Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
It’s perfectly normal for one side of your body to be a bit stronger and more coordinated than the other. If you’re right-handed and have ever tried to brush your teeth with your left hand, you know what I mean. Despite how symmetrical your body might look — unless you’re among the 1% of the population who are ambidextrous — you naturally have a dominant side.
Trouble begins to brew when the scales tip too far past natural sidedness and your dominant side begins shouldering an unfair load. That’s when you start to experience pain, weakness and the potential for overuse injuries. And because muscles work in chains, imbalance-related issues can become a chain reaction, affecting other parts of the body.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that with a little awareness and some equalizing exercises, you can correct imbalances enough to embrace your natural asymmetry in a healthy, pain-free manner.
How sidedness becomes a problem
Having a physically demanding career is arguably the most common way natural side dominance can lead to issues. As a mobility and mind-body coach working in professional sports, I see this often. For instance, consider the demand put on the dominant arm of a Major League Baseball pitcher. All too often, the overuse results in a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, necessitating surgery to repair it.
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to have physical responsibilities that exacerbate side dominance. Think about checkout lane cashiers repeatedly scanning items using the same hand or stay-at-home parents carrying their babies around all day on one hip. Anyone regularly doing an activity requiring repeated motion or strength that relies on their dominant side can experience chronic pain and increased injury potential if they don’t take measures to counter it.
Another common way people inadvertently intensify side dominance is failing to properly rehab after an injury. If you slipped and twisted your ankle on your nondominant side, you would need to rely more on your dominant side to get around. Without balanced rehabilitation, you would likely continue favoring your dominant side even after your ankle heals.
Address imbalances in your daily activities
Awareness is a key ingredient for restoring more balanced movement patterns. By recognizing the ways you feed into your sidedness throughout the day, you can make simple changes to help counteract overuse. If you carry a bag over your shoulder, switch sides regularly. When standing for long periods, notice if you keep your weight more in one hip and leg, and shift, if you do. Even sitting on the same side of the couch every night can increase overreliance on your dominant side, so you should change your position from time to time.
Although walking is a symmetrical activity, pay attention on your next walk to ensure balance in your gait and work to correct any sided dominance. If you feel you may be favoring one side, check your shoes for uneven wear, which is an indicator of imbalance.
Because we’re naturally stronger and more coordinated on one side, there are some sided activities that we just can’t change easily, such as swinging a golf club, throwing a ball or putting pen to paper. If you have responsibilities in your career or lifestyle that necessitate repetitive use of one side, it’s important to practice a regular fitness regimen that incorporates exercises to help restore balance. Much of my coaching work with professional athletes is focused on just that.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
Work out to balance out
Although it may sound counterintuitive, unilateral training, where you place emphasis on one side of the body at a time, is the most effective way to promote symmetry with exercise. By doing unilateral single-leg or single-arm exercises, you can ensure that you put the same amount of effort on each side equally. This approach not only helps correct existing imbalances but also prevents their development. By focusing on each side individually, you are working to ensure proper muscle firing patterns that enhance coordination and lay a stable foundation for symmetrical strength.
When it comes to unilateral strength training, dumbbells are the perfect equalizing tool, demanding matching effort from both sides. Unlike barbells or machines, which can allow the dominant side to compensate, dumbbells require each limb to carry its load independently. That means you’re promoting balance and exposing and addressing any strength discrepancies.
Even better, you only need one dumbbell to do an entire workout incorporating unilateral strength-training exercises. Sample unilateral strength-training exercises you can integrate seamlessly into your fitness routine include lunging (forward, backward and lateral lunges), single-leg Romanian dead lift, single-arm shoulder press and single-arm rows. For these and any other strength-training exercises, it’s important to select the right weight for your fitness level and focus on proper form.
Leverage science for corrective exercise
One of the significant differences of unilateral training compared with standard bilateral training is its unique effectiveness as a rehabilitation tool. Research has found that when you train one side of the body with unilateral training, the other side is also stimulated, and this indirect stimulation actually strengthens the nonworking side. This science-backed phenomenon is called cross-education training.
Not surprisingly, cross-education training plays a key role in rehabilitation protocols for sided injuries, such as the pitcher’s UCL surgery previously mentioned. When one side is compromised due to injury, dedicating attention to the healthier side can prevent detraining effects on the injured limb. The neural adaptations and strength gains achieved on the untrained side make healing more efficient and effective.
Just as it plays a crucial role in the recovery from sided injuries, cross-education training offers a practical pathway for non-injured persons seeking to correct imbalances. No need for an exhaustive focus on the weaker side; by practicing unilateral exercises with equal effort, cross-education training supports the creation of balanced strength and stability.
Following this advice, you can safely embrace the gifts of your dominant side, knowing you are taking proactive measures to keep the scales in balance to remain pain- and injury-free.
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