Aches and pains are part of life. You wake up one morning and your back is tight, your knee is pinched, your neck is jammed between two stone pillars. We usually accept these limitations and move on the best we can, with or without an Advil.
But here’s the good news. Many of the aches and pains we live with are caused by muscular imbalance. And muscular imbalance is often curable. By us, no prescription required.
Without spoiling your new year with anatomical details, muscle imbalance is what happens when you use one set of muscles too much, and the opposing muscles a lot less.
The overused muscles—over time—become inflamed and irritated. The underused muscles weaken and become vulnerable. The combo leads to sore joints, nagging pain and visits to doctors, all of which could have been avoided if you paid attention to muscular imbalance and learned to prevent it.
Here are 10 everyday habits that create muscular imbalance, compiled by fitness expert Beverly Hosford for the American Council on Exercise website.
Read and observe. Once you realize how locked in you and your body are to repetitive patterns, you can begin to reprogram. It takes intense body awareness—also known as somatics training—which is probably why attention rhymes with prevention:
1. Sleeping on the same side every night. If you always sleep on one side, or on your stomach with your head always turned the same way, switch sides. At first, it will feel odd. Explore that feeling. Remind yourself that you’re on a path to a more balanced body. Then let go into dreamland.
2. Always leading with your dominant side when climbing. It’s all about awareness. What foot leads going up stairs and what foot leads going down? Pay attention, and do what we’re always doing in yoga to stay in balance—switch to the opposite foot.
3. Crossing your legs with the same leg on top. If you cross your knees or ankles when you sit, notice which leg sits on top. Do the old switcheroo.
4. Carrying bags on the same shoulder. Which shoulder do you normally use to carry stuff—groceries, kids, man bags? Consciously shift your load to the other shoulder. What does that feel like? If you ever feel pain, stop. If you feel your shoulder is hunched and tense, release. Experiment with smaller loads, both sides.
5. Using the same hand to hold things. Which hand holds your phone, your fork, your toothbrush? Switch from time to time. This cross over trick is also good for your brain, breaking up old patterns, sparking new pathways. It will feel weird. Accept that and move on with enthusiasm.
6. Always putting your weight on one leg while standing. You’re not an ostrich. Where is your weight when you’re standing or leaning? Muscle Imbalance Alert! Stand tall, your legs hip width apart, maybe close your eyes. Shift your weight left and right, front to back, and settle into balanced, relaxed weight distribution from your feet to your head.
7. Locking your knees. Keep your knees soft when standing. Locking means you’re blocking the flow of energy. Unlocked knees are happy knees, juicy knees, and when they’re connected energetically to your feet, ankles, hips and shoulders, alignment happens effortlessly. Relaxed and balanced muscles allow for more energy to flow throughout your body.
8. Holding your phone or tablet at waist level. Text Neck is the next big thing in preventable, debilitating injuries. We all do it to see the screen—head down, neck scrunched, shoulders slouched—and we all will suffer the consequences ... UNLESS we lift the screen to eye level and relax our neck and shoulders.
9. One-sided training in sports. For this one, just picture Venus William’s right forearm. Tennis, golf and bowling are sports that obviously overdevelop one side of the body. Assess your sport for one-sidedness and correct the imbalance with focused weight training.
10. Too much driving. You may not be able to put a stop to your driving schedule but you can learn to proceed with caution. Take stretching breaks. Make adjustments—mentally and physically—so your body is doing the driving in a balanced, alert way.