Our Strength Symmetry Blog Series discusses the asymmetry commonly observed in the fundamental movements of pushing, pulling, squatting, and walking/lunging.
Ambidexterity vs. Strength Symmetry
Symmetry is everywhere in nature. And while many of us appear as humans to be mostly symmetrical; eyes, ears, etc., when it comes to movement, very few of us are. This lack of balance, or asymmetry is a function of something innate in our behaviour. Handedness is a classic example.
About 90 percent of people are right-handed. The remaining 10 percent are either left-handed or some degree of ambidextrous, though people with "true" ambidexterity—i.e., no dominant hand at all—only make up about 1 percent of the population.— Michael Corballis, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Auckland in New Zealand [article at apa.org]
In fact, this asymmetry is well beyond a habit. Humans and other primates largely owe this “lateral” preference to genetic origins. This asymmetry is also expressed internally in our physiology, most significantly in the distribution of organs in our chest and abdomen.
Almost all of us also have a dominant leg or foot. The relationship between our dominant hand and foot (via our hips/core), is called “Cross-Dominance”, and may be expressed in asymmetric mobility, muscle mass, and movement patterns (e.g. rotational bias). The results? An imbalance in strength or Strength Asymmetry, most evident when completing complex dynamic movements like squatting, running, jumping, and climbing where one side of the body “leads” the other side. What’s more, is that many of us are unconscious of which side dominates our daily behaviour. It isn’t until we’re forced into using our “opposite” side that we might break from our asymmetrical habits and catch a glimpse of reality.
The Importance of Symmetry
While we’re sometimes forced into a situation where our asymmetry is evident, it may not be until injury occurs where we appreciate the significance of any imbalance. This is especially true in our working environments. Whether you swing a hammer with, sit at a desk, or lift heavy boxes, repetitive motions dominated by asymmetric movement can lead to both acute and chronic injury. An example is Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI):
Any of various painful musculoskeletal disorders (as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis) caused by cumulative damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, or joints (as of the hand or shoulder) from highly repetitive movements — called also repetitive stress injury. - Merriam-Webster
Another possible symptom of asymmetry may be Lower Back Pain (LBP). A 2003 study by McGill et al. found that not only were anterior/posterior core imbalances associated with people who had identified as suffering from LBP, but lateral/oblique strength endurance asymmetry was common for those same people.
If you suffer from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, LBP, or some other RSI, check out the many resources available at the Centre for Disease and Control's “National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health”. Risk assessment tools and ergonomic recommendations can be found here that cover a wide range of careers including retail, healthcare, and agriculture (among many others).
Strength Symmetry in Practice
The Strength Symmetry concept is founded on the perspective that although we’re performing tasks on a daily basis that aren’t overly taxing on our body, asymmetry in our mobility, muscles, and movement is enhanced when we load our body during dynamic movements, often when exercising. Meaning, if you’re right-handed, there is a high likelihood that when you clean and jerk, or snatch weight (especially with a barbell), you’re exacerbating that dominance through the whole kinetic chain under heavy weight (not just with a pencil or a computer mouse!). The same can be said from “the bottom up” with your dominant leg and hip sustaining the highest load through many types of movements from walking and running, to lunging and squatting. This sounds like common sense, but in the moment (or even chronically), most of us don’t consider the significance of this subconscious dominance.
Many sports have also perpetuate asymmetric tendencies (baseball, golf, hockey, etc.). Later installments of this series discuss the imbalance observed when performing complex dynamic movements trained for sports and activities including: team sports, Crossfit, climbing, and gymnastics. In particular we will be looking at fundamental pushing, pulling, squatting, and walking/running movements. An entire post will also be dedicated to Strength Symmetry in the core.
How’s Your Symmetry?
To get started on your self-assessment of Strength Symmetry, try one (or all) of these different ways to compare your dexterity:
- Brush your teeth with the opposite hand
- Write the same word with each hand in (try the mirror image for extra challenge)
- Bounce/catch/throw a ball with each hand 5x and try not to move your feet
To translate this concept of imbalance and Strength Symmetry to the movements of pushing, pulling, squatting, and lunging, try one (or all) of the following to compare your Left-Right coordination and endurance under external load:
- Press: Hold a light kettlebell overhead in the press position while looking in a mirror - How long can you safely hold the weight before your form is compromised? How did your shoulders move? Were you compensating?
- Row: Perform a bent-over row with a dumbbell or kettlebell in a mirror. Notice the differences in your core engagement, and if your shoulder drops when loading one side or the other.
- One-leg Stand: Stand on one leg until you lose your balance or your leg (or foot musculature!) is exhausted. How long were you able to hold each side? Which muscles hurt?
- The Pistol Squat: Work through a pistol squat progression suitable to your level. What do you notice?
- Lunges: Try forward/backward/side lunges with bodyweight on each side. Do you have a wobbly side? Does one side tire before the other? (enhance with a light kettlebell in the rack position for more challenge)
Now that you’ve evaluated your imbalances and Strength Symmetry, here are some Guiding Principles to help with your Strength Symmetry Training:
- Consider your Mobility and Joint Stability. Even though Strength Symmetry might be the goal, your current mobility and core/joint stability may be the primary impediment. There are plenty of resources available digitally (most famously MobilityWOD), having a quality clinician (Chiro, Physio, RMT, etc.) you can rely on is always a great asset.
- Start Small. When exploring your strength symmetry start with lighter weights than normal. Even with mobility and joint stability being considered, there are likely asymmetries that don’t show up until you’re under load, so be cautious and mindful of joints, limbs, and muscles until you’re familiar with your current state.
- Up and Down, Front and Back, Side to Side. Always do any movement equally on all sides and in all directions to train your anterior/posterior, lateral (adduction/abduction etc.), and internal/external rotation isometrically, eccentrically and concentrically. Be aware of imbalances and don’t assume you’re equally capable or balanced in your strength symmetry.
- Repeat Often at First. Re-patterning muscles to engage properly through your full range is best accomplished with repetition and mindful execution.
- Add Objectivity. Unless you are physically connected to something or able to reference your movement via your vision (e.g. a mirror) or your ears (e.g. cues from a coach), it’s tough to gauge how symmetrical your movement is. Here’s an awesome video from Barbell Physio that demonstrates this concept of a physical reference point for the barbell bent-over row.
Various movements over the years have attempted to train ambidexterity, often with the intent of improving brain function. The results of these efforts have been mixed with the primary lesson coming down to the common phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Therefore, rather than proceeding down the path of Strength Symmetry striving for perfection on both sides of your body, acknowledge the deep and innate biological asymmetries, and focus instead on both sides of your body working together. Imagine the hands of a drummer, or the base and treble hands of the piano, as you run, jump, press, and climb your way to sustainable movement and health.
Favourite Ambidexterity and Strength Symmetry Activities
- Piano Playing
- Wing Chun Gung Fu (and other Martial Arts, some more than others!)
- Kettlebell Work - Check out our Agatsu friends here for endless kettlebell training options
- Offset or Asymmetric Work - Below is the Yoak being used for an offset pullup at the world famous Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge.
If nothing else, we hope this quest for Strength Symmetry leaves you moving more mindfully. Most of us have to focus really hard when doing something different with our body. By introducing the concept of Strength Symmetry and balance into your routine, you’re bound to benefit from some extra awareness as you move through your day :)
Safe Strength Symmetry and Core Stability Training and stay tuned for our next installment in the Strength Symmetry Blog Series: The Pullup!
— The Yoak Team