By Carol Robbins
Asymmetries – do you got ’em? Do you need to fix ’em? If so, how?
The answer to the first question is yes. You are born asymmetrical, your organs are not centered, you have one foot bigger than the other (and maybe one hand). Your face is asymmetrical, maybe your nose is crooked and you have eyes shaped differently from each other (not to mention eyebrows). It is said that the most attractive faces to other people are the symmetrical ones, but it’s the not-perfect faces that are the most interesting.
You have a preference for one-handedness and even have a dominant leg, foot and eye. More problematic asymmetries can be found in the spine (scoliosis) and leg length discrepancies. You might have far more ranges of motion of joints on one side of the body versus the other. Athletes such as baseball pitchers and golfers are going to be famously asymmetrical. (During a recent workshop, I had attendees throw rocks into the lake with their dominant and then non-dominant hands.) When I screen someone for rotations of the hips, I almost always find that one is more rotated that the other (usually due to a foot position that is different on one side than the other). Ladies, I bet your boobs are not symmetrical!
I recently attended a conference where an asymmetry screen was set up so you could get your assessment and then be referred to an osteopath or a chiropractor. I was on the “normal” side of things, but there was still one shoulder lower than the other, one hip lower than the other. Whether the test was as accurate as claimed is a matter of conjecture; the tester would have to be very good to see below the layers of clothing and tissue (fat) on my hips and the tester was not an osteo or a chiro. To be tested, you stood up against a frame and strings were slid up and down the frame to the level of your shoulders and hips (see photo). You also were standing with each foot on a scale and the difference in how much you weigh one side from the other was noted (a difference of 10lbs or less considered within normal). So what does this test tell us? Not much, other than the fact that your shoulders and hips are unlevel. The bigger question to me would be: why?
Note the person taking the photo is not standing directly centre behind me, so it looks worse than it is!
Shoulders can be unlevel because you carry a bag on one side. Or they can be unlevel because of an old injury. They can be unlevel because of a lateral curve of the spine (and which one came first might be a better question). They can be unlevel because one trapezius muscle is longer than the other, or because you work doing different things on each side (creating an unbalanced muscle development side to side). So the asymmetry is noted, but further exploration is of course warranted. Maybe you just spent a week digging a garden, painting the ceiling or long distance driving (an asymmetrical pursuit) and you’ll feel and look different side-side until you get back to your normal activities.
So let’s assume you have a very worrisome or problematic asymmetry perhaps resulting in pain or dysfunction on one side or a very dramatic difference in function side to side. If that were the case, I probably would already know that, and wouldn’t need a screen to tell me. The current method of “fixing” or treating asymmetries (at least in the movement world) is to lengthen the short side, tighten the long side, stretch, strengthen and mold yourself back to a more symmetrical appearance. But that doesn’t address the “why” part. If your job requires you to do tasks that create major differences side to side, you’ll be chasing those symptoms for a long time. What you need to do is create an environment that requires movement on both sides.
Lots of people I see have a problem on one side of their body – hips, knees, shoulders. Which should be a red flag that it can’t be blamed on “aging.” There is a discrepancy from side to side that created a different load profile on one hip or knee than the other. But now you have a situation where you favour one side and now all your movements will change in a way that permits function within your limitations. That creates new problems, and it compounds. So in that sense, asymmetries are a problem. If a horse is lame on one leg, he will put more weight on the other leg and before you know it, there is a problem in that other leg. So let’s say he has a sore foot on the left hind, and then starts having pain in the right hip for having more weight on the right side (the muscles fatigue). Should you just strengthen the right hip muscles? No, of course not, they aren’t too weak to do their normal job, they are unable to adapt that quickly to a new load profile. The solution is in fixing the foot so the hip can go back to its normal job. If you don’t, the hip will eventually be a bigger problem than the foot. And horses can’t just sit down, so that would be the end of them. People think they can just avoid their problems by changing their behavior, if it hurts, avoidance is often the strategy taken. I may not be very popular for saying so, but you need to move more and move in a more diverse way.
If we were to move in a natural habitat, we’d be forced to function on both sides from the start. We’d have to have similar skills on one side of the body to the other, as we can’t always position ourselves in a way that favours the foot we like to plant first or the hand we like to grab with. If you were climbing a tree, your feet and hands would have to deal with all kinds of varied positions. Unlike, say, climbing a ladder or a rope where every handhold and foothold is predictable.
One of my least favourite symmetrical features of our habitat is the staircase. I would go so far as to say I hate stairs. I would love to replace all the stairs in my house with ramps, but the city code forbids it, and we are held to a safety standard that keeps us moving in very particular ways. The shape of our habitat shapes us! Hills are natural, stairs are a way we can change grades without actually using the ranges of our ankles and hips that hills require.
So my answer to typical asymmetries is to move in as varied and natural ways as possible, within our capabilities in our current culture. I live in the city, but I can always take the hill over the staircase in my park. I can walk on the grass instead of the sidewalk. I can search and seek out textured paths and tree limbs to hang from. And the best tool I know for assessment purposes that gives actionable information is the Bosu® – an inflatable half dome that you stand on and it can show you how you want to load your feet. I often have people just stand on the Bosu® and not do any exercises on it, but see how still they can stand. This shows tendencies to load the front back or one side and they can immediately use that information to correct in the moment (or not, and fall off).