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WORDS Regie Simmons

It started slowly.

First, it was a discomfort you noticed after your shoulder workout. Like most athletes you chalked it up to going H.A.M. in the gym. No pain, no gain, right? After a few weeks, that discomfort grew into something more, so you applied a little Deep Heat thinking things would be better soon. Generally speaking, you’re always sore for a few days after a killer workout... DOMS, baby!
After a few weeks, things didn’t seem to be getting better, so you swung by the local sporting goods store to purchase a shoulder brace and an ice pack. Certainly, supportive care and a few days off was the answer.

Several months have passed and the dull pains have now turned into shooting pain when conducting routine activities like putting on your seatbelt, giving a teammate a high-five, or tossing a ball with a friend. Maybe you’ve even gone to see a doctor for X-rays, only to be told that your shoulders look healthy. If that’s the case, why are you still in pain?

Great question. And, the answer might be that you have a muscle imbalance.

A muscle imbalance occurs when an overused/overdeveloped muscle exerts tension on a joint that is supported by a weaker opposing muscle. This increased tension pulls the joint out of alignment, causing pain and discomfort. This misalignment isn’t something that will show up on X-rays, but it is definitely noticeable to anyone who has ever had a significant one.

The human body is all about balance, so any repetitive movement that results in an overdeveloped muscle or muscle group has the potential to create muscle imbalances. Just to set the record straight, everyone has muscle imbalances. If you pick up your toddler with the same arm every time, brush your teeth with same hand or jump off the same foot, you are creating muscle imbalances through repetition. For the recreational weightlifter however, muscle imbalances can lead to constant pain, sleepless nights, wasted training, and also injury.

Two separate studies published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research demonstrated that recreational weightlifters are “predisposed to mobility imbalances as a result of training.” These studies included almost 200 male and female lifters and non-lifters, and specifically examined the muscles of the shoulder joint.

Certainly, I am not suggesting that weightlifters are more prone to muscle imbalances than the average person, but I am suggesting that they engage in repetitive movements that are designed to stimulate muscle growth. And, let’s face it: there are some muscles and muscle groups that get all the attention during training sessions. These three things - repetition, increased muscle strength, and a concentrated focus - create a perfect storm that sets the athlete up for imbalances and injury.

The shoulder joint is the most versatile in the body and is recognised for its ability to perform a wide range of motions. A healthy shoulder is capable of flexion, extension, hyperextension, abduction, adduction, medial rotation, lateral rotation, and circumduction. The problem with such a mobile and versatile joint, however, is that it’s prone to overuse and damage. The shoulder lacks bony and ligamentous structures which provide support and stability to other joints of the body.

According to a paper published in the journal American Family Physician, athletes in particular are susceptible to certain acute shoulder injuries. Three of the most common soft tissue injuries - dislocation, sprain, and rotator cuff tears - are most often seen in athletes and other active individuals.

Of course, the best way to correct a muscle imbalance is to prevent it from occurring. In the event that you already have a muscle imbalance, don’t fret because this might actually turn out to be a good thing for your physique. Muscle imbalances occur because of a concentrated focus on exercises that target specific muscles. The process to correct a muscle imbalance requires that you focus on those muscles which are underdeveloped, in an effort to balance them against the overdeveloped muscles. By prioritising these underdeveloped muscles and muscle groups, you will actually improve your symmetry and athletic performance.

Here are a few steps that you can follow to correct a muscle imbalance:
Step one: Identify the imbalance
Step two: Create a workout plan that targets the underdeveloped muscles
Step three: Prioritise weak muscles first in your workout
Step four: Be patient

As we’ve already discussed, the shoulder is a common site of muscle imbalance, so let’s concentrate our focus there.

The shoulder is comprised of several independent muscles, but for the purposes of training let’s think of them as three distinct muscles; namely the anterior, lateral and posterior deltoids. When training shoulders it’s important to target each of these muscles with specific exercises to stimulate muscle growth. By targeting each muscle, you’ll also prevent muscle imbalance which can lead to shoulder pain and discomfort.

The anterior or front deltoids tend to be overdeveloped in most people from years of direct and indirect training. Not only is the front deltoid typically prioritised during shoulder training, it is also indirectly involved in other upper body exercises, including those targeting the chest and back. The direct/indirect training of the front deltoids is often the root cause of muscle imbalances and shoulder-related issues because the other heads of the shoulder are underdeveloped and are unable to resist the tension created by the anterior deltoid. For this reason, this workout will prioritise the posterior and lateral deltoids as they tend to be generally underdeveloped.

Rear Deltoid Cable Flyes 4 12
Incline Bench Rear Deltoid Row 4 12
Lying Upright Row (Superset A) 4 10
Standing Upright (Superset B) 4 10
Lateral Dumbbell Raise 4 10
Standing Barbell Shoulder Press 4 10
Arnold Press 4 10

This workout is designed to stimulate muscle growth in the three heads of the shoulder with a priority on the posterior and lateral deltoids. Depending upon your type of muscle imbalance, you can rearrange the exercises to target the least developed to the most developed muscle. This prioritisation of weaker muscle groups can actually work for just about any underdeveloped muscle group that you wish to target.

Regie Simmons is an IFBB pro, certified personal trainer and working professional. His fitness-related mission is to help people reach a new level of fitness through sensible dieting and exercise. He has authored several eBooks and penned dozens of articles for magazines around the world. Regie has a BA from Howard University and an MBA from Saint Joseph’s University. He resides in San Francisco, California, USA and is co-owner of

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