’ll want to improve on both sides. If one side dips noticeably lower than the other, focus on isolating this side.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: exercises such as bridges, planks, and leg lifts will greatly strengthen this area. If you discover a noticeable muscle imbalance, focus on single leg bridges and single leg lifts (while lying on your back, stomach and side) to increase strength on just that side. If you notice that both sides are weak, try incorporating regular bridges and hip lifts, planks, and leg lifts on both sides into your strengthening routine.
Kneeling Spinal Twist
This exercise is not strenuous, but still very revealing. Kneeling on your hands and knees, simply raise one hand to the ceiling, twisting your body around with it. Do the same on the other side. You will likely notice that one side can twist farther than the other. This may be a combination of weak core and back strength on one side, as well as tighter, inflexible muscles.
How to find a muscle imbalance: pay attention to how far you are able to twist on each side, and how difficult or easy it is to do so. If you notice that it is considerably easier to twist your torso to one side, the other side may be lacking in strength. If you notice that it is painful to twist a certain direction, you may need to increase flexibility and loosen tight muscles on that side.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: completing exercises such as a plank or superman is a great way to increase overall core and back strength in your trunk. If the twist felt painful on one side, spend sometime stretching this side out each day. Reach over to touch your toes, stretch your arms overhead, and complete a few cat-cow tilts to loosen those tight muscles.
Related: 15 Minute Complete Core Workout
This simple variation on a regular lunge will reveal a great deal about your side to side leg and hip strength. The only difference in this in-line lunge is that you will want both feet to be perfectly in line with one another. You can do this by lowering your body into a regular lunge, and then moving your front foot over so it is in line with your back foot.
How to find a muscle imbalance: while in the lunge position, you’ll want to check your knee alignment. Ideally, both knees should be in a straight line with one another. If you notice your front or back knee angling out to one side, you have discovered a muscle imbalance.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: This muscle imbalance can be corrected with the same exercises that strengthen the lower body – regular squats, jump squats, lunges, and single leg squats on a stair will do the trick. Spend sometime isolating the weak side with single leg exercises, and then incorporate regular squats and lunges into your strength routine.
Related: Strength Workout for Runners
Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift is one of those exercises that looks easy but can be surprisingly challenging. You can choose to complete this exercise with a weight if you’d like, but the unweighted movement will be sufficient in uncovering any muscle imbalances. Begin by standing, and then simultaneously lower one hand to the floor while raising the opposite leg so it is parallel to the floor.
How to find a muscle imbalance: balance is key in this exercise. If you notice that you wobble and shake while attempting this exercise on one side, strength in your upper leg and hip is lacking. Pay attention to the ease at which you are able to lower towards the floor and then return to standing. This exercise can be very revealing.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: you’ll want to spend time completing the exercises listed above (squats, lunges, bridges), and also spend some time focusing on balance. Single leg exercises provide a great opportunity to improve balance on each side.
Related: Hip & Hamstring Workout for Strength
Single Arm and Knee Extension
Another revealing balance exercise is a single arm and knee extension. Begin by kneeling on the floor, and then simultaneously extend one arm and leg on the same side. Focus on keeping your arm and leg parallel to the floor when you extend them. Once your leg and arm are fully extended, bring them both in so your elbow and knee touch.
How to find a muscle imbalance: pay attention to your balance during this exercise. If your body leans to one side, you likely have a muscle imbalance in your hips and core. The idea is that your body stays fully upright while your arm and leg are moving – if you wobble or lean, you’ll need to do some strengthening.
How to correct this muscle imbalance: focus on strengthening your core and hips. Bridges and hip lifts are a great way to increase hip strength, while planks (both side and down the center) will greatly improve your core strength.
Related: The Ultimate 30 Day Plank Challenge
Fortunately, completing simple strength exercises is often an easy fix for muscle imbalances. Once you have discovered your muscular weaknesses, incorporating regular strength exercises into your training plan will help you stay strong all around. Isolating your weak side and focusing on proper form will help increase strength on one side and re-balance your body.
By dedicating just a few minutes to these strengthening exercises at the end of each workout, your muscle imbalances will correct themselves quickly. Stay strong!
Download this 30 Day Strength Training Challenge for Runners as a guide to start fitting in 5-10 minutes of strength each day – it’s free!