For those of you who are eagerly seeking “muscle development”, an article on balanced muscle development probably seems irrelevant. After all, when we’re underweight, we just want to get bigger… right? But not so fast; an unbalanced gain in muscle development with little regard for proportion often results an appearance that makes being skinny seem attractive by comparison. Really… who wants to work hard in the gym only to project the image of a baboon? But the imbalances created by mindless weight training with the aim of gaining weight rather than achieving balanced muscle development can result in exactly that – the appearance of a brutish primate or, at the very least, a “dumb jock.”
If we’re going to work hard for muscle development, we might as well strive for the kind that appears aesthetic and sophisticated. This means training in a way that avoids over-development in some areas and under-development in others. It doesn’t imply that any of us can obtain perfectly proportioned muscle development; genetic factors see to it that this is nearly impossible. It just means that we can greatly improve the balance and symmetry of our physiques over their current appearances by using some intelligence and discipline.
“Muscle Development”: Areas which are often unbalanced
With a couple decades of gym membership behind me, I’ve observed that there are certain muscle development imbalances that appear most prevalently. These are as follows:
- Overdeveloped chest/Underdeveloped lats
- Overdeveloped chest/Underdeveloped deltoids
- Overdeveloped deltoids/Underdeveloped chest
- Overdeveloped torso/Underdeveloped quadriceps
- Overdeveloped front deltoids/Underdeveloped rear deltoids
- Overdeveloped middle chest/Underdeveloped upper chest
This list does not suggest that other imbalances don’t exist. It doesn’t even pretend to be exhaustive. There are definitely some muscles and (even more so) combinations of them that are omitted from this list. I’m only binging up the most prevalent ones I’ve noticed for the purpose of brevity.
It also doesn’t imply – by contrasting the relatively ‘overdeveloped’ muscle to the one needing augmentation – that the bigger one needs reduction in size. I’m of the opinion that a bodybuilder should never seek to reduce the size of any hard-earned muscle mass. He or she should instead seek only to bring up in development the adjacent, undersized muscle.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Pecs with Little Lats
Needless to say, big pecs with small lats are a muscle development imbalance that causes the body to appear front heavy. It’s also a very common thing to see in gyms given the relative ease of building pectoral muscles as compared with developing the upper back. Since some bodybuilders can gain respectable pectorals simply by performing some decent presses and some chest-squeezing flyes, they seem to assume that their lats will be just as easy to build. I’ve discovered, however, that gaining thick and wide lats requires concentration and discipline unlike that of building any other muscle.
If you have big pectorals combined with tiny little nubs for lat muscles, don’t blame it on genetics; that’s rarely the culprit. Instead, try applying focus and discipline that 99% of gym-goers don’t apply to their lats exercises. Building thicker lats first requires avoiding the mistake I’ve demonstrated right here. Likewise, making the lats wider demands that we don’t make the mistake I’m depicting in this video. These are common mistakes, so don’t fret if you’ve been making them; just change your tactics and you’ll likely soon be enjoying muscle development in your back that equals that in your pectorals.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Chest with Small Deltoids
Here’s a muscle development imbalance I’ve personally been working to rectify. Actually, it’s my deltoids as a ratio of both my pecs and lats that cause my delts to appear too small. This glaring problem has prompted me to recently rethink my technique on shoulder exercises. After just a couple of small tweaks, my delts are beginning to “pop” and are on their way to being in proportion with the rest of my torso.
The big problem for me was in the way I’d been performing my shoulder presses. Of course, shoulder pressing (“military presses”) is a cornerstone exercise for deltoid size. What I’ve discovered is that there’s an ideal grip width for maximally targeting all three deltoid heads, with emphasis on the middle head. I previously used a wider grip, which is not optimal. It turns out that the best grip on the bar is one that’s neither too narrow nor too wide. Thus, in doing any kind of overhead presses (behind the head, in front, or on a machine), the ideal hand-grip position is one in which the lower arms are at a right angle to the upper arms when the bar is at the mid-point of the press.
Besides narrowing my grip position on the bar, I’ve added an additional tactic to pressing movements. I now consciously shift the gripping pressure to the inside of my palms (near the thumbs) rather than the middle or outsides of them. This puts the stress more squarely on the deltoids instead of having too much on the triceps. I highly recommend this tactic, along with optimal grip width, for bringing up muscle development of the deltoids.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Delts and Puny Pecs
I’ve observed this muscle development imbalance even among top pro bodybuilders. It’s often blamed on lousy pectoral-building genetics. But show me someone with underdeveloped pectorals and, 98% of the time, I’ll show you someone who either refuses, or doesn’t know how, to target their pec muscles.
For example, many aspiring body builders attempt to build their chest muscles with marathon sessions of barbell bench pressing. This often leads to disappointing results for two reasons:
- Proper form for maximally targeting the pectoral muscles with bench presses isn’t practiced.
- Even if it were practiced, excessive numbers of sets coupled with inadequate numbers of inter-workout rest days keeps the entire upper body over-trained.
