If your right arm has ever confidently banged out a set of bicep curls or rows at the gym while your left arm has struggled to keep up (or vice versa), you know what it feels like when one side of your body is stronger than the other. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you?€¡±it happens to pretty much everyone.
It makes sense, when you think about it: Most everyone has a dominant side of the body, and for as many years as you’ve been able to move your body, the muscles on your dominant side have worked harder in everyday life to do things like lift bags off the ground, shut car doors, you name it. Having a job that involves repetitive movements can contribute to a difference, too?€¡±for example, if you’re a nurse and you always lift people from a certain side of the bed, trainer Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., tells SELF.
Beyond just having a dominant side, certain lifestyle habits, such as sleeping on one side of your body consistently, crossing your legs the same way every day, or always carrying your tote bag on one side, can lead to imbalances on your right and left side over time.
While a slight difference in strength between the sides of your body isn’t anything to worry about, if it’s big enough to catch your attention in the gym, it might be worth your attention.
For example, if you can do 10 reps of an exercise comfortably on one side but only five on the other, that’s a sign that there’s a notable muscle imbalance there, says Davis. One muscle imbalance signifies that you probably have others, exercise physiologist Michelle Lovitt, M.A., C.S.C.S., tells SELF. “If you have a muscle imbalance in your biceps, I’m guaranteeing there’s a muscle imbalance in yourtriceps, your rhomboids, your pecs, all of that,” Lovitt says.
When you have a big imbalance, certain muscles will work harder to overcompensate, which can lead to pain and injury in either side?€¡±yes, even the stronger one.
If you’re doing an exercise that uses both sides of your body at once (like an overhead press), the muscles on the strong side of your body might be working the way they should, while the weak side has to compensate by recruiting the wrong muscles to get through the same movement.
Say you’re doing a shoulder fly, for example. To perform the movement properly, you should be using the interior deltoids, levator scapula, and rhomboids, Lovitt explains. “But with a lot of people who are right-handed, their back tends to be weak on their left side, so they end up compensating with their traps [on the left side]. So their traps are doing the work that their interior deltoids, levator scapula, and rhomboids should be doing.”
Getting through an exercise by relying on muscles that aren’t even supposed to be working in that particular move is a recipe for pain and possibly even an injury, says Lovitt. In the above scenario, the muscles will get extremely tight if you continue to use your neck and traps to perform the fly, she says. This can be applied to any situation where one muscle is taking on the work that a different group of muscles should be doing.
Not to mention, if you’re not properly working one side of your body, those less-developed muscles are at risk for injury in general. “Weak muscles are more vulnerable to being torn or not ready to take on a heavy load when you, say, lift a heavy box,” Davis says.
To add insult to injury, the muscles on the stronger side of your body can actually end up hurt, too?€¡±since they’re stronger, they will work harder and ultimately end up overworking when there’s no second side of muscles to share the load with. Indoor cycling is a biggie for this: If you favor your right side, you’re probably pushing and pulling the pedals mainly with your right foot, rather than sharing the load between both. This can throw off your hips, Lovitt says.
“People say, ‘My back hurts and my hips are so tight, and I don’t understand why.’ It’s usually because one side is pulling more than the other in that type of class,” she says. This goes for running, too: Your dominant side is probably doing more work to move you forward than your weaker side, which can also lead to pain and injury from overuse.
The best way to even things out is to focus on one-sided exercises.
The number one way to correct for muscle imbalances is by including unilateral strength exercises in all of your workouts. These are moves that focus on one side of your body at a time, like single-arm rows, single-leg glute bridges, and single-leg deadlifts.
Here’s how to work them into your routine to get your weak side up to speed:
1. Start with your weaker side first.
When you’re working on one side at a time, Lovitt suggests starting with your weaker side, simply because you’ll be able to notice how big the difference is when you go to your strong side. This helps you get a better sense of how different each is and feel when you’re improving. So if you’re right-handed, for example, perform a set of biceps curls with your left arm first.
2. Use weights that feel right for your weak side, not your strong side.
You should also always make sure the weights you’re using are light enough for your weaker side to lift with good form (here’s a guide on what that should feel like). Even though it might feel like a piece of cake for your stronger side, don’t be tempted to lift heavier on that side?€¡±it’ll just exacerbate the imbalance, says Lovitt. Work your way up slowly to get your weaker side up to par, she says.
3. Keep the number of reps the same on both sides.
Just like your weights should be equal, so should the number of reps you’re doing on both sides, says Davis. It’s OK to give your weak side a break if it needs it. “Let’s say you can comfortably do 10 on one side, but on the other side you start struggling at six or seven. You can wait for that weaker side to catch up, and then move forward,” says Davis. Stop, rest, and then finish out your reps.
“The goal is to maintain the muscle mass on the stronger side until you offset the imbalance,” says Lovitt. So even though that means your stronger side won’t feel quite as challenged, your body will thank you in the long run?€¡±and it’s about time your weak side got some attention, anyway.
This story originally appeared on Self.