By Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS; Photography: Michael Butler; Model: Dan Hill, IFBB Pro
Competitive bodybuilders usually train for symmetry and proportion in an effort to build an aesthetically pleasing physique, one the judges will give high marks to. Perhaps in greater numbers are those who go to the gym to build up their beach muscles, disregarding symmetry and proportion in designing their training programs. Instead of training opposing muscle groups equally, they sometimes ignore the muscles they can’t see (back, hamstrings, calves, quads) and focus on the muscles they admire in the mirror every day (chest, biceps, shoulders and abs). Although training specific muscle groups more than others can create an unbalanced-looking physique, disregarding a muscle group over time can potentially lead to other problems that may subject the body to injury. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
One common mistake with regard to balanced training is performing an unbalanced training program between the chest and the back muscles. While most bodybuilders will integrate some sort of back exercises into their training, the amount of time, energy, effort, volume and frequency between the agonist chest muscles and the antagonist back muscles may not be equal – or even close. A simple example would be a trainer who performs four sets of four exercises for chest (for a total of 16 working sets) and does only three sets of three exercises for the back (for a total of nine working sets). Following this unbalanced training regimen over time will result in back muscles much weaker than the chest muscles. This imbalance may lead to a slightly kyphotic posture (forward/rounded shoulders) that can potentially cause shoulder problems because of the faulty posture. In addition to the stronger chest muscles (compared to the back muscles) pulling the shoulders forward, inadequate stretching of the chest musculature can further contribute to this problem.
For some people, training legs consists of quads … and that’s it. They disregard their hamstrings while training only the quadriceps. Exercises such as leg extensions, hack squats and front squats place a large amount of emphasis on the quads. Although these are great exercises, you need to do an equal amount of hamstring work with leg curls and romanian deadlifts to stress both muscle groups. Distributing attention evenly to both muscle groups can give you healthier knees and lower back, as well as fewer hamstring strains because of an unbalanced hamstring-to-quad strength ratio.
A less obvious training error with regard to balanced training concerns the shoulders. Overhead shoulder press, incline bench press, flat bench press and other chest and shoulder pressing movements are critical for maximal muscle development. However, these exercises focus on the major muscle groups such as the deltoids, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and other muscles known as the prime movers. Often ignored in a training regimen is the training/isolation of the smaller muscle groups in the shoulder known as the rotator cuff (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) that are critical in keeping the upper arm in the socket of the shoulder. Failure to train these smaller muscle groups, two of which aren’t even visible, can create an imbalance between the large prime movers and the small stabilizers. This lack of balance in strength may result in bursitis, tendinitis or even rotator cuff tears in the shoulder joint.
Following the suggestions in “Balanced Training Recommendations” may help to minimize the likelihood of injury from continually performing an unbalanced training regimen. Additionally, following these guidelines may help in developing a more aesthetically pleasing physique that’s well balanced, even if you never intend to get onstage.
Balanced Training Recommendations
1. Perform an equal number of exercises with the same relative intensity between opposing muscle groups (e.g., back and chest, hamstrings and quads, biceps and triceps). If you already have a deficit, try to do more sets on the weaker/disregarded bodypart until you’ve achieved better balance. Then train bodyparts equally.
2. To bring your training into balance, focus on isolation (single-joint) exercises while also modifying compound movements that target the various muscle groups. For example, some exercises, such as the squat and leg press, are generally regarded as quadriceps moves, even though they absolutely involve the hamstrings and glutes. However, by altering foot placement (wider, higher on platforms, etc.), you can shift the emphasis to the less involved hamstrings.
3. If you have an existing deficit between opposing muscle groups, spend some extra time stretching the stronger muscle group and strengthening the weaker one.
4. If you find a specific bodypart to be particularly stubborn at responding to an adequate training stimulus, consider adding an extra day (or two) specifically dedicated to working the stubborn bodypart until it catches up.