To effectively target the pectoral muscles with pressing exercises, attention needs to be given to the optimal grip width on the bar or machine handles. This is similar to what was described above in regard to shoulder presses for delts development. Many bodybuilders (myself included) make the mistake of gripping at too wide of a point to really create maximum contraction of the pectorals. This can inadvertently shift much of the stress to the deltoids. Gripping too narrowly can, of course, shift too much stress to the triceps. In order to maximize contraction of the pecs, a grip just slightly outside of the elbows is actually optimal. On positive repetitions of presses, a very slight inward pressure toward the middle chest will further stress the pectorals when an optimal grip width is used.
Along with ideally gripping the bars or machine handles on presses, correcting sloppy form on flyes can also work wonders for a lagging chest. I’ve observed that many bodybuilders with underdeveloped pec muscles perform dumbbell flyes in a way that makes them a combination between flyes and presses. Rather than keeping a rigid and only slight bend at the elbows, they choose to make half the exercise movement occur at the elbows, effectively doing a half press/half flye. This combo allows neither segment of the movement to be optimal and often results in relatively unstressed pectoral muscles. To see my demo of the contrast between optimal and suboptimal way of performing flyes, you can check out the video right here.
Correcting the number two reason above is just a matter of reducing the number of sets and/or increasing rest days between workouts.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Torso and Small Quads
Here’s a muscle development imbalance I’ve had for quite some time and am currently making great progress in correcting. Although I’ve always worked my lower body with extreme intensity, my tendency to grow in the hips, hamstrings, and glutes has caused my quadriceps growth to suffer by comparison. I’ve been turning this around recently by making a simple but vital shift while performing any type of leg pressing exercise.
The way to shift more of the stress onto the quads with leg presses is actually rather counterintuitive. It requires performing those exercises with emphasis placed on pressing at the heels of the feet rather than the toes. For those of us lacking adequate ankle flexion, this can best be done with leg pressing exercises rather than squats. Simply lift the toes slightly off the leg pressing platform and push the weight from the bottom portion of the feet. By pressing from the ankles rather than the middle or top of the feet, contraction shifts more to the front area of the quadriceps. This can be of tremendous help in bringing underdeveloped quads up to par with a more developed torso.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Front Delts with Small Rear Delts
Some of the easiest muscle development imbalances to inadvertently attain are those in the shoulder region. Since there are three heads to the deltoids, it’s a body part that’s very susceptible to overdevelopment in one or two areas while the third gets left behind. Believe me, I know this from personal experience; I’m bringing up my underdeveloped rear delts as of the time of this writing.
The posterior head of the deltoids (rear delts) is often the most difficult to effectively target. It requires special focus and discipline for those of us not possessing the genetic predisposition of size in that area. I’ve noticed, however, that once this little-known focus is practiced, the rewards quickly become worth the efforts; my rear delts are finally beginning to “pop” from making a couple of vital shifts in exercise technique.
The shift to which I’m referring is in the way I perform ‘rear delts laterals’ on a pec deck machine. Whereas I once simply rotated my deltoids backward as if trying to join my scapulas together behind me, I now do the exercise in a much more controlled manner that isolates the outer-most posterior of the rear delts. My focus has simply been shifted from attempting to move the handles behind me to moving them out to the sides. It takes a good deal of discipline to do this and usually requires substantially reducing the working weight. It’s been well worth it though as this has been effectively giving me a much needed peak to the V-shape created by the lats-building technique described above. I highly recommend it for helping correct this muscle development imbalance.
Muscle Development Imbalance: Big Middle Pecs with Small Upper Pecs
This is a very common muscle development imbalance. It’s a glaring one because it often produces a feminine appearance to the chest – something most guys probably don’t want. Conversely, a well-developed upper chest blends aesthetically with wide lats and cannonball-like delts to create a visually appealing upper body – allowing it to simultaneously appear powerful and sleek.
The most obvious reason for underdeveloped upper pectorals is a neglect of doing incline exercises – both presses and flyes. A much less obvious reason for underdevelopment of this region is (believe it or not)… too MANY incline presses and/or flyes. As counterintuitive as that might sound, it happens quite often. The upper pectorals are very easy to over-train. That’s because they actually come into use when we perform middle-pectoral exercises. So when a bodybuilder performs set after set of flat bench presses and follows that with multiple sets of incline presses, there’s quite a bit of tissue tear-down redundancy involved. Overtraining a muscle can stunt its growth as surely as not training it at all. Consequently, too much upper pec work can halt growth in the upper region of the chest and the middle pecs can easily appear disproportionately protrusive.
The best way to avoid this muscle development imbalance is by doing nothing redundant for the upper pectorals. In other words, if you perform sets of incline dumbbell flyes for your upper pecs, don’t follow it up with sets of incline cable flyes or pec-deck flyes for the upper chest. There’s no reason for that. Once the upper pecs have been worked by using the pec-building tips covered above in the ‘Big Delts and Puny Pecs’ section, they’re finished; it’s time to rest for their recovery.
Conclusion: Balanced Muscle Development
It’s common to neglect balanced development when starting out in muscle building. After all, when we’re slender and desirous of gaining muscle, aesthetics are usually the last thing on our minds. The sooner imbalances are recognized and corrected, however, the less catching up a bodybuilder will have to do later on when underdeveloped areas become glaringly obvious.