The Case For One-Sided Exercise
Most bodies have tightness or pain on one side due to past injury, trauma, surgery or repetitive, poor posture.
Since the body is a master compensator, it will take the path of least resistance when it comes to movement. Over time the myofascial tissue (combination of muscle and connective tissue) will tighten, muscles will take over for other weaker ones and faulty patterns of movement will occur. This can lead to pain and/or further injury, and usually never happens in a perfect or balanced way.
To correct and balance the asymmetries resulting from faulty movement patterns, unilateral (one-sided) or asymmetrical exercises are key. Though true corrective exercise is one-sided, few people practice it — we're often taught not to perform one-sided exercise, holding the false belief they'll lead to imbalance or injury.
We think that if we do 20 reps on one side, we must do 20 reps on the other to stay balanced. This would be fine for the individual with absolutely no pain, tightness or movement restriction in his body. But this does not make sense in terms of one-sided problems.
In the case of a one sided problem, it makes more sense to correct the imbalance with exercise to one side, regaining the movement or strength needed to relieve the strain in the system. Once the system is balanced and pain and tightness subside, you can take up that balanced, bilateral routine again.
Take your yoga class for example. Almost everyone has a pose that's easier on one side, yet you force yourself to hold the pose and work both sides as equally as possible because you assume pushing yourself a little harder on the tighter side will fix the problem.
Another common misconception is that corrective exercise should be performed on the injured, tight or painful side. But think about what happens in nature to a four legged animal that injures one leg. The animal will take pressure off that leg, allowing the other uninjured limbs to take the weight and movement, until the injured leg is healed. Why do humans then insist that the way to fix a bad knee is to make that knee stronger?
What are we taught about our “bad” side? That it needs more movement, more strengthening or stretching to get better. The only cases I can think of where this might be true is the person who’s muscles have been wasted away by disuse.
Other than these extreme examples, it works more like this: Imagine what happens when you can’t open a drawer in your kitchen. If you pull harder and harder on that drawer, you are going to bust the drawer. Sometimes you need to push the drawer in the opposite direction and jiggle it a little to get it back on its track, and then it will open easily.
In other words, the movement that works to release the system is the opposite of what you think.
True, effective corrective exercises work like this. We move the body on one side, into the direction of ease first, to unlock the system. This means that we exercise the easier, pain-free side. We do this to help the system reboot and unlock. The tight or painful side heals indirectly and then when balance is restored, exercise can resume on both sides.
These ideas are radical by traditional standards. Doctors and therapists have only been learning these new ideas in the last 10-20 years. But in order to heal ourselves properly, we need to break out of our old, outdated beliefs about what we were taught, and embrace new, more effective techniques.
I’ve adopted new ways of addressing physical restriction and injury based on what works in myself and for my clients. When in doubt, I ask my clients to feel the difference. That kind of education never fails, even when it challenges decades of old habit, because the results speak for themselves.
It's crucial to find alternative forms of exercise when old, traditional ways don’t seem to work, or worse, make you hurt more. Effective corrective exercise should ease pain, decrease tightness and help speed healing. You should feel the difference, at least some small amount, in one session.
Remember: true, effective corrective exercise means that you'll probably have to perform exercises on one side of the body until balance is achieved. Healing is a dynamic, ever-changing process. Find someone who honors this process, can be the sherpa you need for the terrain that is your precious body, mind and soul, and who is willing to teach you what you need to know to help yourself.