Embrace Asymmetries For Improved Performance
Today’s guest post comes courtesy of TG.com regular, Travis Hansen.
It mirrors a sentiment I’ve been championing for a few years now: That we don’t have to start hyperventilating into a paper bag the second we notice asymmetry in our clients/athletes.
It behooves us to maybe lean into it a bit more.
Not always, of course. But certainly more often than we think.
Embrace Asymmetries For Improved Performance
I’m sure there are many who read this article title and immediately wanted to grab their pitchfork.
Hear me out.
There are many times when you actually need to embrace the notion that our body’s natural anatomical design consists of several structural asymmetries perfectly balanced to allow us to perform at a higher level.
Cue dramatic chipmunk here.
Moreover, there are even times when you can implement an imbalanced approach both through a direct exercise, but also through how much volume you incorporate, to help neutralize a dysfunction that currently exists.
And lastly, even in the presence of elastic/power, strength, and even limb length disadvantages, the body routinely seeks a way to remain healthy and perform at a higher level.
Note From TG: If you’re interested, HERE‘s my take on why leaning into asymmetry is likely the right branch to bark up.
You know, because I’M ALWAYS RIGHT.1
First Layer of Asymmetry
Lets take a look at the first element of asymmetry that exists in the human body beginning at the foot.
I don’t think anyone would argue at this point that the various plantar flexors of the foot responsible primarily for propulsion in human movement vastly out-weight and out-perform the smaller and less powerful dorsiflexors of the foot.
Why would this be the case though?
If one group, which primarily lies on the backside of the lower leg, dominates the front side of the foot, wouldn’t there be tearing that would occur on the front eventually regardless of how much of an attempt to balance the leg is achieved?
The shin muscles do indeed tear from (mainly) eccentric overload and weakness but this can be solved.
Regardless, a balance exists at the lower leg just like many other areas, and there is just enough size and strength present in the leg in healthy individuals to allow this imbalance to occur without any problems.
Another example, can be seen at the shoulder.
Consider that your Latissimus Dorsi, teres major, biceps, anterior deltoid, and pecs all have the capacity to drive the shoulder into horizontal adduction and accelerate the arm explosively, while everything on the backside, which isn’t much, is stuck with the job of having to slow this arm action done.
Of course, the posterior muscles will fail to match the strength output of the powerful anterior shoulder group.
However, we’re designed pretty miraculously.
Our shoulder, specifically the posterior cuff, can slow “things” down just enough to bridge the large gap between front and backside and allow us to remain healthy and continue to increase throwing velocity without much issue.
Note From TG: Another way to think of it is that if the body WAS designed symmetrically or if we went out of our way to seek it, that would likely inhibit an athlete’s ability to throw a baseball in the first place. As a thrower throws, particularly at a young age, there’s a bony adaptation that occurs (retroversion) which then allows for an aggressive layback position to throw a baseball faster and faster.
If we tried to “fix” that or if the body was designed to be “equal” we’d have a lot of 72 MPH fastballs out there.
Of course, this isn’t to say there aren’t certain training modalities and manual therapy approaches we can implement to help “offset” this imbalance; there are many.
That being said, from an athletic development standpoint, the late Charles Poliquin even pointed out that elite sprinters carried a much more powerful posterior chain than anterior chain in attempts to sprint faster.
Charles declared a 100% ratio, but whether or not that figure is valid remains unseen.
To support his statement and raw figures aside, the body cannot run faster after initial phases of sprinting since vertical forces stagnate and any further increase in running speed stems from increased hamstring, glute, and horizontal force production.
The Second Layer of Asymmetry
The next example where we can begin to appreciate imbalances deals with a particular approach to program design in those people with “severe” asymmetries.
Take an anterior pelvic tilt for example.
If this message hasn’t been driven into your brain enough already, it’s worth repeating one more time since its still so prevalent:
…and that is utilizing a pre-dominant training ratio hip to quad exercises.
There is naturally a slight lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt that does and should exist in athletic and power-based postures, but excessive imbalance is what becomes problematic. The same scenario can be seen at the shoulder like was previously mentioned, anterior versus posterior core, and in other planes of motion as well.
Along these same lines, you will see training tactics such as RNT, PAILs, and RAILs all seeking to address imbalances by subtly or substantially inducing imbalances.
Alwyn Cosgrove first coined the idea of creating an imbalance to cure an existing one.
For example, if you present with a common lateral weight shift during a squat you can actually add increased poundage towards the side of the shift or set up a resistance band to pull you in that same direction to built an instinctive reflex to get you back towards center.
Note From TG: You can see that in action HERE.
More importantly, it will create a tactile awareness of the issue that you will have memory of in the future in case that same issue decides to manifest again and you will know precisely how to correct it.
Third Layer of Asymmetry
Lastly, is the issue of seeking to reduce or even eliminate according to some, the effect of having one limb stronger or more powerful than the other.
In the most extreme cases, you can witness the damaging effects of strength discrepancies with common orthopedic evaluations such as the 90 degree isometric lateral raise test.
It’s been stated that if there is a strength imbalance or pain response that results in one arm being over +50 percent stronger than the weaker arm that could be indicative of a full thickness tear to the supraspinatus muscle.
So yes, there does need to be at least some balance or an attempt to balance out joints for an athletic performance standpoint to prevent scenario’s such as this one.
But is it fair to ever think that we could actually fully restore joint strength so that we are equally strong everywhere?
1) For the reasons that were mentioned earlier based on our anatomical design, and 2) you just won’t see it happen.
If you truly test single leg strength with optimal testing selections such as pistol/single leg squats, or Bulgarian drills for strength capacity, or advanced bounding plyometric variations for power, you will witness differences in volume, endurance, and intensity more times than not.
A handful of my coaching colleagues have been posting rad videos recently of their young athletes doing rad things.
I dig that & it inspired me to share too.
— Tony Gentilcore (@tonygentilcore1) April 30, 2019
And That’s That
On a final note, consider that Usain Bolt has one leg that is inches longer than the other but contributes to key characteristics of sprinting speed, and this notion of imbalance is further perpetuated.
Maybe it’s time we start to look at imbalance differently when necessary and start embracing the notion rather than trying to erroneously fight it, and see what happens.
About the Author
Travis Hansen has been involved in the field of Human Performance Enhancement for nearly a decade. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fitness and Wellness, and holds 3 different training certifications from the ISSA, NASM, and NCSF.
He was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Reno Bighorns of the NBADL for their 2010 season, and he is currently the Director of The Reno Speed School inside the South Reno Athletic Club.
He has worked with hundreds of athletes from almost all sports, ranging from the youth to professional ranks. He is the author of the hot selling “Speed Encyclopedia,” and he is also the leading authority on speed development for the International Sports Sciences Association.