structural balance training

What Is Structural Balance Training?

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Structural balance training. We talk about it all the time as a key to training. But what does structural balance actually mean?

Structural balance is a concept popularized by Charles Poliquin in the 1980s. The structural balance theory states that you will make faster progress when all the different muscles of your body are in balance with each other.

You want your muscles to be in balance with each other in a few different ways:

Factor #1: The agonist muscles must be in balance with the antagonists

Factor #2: The smaller stabilizing muscles must be in balance with the larger prime movers.

Factor #3: The left and right sides of the body must be in balance with each other.

Assessing Structural Balance

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced any of these things in your training:

  • Chronic pain in your knees, hips, or shoulder.
  • Weakness on one side of the body.
  • Frequent injuries in a specific joint or limb.
  • Lack of progress despite following a well-designed training program.

All these issues could be a result of structural imbalances that occur when certain muscles are weaker than they should be. You know this intuitively.

When you tweak your shoulder doing an overhead press, you wonder if your rotator cuff is the culprit.

Or your knee hurts after running stairs and you wonder if your quads are weak. But maybe it’s your hamstrings?

How do you identify weaknesses and overcome them?

That’s where structural balance tests come in. Charles developed the PICP upper and lower body assessments from many years of evaluating athletes. The assessments have you perform a series of strength tests that determine weaknesses in the kinetic chain of your body. This allows you to develop training programs that target those weaknesses so that you reduce your risk of injury and maximize your performance.

Upper Body Structural Balance

For the upper body, the bi-acromial Bench Press is used as the reference lift from which you can establish ratios for other exercises. These ratios indicate the structural integrity of the upper body.

For example, an elite male athlete involved in upper body dominated sports who has a max bench press of 360 lbs should be able to incline bench press 327.5 lbs (91% of the flat press max) and perform dips with a total of 432 lbs (117% of the flat press max).

There are 11 total exercises in the upper body assessment that allow you to identify weaknesses in the:

  • Rotator cuff
  • Lower trapezius
  • Brachialis
  • Neck
  • Forearm

Once you determine areas of weakness, PICP teaches you to train for structural balance with unique exercises and detailed progressions to meet individual strength deficits.

This is important because research shows that many popular assistance lifts end up recruiting the wrong muscles. This just makes imbalances worse.

For example, one review found that the lower trapezius is a weak link in many athletes. When the lower trap is out of balance with the upper trap, it will take over and do all the work. The most common remedial exercises lead to over-recruitment of the upper trapezius, causing forward head posture and scapular dysfunction. Prone flexion and abduction (commonly called “I’s,” “T’s,” and “Ys”) produced at least 60 percent muscle activation of upper traps, while under-training the lower traps.

Instead, you need an exercise that principally recruits the weaker muscles, but have a very low level of upper trap activity for optimal balance. The Trap 3 exercise is the perfect solution because it isolates the lower trapezius (known as the trap 3) with minimal engagement from the rest of the traps.

Lower Body Structural Balance

The lower body structural balance assessment uses movement and length-tension tests that allow you to determine weaknesses. Each movement assessment looks at function of specific parts of the lower body.

For example, the Klatt test has you step off a low box and land on the same leg in front of the step to determine weakness throughout the lower body musculature. One of the most common imbalances in athletes and the general population, a weak vastus medialis obliquus (VMO), leads to knee pain and reduced lower body power. Corrective exercises include step-ups, split squats, and backward sled drags.

Benefits of Structural Balance

It is a game changer to have a tool to identify weak links AND know how to overcome them with exercise progressions.

Probably two of the biggest pitfalls to progress are:

  1. Choosing exercises that are either too difficult or too easy to produce results and
  2. Lack of motivation to train remedial lifts.

Structural balance training solves this by showing you where to start and how to progress so that you ensure continued progress. Seeing your weakness spelled out in the strength ratios helps you monitor progress. For coaches, the structural balance ratios immediately prove to your clients that there is a problem and that you can fix it. This increases client buy-in because they can see that their performance isn’t measuring up.

Final Words

Training for structural balance is the best way to ensure your performance goes up and injury rates go down. Your body comes into a state of harmony.


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