I originally wrote this piece for AFE and am reposting it here.
Fitness pre-testing is a valuable tool for evaluating movement patterns and assessing a client’s strengths and weaknesses. The information gathered from such testing can then be utilized to develop a customized program which addresses and corrects functional abnormalities. The more thorough the pre-testing, the better equipped a trainer is to help the client reach optimal potential within the training program, while also guarding against injuries which the client might be predisposed to as a result of compensatory patterns.
Many people have developed compensatory patterns over time. Sometimes structural abnormalities exist from birth, or develop in childhood, and often throw surrounding soft tissues and joints out of alignment. In other cases, injuries from sports or other activities can cause a person to begin favoring one side of the body in an effort to reduce the stress load on the injured side. The problem with these compensatory patterns is that they allow the weak or restricted side to become even worse over time. Because of this, functional weight training should always address these patterns in an effort to correct them.
How To Determine Asymmetry
One of the most valuable early tests for determining structural asymmetry is the single leg stance, in which the client’s ability to stabilize the trunk over the supporting leg is determined. Misalignments of the hips, knees, or ankles/feet can be detected easily with this screening tool. For example, if one hip joint is restricted or otherwise unstable, the client will shift weight in an effort to maintain balance. A trainer can then utilize the information gathered from the single leg stance test to focus on compromised function in a joint or extremity.
Clients will frequently exhibit asymmetries in strength, range of motion, or muscle recruitment which can easily be overlooked if a trainer doesn’t have a practiced eye. Because of this, a thorough assessment of the client’s posture, range of motion, and form should be implemented before training begins so that the trainer can identify and properly address compensatory movement patterns.
Let’s say a client exhibits poor movement while performing a basic bodyweight squat, the source of the dysfunction must be determined so that the trainer can correct it. Is the limitation is coming from the foot, the knee, the hip joint, the pelvis, or the sacrum? Is the issue one of limited mobility, muscle weakness, joint instability, or of poor muscle activation? The origin and the nature of the dysfunction will determine which corrective exercises should be added to the client’s program.
Sports and Compensatory Patterns
Asymmetries are especially common in people who engage in sports such as baseball, golf, soccer, football, and tennis, which rely heavily on one side of the body. Because of this, it is important to ask clients if they currently play sports or have played them in the past. It is also important to ask clients about any past injuries which may be contributing to current compensatory patterns. Compensation results from a number of factors, including muscle weakness, impaired joint mobility, musculoskeletal asymmetry, leg length discrepancy, previous injury, and even joint stress from obesity. Joints can become lax and unstable, forcing contralateral muscles to take the brunt of the movement in order to stabilize the dysfunction. What often results is overuse in the compensating region, which in turn adversely affects the client’s training, and also reinforces the asymmetry.
Offset load training is a training approach in which different loads are used on the right and left sides of the body during an exercise, challenging the body to adjust. If you have ever dealt with clients who have demonstrated asymmetry in strength or power between one side of the body and the other, or who have visible differences in muscle mass when comparing each side, and have addressed their asymmetry solely with isolated unilateral movements, you can implement offset load training as a very effective way to break through training plateaus and to address accumulated asymmetry between the right and left sides of the body. Offset load training is not only more challenging than isolated unilateral exercises, it also results in more neural connections and greater kinetic efficiency.
Asymmetries in strength or muscle development most commonly result from natural dominance on one side, but they can also emerge as a result of injury. During bilateral training, the stronger side will always compensate for the weaker one by taking on more of the load, so the weaker side remains at a disadvantage. In contrast, unilateral and offset movements force each side of the body to bear the load fully and independently, effectively forcing the weaker side to work. Over time, differences in strength between each side are diminished as a result of this type of training.
Benefits Of Offset Load Training
One of the greatest benefits of offset load training is greater trunk stability and strength. Any time you perform a unilateral or offset movement (think of using a shovel), you activate your abdominal muscles in order to resist rotational forces and maintain a neutral spine. Another benefit of offset load training is that offset exercises challenge the nervous system to adapt to the unequal weight distribution by recruiting muscles in a coordinated fashion to maintain balance. You might be surprised by how much your client’s overall strength will increase as a result of improved conditioning in the smaller stabilizing muscles of the trunk. This is because enhanced balance and trunk strength stabilize the extremities and transfer power to them. In other words, if the muscles in the trunk are more efficient at stabilizing the spine, the limbs will benefit from greater power.
How To Add Offset Load Training To A Client’s Regimen
Offset load training works with most barbell and dumbbell movements and can be easily incorporated into a client’s training regimen. You can use this form of training as an adjunct to bilateral movements in a client’s plan. When selecting weights, make sure the difference in weights between sides is moderate, and keep the rep range around eight to twelve reps. Instead of handing dumbbells to your client, have the client lift them so that the muscles of the trunk will become activated even before the exercise is performed. If you are using a barbell, load each side with a different number of plates. If using the double cable assembly, set the pins at different weights. Be sure to monitor your client closely during this type of training, especially those relatively new to lifting weights who have poor balance and coordination.
Here are some tips for each of the exercises in this superset to ensure good form and maximum gluteal muscle recruitment. When you perform jump squats, try to get as low as possible without straining your knees, then jump explosively into mid-air. When you land from the jump, you will immediately jump again. Also make sure to sit more into the movement, as this will hit more of the glute muscles. When you have completed your jump squats, you will go immediately into stiff-legged dumbbell deadlifts. Stand with feet close together and hold the dumbbells so that your palms face your body, then bend forward at the waist so that dumbbells are almost touching the floor. You should feel a good stretch in the back of the legs when you do this.
The trickiest move in this superset is the bench crossover jump. If you crouch somewhat during the movement, you will have better stability. Do NOT rest when your feet are at the top of the bench! In fact, when you plant one foot on the bench for your jump, that foot should already be lifting off the bench when your plant your other foot on the bench during your jump. This is an explosive and powerful move!