Smash Imbalances and Weaknesses With Functional Symmetry

Ben Pollack's concept focusing on functional symmetry can help you eliminate weaknesses and imbalances.

In case you’re out of the loop: this article describes part of my transition from competing in powerlifting meets to competing in bodybuilding shows. While the outcomes of the two sports are quite different, most of the training in the gym is very similar, and I believe the two can be very complimentary when performed correctly. Keep that in mind as you read on!

One of the things I’m trying to incorporate into my bodybuilding training is the feeling of athleticism I enjoyed while training for strength.  Honestly, it sounds a bit silly, even to me: the reality is that the skills we typically think of as “athletic” — coordination, agility, speed, and so on — aren’t hugely necessary for putting up big numbers in the squat, bench, or deadlift; or for developing an aesthetic physique. Nevertheless, for me (and for many other lifters), it feels good to be able to move well.

Obviously, those athletic skills take some practice too, and if you’re preparing for a meet or a show, it can be difficult or even detrimental to pursue them. For example, your time might be better spent grudging away on the treadmill or working on your tight scapula than on running footwork drills.

However, you can maintain a great deal of athleticism even during prep by training for what I’m calling “functional symmetry.” Functional symmetry simply reflects the idea that if your strength and physique are balanced, you’ll be able to perform better and get injured less. However, while it sounds simple, putting the idea into practice can get more complicated. Here’s how I suggest going about it.

Step 1: Identify Your Imbalances

You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken in the first place, so the first step is to identify what imbalances you have — whether they’re strength imbalances or aesthetic imbalances. I think, for the majority of lifters, this step is pretty simple. For example, if your hips are rising too fast in the squat and you end up doing a good morning when the weights get heavy, you know you have a weakness related to either knee or hip extension.

From there, you can either rely on deductive reasoning or trial-and-error to narrow in on the exact problem. If you really suck at hack squats, well, then, you can be pretty sure your knee extension is lacking. Conversely, if your stiff-leg deadlift lags far behind what you might expect, then you’ll want to look at your hip extension and strengthening the hamstrings and glutes.

It can become a little more difficult once you’re an advanced lifter. For example, my recent bout of knee tendinitis was probably caused not by too much squatting per se, but rather by a weakness in the adductors that led to an over-reliance on knee extension out of the hole on my squats. This type of nuanced analysis often requires professional guidance from a good physical therapist, and if you’re not yet at an advanced level, I’d recommend that you focus more on weaknesses in the major muscle groups anyways.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s often much easier to identify weaknesses, because you can simply look in the mirror and determine what stands out as underdeveloped.  However, it can still be beneficial to seek the advice of a judge or more advanced lifter, as the idea of aesthetic symmetry is largely subjective to begin with. Looking at ourselves objectively presents an even bigger challenge!

Step 2: Identify Solutions

This is often the hardest step, and it starts with movement selection. However, I’ve already explained how to find the best movements to address your weaknesses, so I won’t rehash it here — but I will suggest that you watch the video above for a refresher.

After you’ve identified the best movements to help shore up your weaknesses, you have to determine how to integrate them into your current training program. Fortunately, this is pretty straightforward. The first step is to prioritize. Unless you believe that your weaknesses will result in imminent injury, I recommend that you prioritize your “meat and potatoes” movements — typically a squat, bench, and heavy pull — over those designed to improve your functional symmetry. That means training the big compounds first.

Once those are out the way, you can incorporate your weak-point solutions using a wide variety of strategies. Personally, I prefer to tackle these using very high-rep sets. That’s because your weak muscle groups probably can’t handle very heavy weights in the first place, and by using high reps and low weights, I find it easier to get a pump. The pump itself will help develop the mind-muscle connection necessary to use those weak muscle groups better in your compound exercises.

Furthermore, when training these assistance movements, you must remember to work the muscle, not the movement itself.

Again, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, be sure to watch the video below for clarification.

However, high-rep sets aren’t the only way to train your weaknesses. In fact, you can pretty much go crazy here! Feel free to hammer them using drop sets, supersets, tempo reps — whatever floats your boat. In general, a muscle group is weak because it’s not getting enough work, so just putting in the time and effort is often enough!

Sample Workouts Incorporating Functional Symmetry

All that above might be informative, but it’s also a little vague. So, to help make it more tangible, let’s walk through a sample back and bicep session for a lifter who’s weak at deadlifting off the floor. First, identify the weakness. In my opinion, if you’re weak pulling off the floor, you’re more often than not lacking sufficient strength in knee extension. (It’s possible that your glutes and hamstrings are the weak point, but if that’s the case, you’ll usually be pulling with a rounded back, so make sure to rule that out first).

Weak Knee Extension Program

Knee extension can be strengthened through both compound movements (like a front squat or deficit deadlift) and isolation movements (like a leg extension). This program incorporates both:

  • Warm-up: Always, always, always begin your training with a good warm-up. Because we’ve identified knee extension as a weakness, that warm-up should probably include some stationary cycling, terminal knee extensions or bodyweight leg extensions, and of course other movements for the thoracic and lumbar spine, lats, and posterior chain.
  • Deadlift: The meat and potatoes exercise, we’ll hit this one for the standard 5×5 at 80% 1RM before moving on.
  • Deficit Deadlift: Here’s where we’ll start to address weaknesses. Drop the weight to 65% 1RM and hit 2 sets of 8 off a two-inch deficit to train the movement itself using a manageable weight while emphasizing the weak part of the range of motion.
  • Superset – Leg Extension and Single-Leg Press: Some less specific work is important, too — it’s often easier to train weak muscles in isolation, as you don’t have to worry about your stronger muscle groups compensating for or “masking” said weakness. For supersets, I like to use 12-15 reps on a pure isolation movement (in this case, extensions), and 8-12 on a machine-based compound (single-leg press).

Weak Lats Workout

Now, let’s say instead of training for a weak deadlift, you’re instead trying to shore up weak lats. Your program might look like this instead:

  • Warm-up: Identical to the above.
  • Deadlift: Identical to the above. Remember, for the most part, training for strength and aesthetics are pretty similar, so this overlap shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
  • Bent-Over Smith Row: Here’s where things start to deviate a little bit.  For many lifters, it can be tough to focus on the lats when you’ve also got hip extension in the mix (as is the case with deadlifts and with barbell rows). Working in the fixed path of the smith machine limits your ability to recruit your hips, forcing you to work the lats harder instead.
  • Superset – Banded Chin and Straight-Arm Pulldown: We’ll incorporate some vertical pulling as well to really smash those lats.  The banded chin is a staple in my arsenal, and probably should be in yours as well. I like to superset these with a lat-focused movement that doesn’t require elbow flexion, or else the biceps tend to limit the work that can be performed.  Straight-arm pulldowns or pullovers are both good choices here.

Ultimately, there are no “right answers” to developing functional symmetry, just like there are rarely right answers to anything in the iron game. Hopefully, though, this article gave you some ideas for addressing your weaknesses, improving your ability to move well, and produce better results overall. If you have any similar strategies of your own, please share them in the comments below!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image By Oleksandr Zamuruiev / Shutterstock