If you’ve had persistent back pain for a while and don’t know why, consider the possibility that you have a muscle imbalance. The term “muscle imbalance” refers to a condition in the body that is present when opposing muscles are out of balance with one another in terms of strength, length and/or tension. Opposing muscles are those that perform opposite functions. They may oppose one another spatially left-to-right or front-to-back. For example, quadriceps are responsible for extending the knee and the hamstring is responsible for flexing it. One is on the front of the thigh, and the other, the back.
When opposing muscle groups are imbalanced, one group is tighter and shorter than the other, which is elongated and lax. Imbalances can cause pain both directly and indirectly. The muscle that is shorter and tighter is chronically tense; muscle memory has trained it to stay in its shortened position. Tense muscles can develop knots called trigger points that cause localized and referred pain. The weaker muscle is prone to strain.
What causes muscle imbalance? Generally, repetitive activity is to blame. This could occur from poor exercise habits or from repetitive movements required by your work. When you engage a muscle, the brain sends a signal to its opposing muscle to relax; this allows the engaging muscle to tense up without resistance. The process is called recirpocal inhibition. Once muscle memory sets in, the tension and laxity can become chronic.
Muscle imbalances can occur anywhere in the body, but the following are some of the most common.
Tight quadriceps exert a pull on the top of the kneecap and on the ACL ligament. Without a balanced counterforce from the hamstring, this can lead to either knee or ACL injury. Weak hamstrings that can’t help lift the leg often lead to lower back muscles compensating for their action. This can cause lower back strain.
It is quite common for hamstrings to be weaker than quads. If your quads are tense, they’re likely preventing activation of the hamstrings. A combination of myofascial release on the tight quads and targeted exercise for the hamstrings will help restore balance. Self-myofascial release (SMR) can be performed with the use of a foam roller.
2. Hip Flexors/Glutes
The muscles in the buttocks and hips are important because they promote pelvic stability and proper gait. An imbalance can lead to problems with hip joints, posture and movement patterns. Tight flexors pull on the spine, causing the lower back to arch inward and the buttocks to stick out. This compresses lower back muscles, spinal joints and discs. Weak glutes fail to support hip joints or engage to facilitate leg movements. Back pain, gait dysfunction and hip pain may all result.
Foam rolling the hip flexors and targeting the glutes during your workout can fix this problem.
3. Upper Back/Chest
Slouching is a common postural dysfunction; it can cause and be caused by an imbalance between the chest and shoulder/upper back muscles. Muscles in the chest may become overly tight from working the pecs too hard at the gym or from slouching on a regular basis, which places them in a shortened position. This position discourages the engagement of muscles in the upper back and shoulders, as they are held in elongated positions. These muscles grow weak and strained, while the shortened chest muscles continue to pull on them.
A combination of upper back exercises and chest rolling can correct this imbalance.
Not all imbalances mark the need for foam rolling. Sometimes, the stronger muscle group is just more developed than its opposing group without being chronically tense; in this case, exercising the weaker muscle is all you need to do. If allowed to persist, the imbalance can lead to compensation, postural dysfunction and pain.
For information on testing yourself for imbalances, see the advice at www.menshealth.com. You may also wish to call local physical therapists to find out if any in your area are trained to identify imbalances. Some chiropractors also offer testing.
Foam rolling and targeted exercise are often sufficient to correct imbalances. Back pain prevention requires balanced workouts, postural awareness and limiting your time spent sitting.