5 Exercises To Target Imbalances
As humans were never going to be 100% symmetrical creatures, just the same as our horses. The idea of adding strength and functional training to our routines is to make us the strongest, most stable, most balanced riders that we can be. One focus area of your programme should most definitely be working on imbalances side to side if you have any (trust me, even if you think you don’t, you must probably do!). Getting your body equally balanced, and having you as straight as possible is essential if you want to get the most out of your horse & ride at your best.
Imbalances, and having one side stronger than the other can be for a number of reasons. The majority of the time it’s down to lifestyle actions we do daily, such as, brushing our teeth, mucking out, getting on, and picking things up. We tend to use our more dominant and stronger side without even thinking to do these tasks and this can lead to you becoming significantly stronger on one side.
Now, this is totally natural so you’re not doing anything wrong if you’re using one side of your body to do a particular task, but what we need to think about is making sure the other side of your body works just as hard! Small things like brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, standing on 1 leg when doing the washing up and trying to muck out on the wrong side are all small things that you can be doing to build your awareness of any imbalances side to side and start to help you become more even.
A big reason many riders have imbalances is due to previous injuries. If you’ve had a break or a muscular injury and it’s taken a long time for the affected area to heal then naturally, it’s going to be weaker at the start. If you have had an injury or a break it’s really important to properly rehab the affected limbs and start to regain full strength on that side through the muscles & joints.
When you've had an injury it’s easy to feel worried or apprehensive about overworking or hurting that area again. Subconsciously you've probably not been working that side as much as the other either. This is not what you want to happen and as long as you’re doing appropriate exercises with good technique you should be more than safe to start to work the affected area. If you are worried I would always suggest seeing a physio as they will give you the best advice & exercises in terms of where to start.
The reason working on your imbalances as an equestrian is so important is because how you move and how you use your body translates directly to the aids you give when riding. If you’re more dominant and significantly stronger on one side, that’s going to come through on your horse's movement as well and that’s not going to allow him to move at his best.
Think about, it is your horse heavier on one rein? Do you struggle to bend him around your leg on one rein more than the other? You might think this is all down to him but it’s worth considering how much of that is down to you & your strength side to side!
So what exercises are going to help you even out your imbalances and make you a more balanced and stronger rider?
You want to make sure you’re aware of where your imbalances lie and make sure you add unilateral exercises to the right areas. In my opinion, I would have you working both your upper and lower body independently alongside compound work as then you’re going to be working your body equally. Even if you think you’re pretty balanced & symmetrical by doing single-side work you may well find it highlights differences that you don’t notice day to day.
Adding in plenty of core work that works each side independently is important too and there are lots of exercises you can do! What you’ll probably notice in your core work is that when you're working one side specifically you may try to compensate by twisting through the hips or torso or shifting your weight into the other side. This is something for you to really work on and in the long run, the goal should be being able to maintain your stability throughout the exercise.
So if you’re looking for unilateral exercises to add to your training, here are my go-tos!
The best place to start with single leg work. You're stepping back into the lunge pushing all of your weight into the heel & foot of that front leg. The aim is to maintain your stability throughout & have the power to push up out of the lunge strong! As you lower take a big inhale to brace your core, core stability is key here. Start with 2-3 sets of 8 reps e/s
One of my favourite single leg exercises. These are fantastic for improving balance & strength. Push through the hip & heel of the working leg to on the box to stand at the top of the box/step. You'll really feel the glute, leg & core muscles working at the top to stabilise you & if you really want to challenge your balance aim to hit a hold at the top with the non-working leg staying in the air throughout. Start with 2-3 sets of 8 reps e/s. In time you could add in resistance or increase the height of the box!
3-Single Leg RDL's
The SL RDL is a true test of core control, balance & symmetry. As you shift your hips back to go into the hinge you have to keep the weight in your foot balanced to avoid losing balance, core braced & your concentration needs to be nailed down. You're looking to avoid any rotation through the upper body & stay as stable as possible. You will need to focus on pushing all of your weight into that front foot & maintaining good foot contact with the floor throughout, any wobble & you're done! These are great for highlighting the difference in strength & stability side to side too. Start with 2-3 sets for 6-8 reps e/s
Side lunges get you working laterally in the frontal plane. The majority of exercises we do are in the sagittal & transverse planes so it's important to include movements that work you through this movement plane. This movement works your adductors (inner thighs) throughout & really challenges your stability as you move sideways. As you step sideways you're shifting your weight into the hip & foot of the working leg, they're a great movement to highlight & improve your hip mobility side to side as well as really strengthen those glutes & inner thighs. Often in these, 1 side may be far stiffer or more awkward to move into. Start with 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps e/s & go bodyweight to start.
5-Single Arm Shoulder Press
Pressing overhead on 1 arm is a great way to truly test if your upper body strength is equal! Overhead work is very strenuous for the shoulders & you want to make sure that both sides are working evenly to avoid any overload or injury on 1 particular shoulder. Being strong through your shoulders as a rider is important so that you can support your posture & hold your position in the saddle but also so that you have stability when pulling & using your back! Start with 3 sets of 8-12 reps on each side, use a weight that makes the last 2 reps hard work each set.
6-Single Arm Rows
Posterior chain work for riders is essential, you need a strong back to be able to ride at your best. The role of the spine is to create stability, so you want to make sure all of your back muscles are as strong as can be so that they support your spine fully. When you pull the reins, lean back over a drop, turn a corner you're constantly working through your back muscles so make sure you train them enough! A weak rider often neglects their posterior chain work & it's obvious to see-not what you want! If you really want to challenge your stability & make your core work even harder you can do these on the TRX too! Start with 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps each side, if you use the TRX that may be pretty hard! Really think about pulling through the elbow so that you work the back & not just your arm!
The pallofpress is a brilliant core exercise. It teaches you to resist rotating as a force pulls against you. This works your core stability mainly but also your hip stability, especially when done half kneeling. As you press the band away from your chest, keep your shoulders down & look ahead. You're resisting the band twisting you but also not allowing the force to take your lower back into extension. This will really build both your anti-rotation & anti-extension strength which will bulletproof your core & help support your back even more as well as really improving your posture! Start with a band for 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps e/s & progress the resistance used or reps done over time.
The side plank gets you working in the frontal plane again & really makes your lateral hip & core muscles work to help stabilise you. You're forcing the spine to stabilise your body whilst holding the side plank & this movement teaches you to resist collapsing into the hip/side so a really good one for any of those of you who have a tendency to collapse to 1 side in the saddle! You're working 1 side at a time & you'll really feel it from the obliques, glutes, hip, lower body & shoulder. If you struggle with these then to begin with pop your bottom knee on the floor to support you & in time progress to doing them fully freestanding. Start with 2 sets aiming to hold for 20-30 seconds on each side & progress the length of time from there.