What is Structural Balance?
Structural Balance suggests that a muscle’s strength and ability to apply force is a function of the strength and stability of its opposing muscle group. When there’s an unequal pull on one side of a joint, meaning one muscle group is dominant/stronger/tighter compared to its antagonist/opposing muscle group, this directly impacts the ability of the muscles to operate to their full potential.
Take away point: Structural balance = muscles working in synergy across a joint – no uneven pull.
See video explanation of Structural Balance below:
Structural balance is vital to injury prevention! There is an ideal balance of strength between muscles to control a joint, but if the muscles on one side are disproportionately stronger than the other, this creates joint instability which increases the risk of injury to that joint.
So many injuries are the result of muscular imbalances and strength discrepancies between opposing and synergistic muscle groups, from left to right, causing this unequal pull across the joint. These structural imbalances are often a consequence of poor movement patterns, repetitive motions and lack of exercise variety.
Take away point: Structural balance is necessary for injury prevention.
A joint works by two main sets of opposing muscle groups. Let’s use our elbow joint as I did in the video explanation above as an example. On one side of our elbow we have our biceps and on the other side we have our triceps. Our biceps are responsible for flexing (bending) the elbow and our triceps contract to extend (straighten) the elbow. Synergistic muscles help the biceps perform the action of bending the elbow. So while the biceps and their synergists cooperate to flex the elbow, our triceps and their synergists are helping to stabilise the joint from the other side! Our biceps and triceps contract to perform opposite movements; however, each muscle group relies on the other for stability and dictates what range of motion each other has access to!
Take away point: Muscular imbalances will impact joint health and alignment, limiting access to a wider range of motion with movements and affecting things like our posture.
Structural balance goes beyond just strength discrepancies. When we look at flexibility, strength aside, this can cause an unequal pull across the joint as well. Think of desk workers and occupational sitting for hours on end – poor posture with rounded shoulders, hunched spine and head forward. Certain muscles are so tight from hours of being in the same position they’re causing our shoulders to round inwards. Opposing muscles are working to try and pull the shoulders back into place but they’re tired of trying to fight this constant pull inwards and eventually give in and grow weak.
This kind of posture is creating havoc on your joints, connective tissue and muscles because certain muscles aren’t contracting when seated for consecutive hours, they are being placed in a shortened position for long periods of time, causing them to remain tight! It’s like if you were to stretch all day, you’d expect your muscles to get used to being in a lengthened position and remain flexible to enable access to a wider range of motion. Remember, what happens on one side of the joint, will directly influence the other! So one side of the joint is tight and weak, often resulting in the opposite muscle group being long and weak. Bad combo! This then affects the optimal alignment of the joint and this presents to the eye as ‘poor posture’ or rounded shoulders.
Take away point: Flexibility imbalances can also impact structural balance! Be sure to vary your stretching exercises to ensure you’re not favouring one particular muscle group.
The general population should strive for structural balance to reduce the risk of injury and to ensure optimal joint alignment, and in turn movement fluidity. If you’re unsure where to start, seek help from a professional Personal Trainer or Strength and Conditioning Coach who’s educated in movement analysis. A structural balance assessment will provide a starting point for your training, which you can then build upon based on the results of the movement assessment. Your initial program should focus on correcting your imbalances, weaknesses and movement discrepancies through a progression of corrective and remedial exercises!