In the human body, asymmetry isn’t an injury.
But it does matter (especially during pregnancy and postpartum!).
By understanding and embracing your side-to-side strength and mobility differences, you can learn to move better, stronger and reduce your risk of injury.
Table of Contents
◾️ The Human Body: Asymmetric By Design
◾️ Why Is The Left Side Of My Body Different From The Right Side?
◾️ The Right And Left Side Of The Body Move Differently
◾️ Is Asymmetry A Bad Thing??
◾️ Pregnancy Is The “Great Revealer”
◾️ Test Yourself: How Does Your Body Move?
◾️ Movement And Exercise For An Asymmetrical Body
◾️ Move Better, Stronger And Reduce Your Risk Of Injury
As I stood in the treatment room, my physical therapist walked in a circle around me. Looking me up and down. Looking for clues.
“Your body is a SPIRAL!” she exclaimed in amazement.
And proceeded to prescribe exercises to try and “untwist” that spiral.
Most of the exercises involved strengthening the offending side of the body.
Now, my chiropractors office. Standing next to the treatment table, eager for the diagnosis (and treatment!).
“WOW. Your spine is really twisted!”
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Sweet relief… that would only last days.
And all the exercises, all the back cracking- nothing has really stuck.
And it’s not that these treatments are without value- they’re VERY valuable.
But they’ve got a major blind spot…
The Human Body: Asymmetric By Design
My body is WICKED asymmetrical. Check out this picture from my wedding. See that right shoulder? It’s always dropped and rotated forward.
AND I’ve always though of it as something that was “wrong” with my body.
But here’s what I’ve come to learn:
Asymmetry isn’t an injury. It’s literally baked into human design.
The spiral of your DNA.
Your left- or right-handedness.
The placement of your heart on the left side of your body and your liver on your right.
From the micro: the turn of the very molecules that compose our flesh…
To the macro: the placement of our organs…
We are asymmetric.
And our body has come up with brilliant, seamless ways to compensate for those asymmetries so that we function more-or-less as symmetrical bio-machines.
Why Is The Left Side Of My Body Different From The Right Side?
The placement of the heart and the lungs is actually a really big deal that sets the stage for all the rest of our biomechanical asymmetries.
Our heart sits ABOVE our diaphragm on the left side of our body. This restricts the diaphragms ability to contract up. This leads to a left rib “flare” as the body works to make space to draw in air.
Our liver sits just BELOW our diaphragm on the right side of the body. This restricts the ability of the diaphragm to move DOWN on the right.
It’s like just because of the way our organs are placed, it’s harder to exhale the left side of the body and harder to inhale the right side of the body.
These restrictions to the diaphragm by the heart and the liver cause the rib cage to press forward and flare a little on the left (“externally rotate”) and to compress down and rotate internally on the right.
The pelvic floor responds to the left-right differences in the range of motion of the diaphragm and pressure demands. In turn, the pelvis compensates. It internally rotates on the right, externally rotating on the left.
The Right And Left Side Of The Body Move Differently
The small tweaks to our rib cage set the spin for the rest of the body.
It sets the stage for most people to favor their right side:
It lays the ground work for MOST people to have a little drop to their right shoulder.
It causes MOST people to rotate their torsos towards the right and crunch through their right abdominal wall.
It causes MOST people to have an easier time loading their right leg and finding their right abs.
It sets the stage for MOST people to have a little more tightness in their left pelvic floor vs their right.
Of course, not EVERYBODY will manifest these “typical” asymmetries.
Because we can layer compensations on compensations.
But just start looking through crowds for the dropped right shoulder…
You’ll see it all around you. Check out David up above, if you don’t believe me!
Is Asymmetry A Bad Thing??
Assymetry is baked into human design and it’s quite normal to favor one side of your body.
Asymmetries only become pathologies when our biomechanical compensations to those side-to-side differences create discomfort or injury.
They become problematic when we get really “stuck” on one end of a range of motion and we lose movement options.
We can work with our asymmetries and try and get ahead of problems or injuries, but remember: the goal is not to produce symmetry.
Pregnancy Is The “Great Revealer”
Most of us go through life unbothered by these patterns- but during pregnancy, everything is amplified.
More relaxin, more load on the pelvis and pelvic floor, changing center of mass.
Small compensations become amplified. Aches, pains and niggles pop up, drawing our attention.
Significant asymmetry in pelvic floor tone and left-right pelvis rotation can contribute to SI joint pain or symphysis pubis dysfunction.
They can even present speed bumps or roadblocks to an efficient labor.
Postpartum, our asymmetries can be further amplified as a response to the “one-handedness” of parenting.
We tend to hold baby on one side of our body, hiking the same hip and crunching the opposite side of the body. We nurse the baby on one-side more than the other grooving patterns in the forward roll of the shoulders.
Left side rib flare can also become exagerrated (just Google “postpartum rib flare!”) making it harder to “feel” the left abs during exercise.
Pregnancy and postpartum become a super interesting time to identify patterns and work towards more balance.
Test Yourself: How Does Your Body Move?
This is when I tell you to get out of your chair. I want you to feel some of this in your body!
Try this simple Standing Rotation Assessment, and without judgement, just note if it feels easier in one direction or the other:
What did you feel?? Did they feel difference side to side?
Now, remember I said that all of these asymmetries start with the differences between how we can inhale and exhale side to side?
That also means, that’s where we have to start if we want to address them.
