Balance is Key

Jun 17, 2021

Written by Dr. Kate Dowd, PT

You can walk into most Crossfit gyms, ask a group of regulars to recall their 1RM deadlift or back squat and I’d be willing to bet they’d be able to answer you within 10% accuracy.  Most coaches will also raise an eyebrow if they hear someone say they have a 400# back squat and a 300# deadlift.  The relationship between quad dominance  and hamstring weakness has been well documented over the years in the literature as being a risk factor in catastrophic injuries like ACL ruptures. 

The reasoning behind this finding has to do with a balance of forces at the knee joint and being able to control it in varying degrees and directions of stress.  Having a strength imbalance here puts the athlete in a risky situation so many coaches and personal trainers know the importance of posterior chain/ hinge strengthening in their athlete’s program.  Theoretically our deadlift should be our biggest lift so most good coaches who hear an athlete proclaim a larger back squat encourages them to train more hinge work, less squat work despite the position of dominance in their sport.

The concept of strength balance doesn’t apply only to the knee with squats and deadlifts.  ALL of our joints are at their healthiest and perform their best and most efficient movement when the muscles that cross them are able to produce these equal and opposite forces.  It’s not just squats to deadlifts.  It’s the right leg vs the left leg, bilateral upper extremity downward pulls vs upward presses, right shoulder upward pull vs left shoulder upward pull, right rotation vs left rotation or lateral trunk flexion right vs left.  There needs to be balance and you need to start assessing it. 


What better or simpler way to do that than to test sets and reps?  Certainly that is well within the scope of an educated coach.  Though there is not much literature available currently determining the risks of unilateral strength discrepancies, I have a hard time believing that If you have a client that can perform 8 reps of a front rack step up on a 20” step on their right leg at 75# and none on their left that after 150 squat reps you wouldn’t start to run into some compensatory patterns that can pose a problem. 

An educated coach can take a look at that client’s strength balance result and start working to make that front rack step up stronger on that left side.  If that same client happened to be complaining recently of having knee pain, this more intentional exercise selection may also have the added beneficial side effect of alleviating those irritable symptoms.  The coach isn’t treating the knee pain, the coach is merely being more strategic with how they’re programming and using data to back it up. 

Take a look at the shoulder.  How prevalent are shoulder “impingement” pain issues in the functional fitness scene?  A little hint: extremely!  Many athletes focus so hard on training pull ups because getting that butterfly pattern down smooth makes for a great IG post of the day.  Or getting that first muscle up is #goals.  How many of these athletes are training sets of kipping pull ups but can’t perform a single strict? Or how about that Oly lifter who can clean and jerk 325# but can’t do a single arm high pull at 5# because of pain- afterall, why would they ever train a pattern they don’t use in sport?  It comes back down to balance.  Our shoulders require 4 different force couples at the scapula. 

We should be able to produce equal forces with presses with upward rotation (overhead press), presses with downward rotation (dips), pulls with upward rotation (high pull) and pulls with downward rotation (pull ups).  If you train predominantly one direction, you run into a situation where one pattern becomes dominant and leaves the shoulder less resilient to high reps of any movement. Imbalanced strength across the joint commonly results in “impingement” pain that occurs as a result of altered biomechanics at the shoulder. 

Think of strength balance as a group of people pulling a boat through a canal: one group pulling from ropes on the right shore, the other group on the left.  If only one group pulls while the other slacks off, the boat will hit the side of the canal and disaster ensues.  Both sides need to pull equally to accomplish the task at hand.  The solution to a cranky shoulder may simply be identifying and addressing the missing piece of their strength balance.  Deload those pull ups, work to desensitize and strengthen that single arm high pull.  Make that shoulder healthier in general and suddenly it can tolerate the IG-worthy moves again. 

It can be that simple.  However, if you haven’t checked out what that strength balance profile looks like, you may as well be throwing darts at the board in the dark.  Test it and intentionally train it. Your client’s joints will thank you and keep them performing better, training healthier and for longer.