Do you ever give much thought to whether you use your legs the same way? Or whether they feel the same way against the floor?
Chances are high you probably assume both legs are capable of exactly the same thing until you try something that requires you to use them independently (like standing on one leg). You may find that one leg is a bit more sturdy than the other, which you likely note, but don’t give much thought to changing in any way—you figure that’s the way your legs will be forever. You have one solid leg, and one not-so-solid leg.
It’s possible that you subconsciously begin using your solid leg to hold you. You may lead up the stairs with the more shaky leg, you may prefer starting your single leg work with your “good” leg, and you may avoid jumping off of your “bad” leg when working on split jumps or playing pick-up basketball.
We all have a side of our body that we favor a little bit. For people that participate in a wide range of movement activities, the little bit of side dominance is barely noticeable because both sides of the body are regularly getting used. For some of us, however, life doesn’t always dictate lots of movement activities, leading to the sense of asymmetry between the sides to grow.
How Asymmetrical Are You?
Let’s say you drive to work, thirty minutes each way, you sit at a computer most of the day, you drive to the gym, and you do primarily two-legged lifts, like deadlifts and back squats. Occasionally, you throw in a little bit of single leg work, but it feels weird, so you don’t do it that often. Let’s break down what this means a little bit further.
When you drive, unless you are one of the few that still owns a stick shift, you use your right foot. When you swing your legs out the left hand driver’s side of the car, there is a decent chance you put your right leg down first. When you walk up the stairs to your office, which leg do you lead with? If you are most comfortable on your right side, chances are high you walk up the stairs leading with your left foot. When you sit, which foot feels heavier against the ground?
You get the picture. And it’s not set in stone that your right leg will be the one that feels heavy; it could very well be your left, but to make things easy, let’s assume for the duration of this piece our hypothetical person feels more comfortable on her right leg.
Okay, so we’ve established a tendency to use the right leg. When you get to the gym and start lifting weights, which leg is going to engage more comfortably with the floor when you lift heavy things? Probably the right. So your habit is to engage with the world more fully with the right leg while the left leg floats along, never experiencing its full weight.
This may not be a problem. It’s entirely possible that all of your tissues adapt to the fairly large asymmetry in strength, you can lift what you want to lift and do what you want to do (as long as it doesn’t involve balancing on the left leg) throughout the duration of your life. There are others for whom this particular leg favoritism eventually causes a problem.
Let’s say these little discrepancies in movement habits have created bigger problems. You have nerve irritation once in a while on your solid leg, you can tell one leg is “weaker” than the other, and you genuinely have difficulty initiating movement with the side you don’t trust. After physical therapy, things feel a little bit better, but you notice the strength discrepancy is still there. What do you do now?
Establish a Connection with the Foot
If your left foot feels like it almost hovers off of the ground, establishing a connection with your left forefoot and center of the heel is paramount to regaining awareness and strength of the left side (or right side. Remember, I am using a tendency to favor the right side to illustrate my point). How do you do this?
Touch is an excellent way to improve proprioception of an area. Using a tool such as a golf ball not to inflict pain upon yourself, but to provide tactile feedback over the duration of the foot can be hugely beneficial in your ability to sense the entire foot against the floor. Feeling the foot against the floor will help you gain a sense of connection to your entire leg.
Another simple way to improve the connection of the forefoot (front of the foot), against the floor is to perform the simple exercise shown below. You will notice my hands are under my kneecap and the weight is moving from the ball of the big toe to the ball of the little toe. My hand is there to make sure my knee doesn’t move and my heel stays down, against the floor. The movement occurs across the subtalar joint, a little joint on the top of the foot the controls movement across the forefoot.
After rolling your foot on a golf ball and performing the exercise above, stand up. Can you feel a difference between your two feet? Now, focus on the foot that you did the work on. Can you distribute your weight evenly from the big toe to the pinkie toe ball of the foot? Play with shifting the pressure a little bit, applying a little extra pressure to the big toe ball and then a little extra pressure to the pinkie toe ball. Once you have done this a few times, return to feeling that you are using the entire ball of the foot against the floor. What do you feel up the rest of your left leg?
You can do similar things with the heel, changing the pressure across heel, feeling how it interacts with the ground and which joint allows the movement to take place. Eventually, see if you can feel the center of the heel pressing into the ground. What does that do to your experience of your left leg? And if you actively feel the weight even across the ball of the foot as well as the center of the heel, is your awareness of your left leg even a little bit louder?
Use Your Non Dominant Leg
Now that you can feel your left foot against the floor, it’s time to translate that into movement work. But first, take a moment to notice how you use the leg with a simple exercise, like step-ups.
Do a basic step-up, at a height that isn’t too challenging, leading with your right foot (weights are optional). Just observe how you use your right leg. Feel how it lifts, how the foot plants and the weight shifts to let you shift your body weight forward and come up, and how the leg controls you to come back down. Do four or five.
Now, lead with your left foot. Observe your left leg, how your left foot comes up and how you shift the weight into the left foot to come forward and up. Is it different than your right foot or exactly the same?
If it’s exactly the same, congratulations! You use your legs in a perfectly symmetrical manner and don’t need to read any more of this article. If you find the two sides feel different, a little bit of the single leg work outlined below might be beneficial.
Notice in the video below, I am bending my knee and my hands are on my hips. I am encouraging the back leg to come forward a little bit when I lift the back foot off of the ground while the front hip moves back. This will change your experience of how you are using the muscles in the leg, moving the effort into the gluteal muscles on the standing leg. One key point here is to make sure your ribs aren’t flaring forward. They should be moving down and in. It makes the ability to disperse load into the standing leg easier.
The balance beam work shown below integrates the connection between the foot and the pelvis. The goal here it to make sure the foot remains responsive. If it becomes rigid, you will fall off. The balance beam will also highlight specific tendencies, like if you tend to roll to the pinkie side of either of your feet or you tend to shift your weight off of the foot early. Make sure on the hip hinging variation the standing knee isn’t locked out, and on the walking squat variation, go slowly enough that you can feel the weight transfer across the foot.
Finally, single leg squat variations are a great way to integrate the foot and hip connection. Using something to hold on to, either a support beam or a weight, encourages both shoulders and both sides of the pelvis to stay a little more level. Again, make sure you keep your ribs down and in- it can help to take a long, sigh-like exhale before you begin moving. If you find single leg work stressful, there may also be a tendency to hold your breath. Single leg squats don’t require a high threshold strategy for stability, so if you notice you are breath holding, exhale and pay attention to your next inhale.
Putting It All Together
A well rounded movement program lends itself towards using both sides of the body in a slightly more dynamic way. Crawling, short yoga flows, and different types of get ups involve dynamically transferring the weight between the limbs, creating an opportunity to use the body in a more varied, balanced way.
Finally, if you want to move towards a more balanced existence, pay attention to how you use your legs. When you sprint, do you always push off the same side? What happens if you change it up and push off the other side? Which foot and hand do you like to step forward first when you crawl? Paying attention to these little ways you use the body and then making an effort to change your pattern occasionally can make you more comfortable using both sides of your body.
When you begin paying attention to your natural tendencies, it’s easy to balk and say to yourself, “it’s too awkward to use the other side.” There is nothing wrong with fighting through a little bit of awkwardness to change the internal map you have of your body and what it does. Everything is awkward the first time you try it; all things get better with time and practice, and taking the time to fully learn how you can use your body is a skill, just like anything else.