You can do all the corrective exercise in the world, but if it doesn’t involve the diaphragm and the rib cage, the changes aren’t going to stick.
Movement And Exercise For An Asymmetrical Body
Since your diaphragm and your rib cage set the spin for the rest of your body, creating balance starts by restoring mobility and range of motion to the ribcage.
And the best way to get the rib cage to move? Breathe really well.
Stretch your body from the inside out.
If you want to bring a little balance to your body, your alignment and your breath are the first place to start.
1) Practice 360 Breathing
Using 360 breathing, you’ll practice orienting your pelvis and rib cage into a “stacked” alignment. breathing into your rib cage and improve the ability of your ribs to move in all directions.
As you gain control and awareness of your diaphragm and rib cage, you can use positional breathing strategies to bias your breath into different parts of your body.
2) Explore Positional Breathing
Use “positional” breathing exercises to bias your breath into the parts of your ribcage that need expanding vs contracting.
MOST people need expansion on the back of the left rib cage and front of the right rib cage.
You can try:
90/90 with supinated reach and goal post arm
This exercise spotlights the typical ribcage assymetry. Only perform this exercise on the one side.
This exercise spotlights the typical pelvis assymetry. Only perform this on one side as well.
Sidelying breathing with a ball
This exercise helps “uncrunch” the right side of the body (or whichever side feels tightest). Perform the exercise on both sides, but spend a little extra time on the side that feels like it needs it the most.
Oblique sit with wall sit and reach under
Use this exercise to “un-crunch” the side your knees are pointing towards. Use your breath to create expansion in the side body.
Spend extra time in the positions where it feels the most “sticky” or hard to breathe.
For a lot of people, the right side feels “stickier.”
3) Incorporate Unilateral And Offset Exercise
Devote more time to unilateral exercises.
When you’re working on one side of your body, it becomes easier to identify muscle imbalances or movement restrictions. You aren’t able to use your “stronger” side to compensate for the less-strong side.
It’s also easier to bring attention to great biomechanics on the side where you’re trying to restore mobility, increase range of motion or build strength.
Isometric Hip Shift
Hip shift exercises are fantastic for getting the pelvis to internally rotate and for opening up the back of the pelvis and pelvic floor. The hip shift is often harder on the left and so this is a really great exercise to use to bring some balance to the right and left sides of the hip.
Split Squat with reach and rotation
Just like with the statice hip shift, the split squat with reach and rotation enourages internal rotation at the hip. By bringing in the reach and rotation, you’re also facilitating rotation of the torso over the femur and mobilizing the rib cage.
Half-kneeling pallof press
The half-kneeling pallof press is a unilateral, anti-rotation exercise. You’ll likely find that one side is much harder than the other. Spend a little extra time here.
Suitcase Carry, Racked Carry, Offset Carry
Just as in the pallof press, you’ll find that it’s much harder to resist the lateral pull of an offset carry on one side or the other. Pay attention to where the effort is most challenging, and spend some extra time in this position.
4) Dial In Your Rib Cage Position
The “Ha” breathe is a great exercise for practicing drawing the ribcage down WITHOUT crunching through the abs. The “Ha” breathe is a bilateral exercise, but it’s helpful to master this breathe before trying to control the ribcage on a single side.
Seated shoulder press
In this exercise, you are resisting flaring your rib cage as you press the weight overhead. You’re working one side at a time, and using your opposite hand to bring awareness to your rib cage position.
Half-kneeling Overhead Press Variation With A Wall Press
Similar to the seated shoulder press, you’re controlling your rib position as you press a weight overhead.
By pressing your opposite arm against a wall, you’re helping lock your rib cage down and back.
By locking down your rib cage, you’re unable to “steal” overhead mobility by flaring your ribcage. You’ll find that your overhead range of motion might be reduced and you might need to use a lighter weight.
5) Try An Offset Stance For Bilateral Lifts.
Accept that you don’t have to adopt the standard symmetrical, bilateral stance for all of your lifts.
Try taking your left foot an inch or two back relative to your right foot. Or vice versa?
How does it feel when you squat or hinge like this?
Move Better, Stronger And Reduce Your Risk Of Injury
Asymmetry isn’t an injury. But there are good reasons to take it into account. Especially during pregnancy and postpartum.
By developing understanding of your own asymmetries and movement tendencies, you can move more easily, move in new ways and reduce your risk of injuries.
When you’re ready to dive in, breath is the first tool.
And if your asymmetries ARE at the root of chronic injuries and visits to various bodyworkers, make sure breath is your first intervention.
The foundation on which you layer the rest of the correctives.
Examine your asymmetry through the lens of better understanding your body, and moving in new and varied ways, NOT criticizing and finding fault.
When you examine these patterns in yourself, it’s empowering as hell to be able to tailor your exercise selection according to what YOUR body needs most.
Try some of the exercises I describe in this post: Begin with 360 breathing, positional breathing and then dive in to some of the unilateral exercises for upper and lower body.
If you like how it feels, include these as accessories in your regular workouts.
And if you’d like me to do the thinking for you? I offer one-on-one prenatal and postpartum personal training which takes your unique needs into account. Contact me for a free meet and greet.
If you enjoy learning about HOW your body moves, you’ll also enjoy:
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
Laura Jawad holds a PhD and a personal training certification (NASM). She’s a proud Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach and Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach. You can check out the rest of her alphabet soup here.