The Myth of Symmetrical Programs

I’ve been asked this question numerous times over the years. And recently it’s started coming up again.

“Mike – don’t I need a symmetrical program? Like balancing pushes and pulls, quad dominant versus hip dominant lifts, etc.?”

It’s a very valid question, and one I feel needs to be addressed.

Story Time!

When I first started working out, we got all kinds of hand-me-down free weight equipment from Ball State University, and then a sparkling new Cybex circuit in another room.

Being young bros we obviously took to the bench press – we literally benched three times per week, every single week.

The issue was this – we didn’t have a rowing machine, and the lat pulldown literally broke within the first week that we had it.

Over the course of the next 3-4 months, our bench presses had all gone up to some degree, but we started looking at ourselves in the mirror and our posture and alignment was horrible!

So we figured out really quickly we needed to start balancing things out, and immediately started doing dumbbell rows, chin-ups in the gym, etc.

Taking the Next Step

It’s a logical progression – people read an article or two about structural balance and realize that benching three times per week when they were younger probably wasn’t the best thing for their shoulders.

As a result, they make it their priority to really focus on balancing things out. Now, every time they perform a bench press, they’re going to do some sort of horizontal pull or rowing* exercise to balance it out.

(*Please note that a bench press and a row are not a perfect opposite of each other. If you haven’t read it yet, please read this article.)

The problem is this – they do this for a couple of months, and they don’t really see the changes they’d like to see.

Their shoulders are still pulled forward.

And what’s worse, their shoulders still hurt!

This is the myth of the symmetrical program. A symmetrical program is all fine and dandy, with one caveat:

You have to be balanced in the first place for it to work!

Now think about that for a second…

How many of your reading this are totally balanced and symmetrical from front-to-back and side-to-side?

How many of your clients and athletes can say that?

What I’m getting at here is simple – very rarely do people come to me with good structural balance. Therefore, their program must be inherently imbalanced if I want to get a change.

So if they’ve been performing bench 3x/week for the past 3 years, it’s going to take a lot of rowing to offset that imbalance. In fact, we may drop the bench press all together and focus solely on upper back work in the short-term to make a significant change.

Now keep in mind – my goal IS NOT to have people look like anatomical models out of textbooks. A bit of asymmetry is often going to be evident, no matter how hard we try.

Furthermore in the case of certain athletes, trying to take away their asymmetries or imbalances is not only futile, but will actually impair their performance over the long haul! I’ll actually discuss this a bit more in my upcoming post on Thursday.

This is something I want you to start evaluating going forward, either with yourself or the clients/athletes you work with:

Actionable Item

Critically look at yourself (or your clients) to determine their current level of structural balance. Once you’ve determined where they may need more work (i.e. upper back, core, posterior chain, etc.) take a peek at their programming.

If they are imbalanced, you need to skew things in favor of the weak or under-developed area. A 1:1 ratio for someone that is imbalanced simply won’t cut it!

Depending on how poor their posture or alignment is, we’ll skew things in a 2:1 or even as much as a 3:1 ratio.

I guarantee a lot of you reading this are making this mistake. Make it a goal to start bringing up those weak areas in your next program – I guarantee you’ll not only move and feel better, but probably get stronger to boot!

All the best

MR

(Lead Photo Courtesy of Kaibara87)

2 Comments

Leave Comment

  1. Mike, how would you change the ratio later down the road? Would it resemble more 1:1 as opposed to 2- or 3:1 for the trainee who has been minimizing their imbalances?

  2. I completely agree with you and am glad you brought up this point. If a client comes in with an imbalance, the best thing you can do is give them an imbalanced program. 9 times out of 10, a 3:1 pull to push and 3:1 hip dominant/glute focused program will be just the trick. Four weeks of effective foam roll, split stance stretching, teaching scap retraction & depression combined with solid strengthening can literally change someone’s life. Vague patello-femoral pain and “bad shoulders” can disappear, and you can find yourself with a new and very happy client.

Leave a Reply


Back to All Posts