Strengthen the Nondominant Side of Your Body

From the WebMD Archives

By Steve Steinberg

Guess what? You're out of balance. It's not entirely your fault, though. Generally, we're born with a side that we favor. Unfortunately, most of us live our lives continuing to use, develop and strengthen that side while our so-called "weak side" gets treated like an ugly stepsister and rarely gets asked to do a lot of cool things. The result is an imbalance in both strength and coordination that can be holding you back in a lot of ways.

A lot of this imbalance has more to do with your neurological system than your muscular system. One of my favorite things to do with new clients is a simple punching drill. I'll have a right-handed person assume a traditional left-leg-forward fighting stance and ask them to throw a two-punch combination: a jab from the front hand and a straight power punch from the back hand. There's never a problem. Then I have them switch stances so that their right foot is in the front. The jab from the right hand looks fine, but because they've never thrown a power punch with their left hand, it ends up looking like a three-year-old throwing a baseball.

I'm not expecting you to be able to pick up a single grain of rice using chopsticks with your nondominant hand. But strengthening your nondominant side is more important -- and easier -- than you think. Still have excuses?

But... I've survived this far without worrying about it. If you've lived a life free from back pain, hip pain and people nagging you about your posture, consider yourself lucky. Even something as basic as always sitting with the same leg crossed over the other can lead to increased right-left imbalances. "One side is contracted. One side is lengthened. Over time that leads to stretch-weakness on one side and shortening of the muscle on the other," says chiropractic sports physician Kate S. Kelly, owner of Active Recovery Boston. "That can cause poor circulation, lack of blood flow, spinal misalignment, headaches... and the list goes on." Ouch! That's more than enough reason to make sure your nondominant side is up to speed.

But... that'll make my workouts too long! While you may end up wanting to add a bonus set or two for your nondominant side when doing single-arm exercises like biceps curls or shoulder raises, you can make up for a lot of right-left imbalances without adding any time to your workout. If you use machines, look for ones that have the arms or legs working independently. Machines that have you pushing or pulling a single bar with both arms (or pushing a single footplate with both feet) generally result in your strong side doing most of the work and your weak side going along for the ride. If you use free weights, simply switching from barbells to dumbbells will force your nondominant side to work a little harder with each rep.

But... I'm just trying to lose weight. If one side of your body is stronger than the other, it generally means that side is also a little bit bigger. Don't worry -- it's probably not noticeable, or someone would have told you by now. By strengthening your weaker side, you'll not only be lessening whatever imbalances exist, you'll also be adding muscle. Muscle is living tissue that requires calories to exist. By adding more muscle to your body, you'll be raising your metabolism and forcing your body to burn more calories every day. And in the off-chance that you did have a visibly noticeable difference between your right and left sides, you'll see that difference slowly disappear.

But... I'm just trying to stay in shape for tennis and basketball. On the tennis court, if you have a strength imbalance, you probably get to balls much easier and have much more control and power on your forehand. Balls to your backhand side are a lot harder to get to and harder to return with power and consistency. You might not see your strength imbalance, but your opponent will. If you're playing against someone good, they're going to be hitting to your backhand side all day long. Same goes on the basketball court: You may have a killer move to one side, but once the opposition realizes that's the only side you can go to, you're done. Hey, if you can ever get to the point where you can pass or shoot confidently with either hand, you may want to check if you still have any NCAA eligibility left.