The Symmetrical Solution

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Bodywork: Fitness for the Outside Athlete, November 1996

The Symmetrical Solution

Correcting your natural imbalances may just be the secret to superior fitness
By Cory Johnson

At first it was merely a blister on her left foot. Lynn Doering had just taken second in the hotly contested Bermuda International 10k--her last tune-up before the 1996 Olympic marathon trials--and was out for a long run. There was nothing to bother her. Nothing but a blister. Then, imperceptibly, she began to favor her left foot. The next day her entire left leg ached. "Instead of planting my foot flat down," Doering says, "I was running asymmetrically, compensating and turning a little bit on my foot to relieve the pressure." What had started as a slight imbalance quickly developed into Achilles tendinitis, and just like that, Doering was out of the trials.

Echoes of Doering's plight are common, yet most outdoor athletes are unaware that having a symmetrically balanced body is important. Body symmetry, however, can be the difference between winning and losing, between superior fitness and nagging injury. "The people who are the most symmetrical tend to have the fewest injuries," says David Martin, a physiology professor at Georgia State University, chairman of sports science for USA Track and Field, and an expert in body symmetry. "Obviously, the uninjured are more likely to get more fit." The catch, Martin points out, is that none of us are--or can be--perfectly symmetrical. In fact, most of us have asymmetry in one of three forms: skeletal, muscular, and neurological. Any or all can significantly affect performance.

But even the most lopsided of us can bring our bodies toward equilibrium. Especially now--as you hit the gym this winter, whether to prepare for your summer pursuits or just to get your ski legs in shape--you can also work on bolstering your weaker side. "Being symmetrical is quite a challenge," Martin says. "But in time, a good strength and conditioning program can put you back on the right track."

Diagnose Thyself
Nine out of ten people are born right-handed. But whether you're right- or left-handed, your dominant side is almost always stronger. Your "handedness" also affects what physiologists call kinesthetic proprioception, which reinforces muscular imbalances. "Simply put, kinesthetic proprioception is how your body moves through space," says Eric Lawson, strength and conditioning physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Right-handers develop patterns in right-handed ways, and vice versa. If you do something repetitively--say, spike a volleyball with the same hand, over and over again, the same way every day--you develop some asymmetries."

Injury will also exacerbate any innate or acquired weaknesses, and not surprisingly, it often occurs on your weak side. Indeed, an injury can turn your asymmetry into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what happened to Doering. "I've been an elite athlete for a number of years, so I'm always concerned that my body is developed symmetrically," says the 34-year-old runner. "But I learned a hard lesson: The slightest imbalance can throw everything off and cause a domino effect."

Yet before you undertake a regimen of one-armed push-ups, make sure you know your own asymmetries. Diagnosing your weak side is easy: Take a good, long look at your body in the mirror. Size up both sides of your body, look at your shoulders and pectoral muscles, and compare the bulk of your biceps and thighs. You can also use a cloth measuring tape to check the circumference of your legs and arms. But don't get too wrapped up in being exact. "It's natural to have one side slightly bigger," says Parnes Cartwright, a top personal trainer in New York. "Don't sweat it if your right biceps or thigh is half an inch bigger in circumference. But if your dominant side is so pronounced that you can see it in the mirror, that's a problem that your training program should address."

The Perils of Repetition
The effects of athletic asymmetry are perhaps most pronounced in the legs and hips, since they're the weight-bearing areas of the body. In particular, a muscle imbalance in one leg can cause problems for the iliotibial band, or ITB, a thin strip of tissue that braces the outside of the leg, running from hip to knee. Take a skier, for instance. Making turns to the strong side is no problem, but when he or she drives into the weak side, the corresponding ITB has to make up for the lesser quadriceps and hamstring to keep the knee from blowing out. With every turn, the ITB gets overstretched.

Hips are another symmetry trouble zone, especially for women. "With their wider hips, women cyclists are particularly prone to problems," Lawson says. "When they pedal, there's more pronation than for men, and that leads to injury. On the weaker side, it gets worse." Having one hip higher than the other (common for women as well as men) can cause the shorter--and usually weaker--leg to bow outward, leading to muscle inequities and strain on the medial collateral ligament or the ITB.

Problems can develop from the bottom up if your legs aren't the same length. With every second stride during a run, the shorter leg is stretched farther than the other, which causes the hip to turn out. Meanwhile, that side of the lower back is getting slightly wrenched. Keep running that way and you'll end up with a sore lower back, a tight hamstring, and a crooked pelvis. "Endurance sports rely on repetition, and that just magnifies the problem," Martin says. "Cycling? That's tens of thousands of revolutions per week."

Martin's seen the results of asymmetry up close working with the likes of world champion duathlete Ken Souza, who tore the ligaments in his left knee years ago. He developed a strength imbalance, and it still affects his performance. "If one leg is off balance by even 10 percent," Souza says, "obviously I'm going to have less output."

Getting Even
The surest cure for the asymmetrical body is in the weight room, using dumbbells or a bilateral weight machine to isolate one side. But strength is only part of the asymmetry solution. To even out your motor skills, Lawson says, you have to practice your sport as if your other side were dominant. For instance, a volleyball player who always steps right-left before a right-handed slam should try stepping left-right. "We identify that athlete's motor pattern and reverse it completely," says Lawson. "It will be very difficult at first, but with practice, it can lead to body symmetry."

To do any of this, though, you need good balance, says Kevin Moody, a trainer at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. "An injury or simply favoring one side of the body can cause the nerves of your off-side to become ineffectual in controlling fine motor skills," he says. "Balance training teaches your nerves to send and receive accurate information between both sides of the body and the brain." (See "Striking a Balance.")

Finally, make symmetry-work a regular part of your sport-specific training. Spend a certain portion of your workout time using only your weak side, or at least concentrating on it. If you're a swimmer, spend about 10 percent of every practice pulling one-handed with your weak arm, and when you do use both arms, make sure you breathe on both sides. If you're a paddle-sport enthusiast, devote a bit of your workout to paddling with your weaker side. Runners, meanwhile, should be wary of pounding cambered pavement always in the same direction, lest their hips and legs get out of whack.

Asymmetrical training is a technique that Souza still works into his routine. "In the wintertime, I'll do one-legged sprints on the bike," he says. "I'll hike one leg up, spin for a few minutes, then reverse it. Since I tore those ligaments, I've had to do extra work to make sure that my left side is as strong as the other. I've tried to forget that injury, but my leg still remembers."

Cory Johnson, a frequent contributor to Bodywork, is a runner and a cyclist.

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