By Nick Nilsson
Author of Mad Scientist Muscle
Normally, you would think loading a barbell with uneven weight would be a mistake and would horribly imbalance the bar, making the exercise dangerous.
And, to be honest, if you're not expecting the bar to be unbalanced, you'd be right. Anyone who has mistakenly misloaded a bench press bar can vouch for that.
So how can an unbalanced, asymmetrically-loaded bar possibly be a good thing? I'll tell you.
Unbalanced loading not only helps improve stabilizing muscle function, it can help correct lopsided muscle development (right side bigger or stronger than the left, etc.), AND hit areas of your muscles that are almost IMPOSSIBLE to hit with free weights any other way. The difference is, quite frankly, extremely eye-opening.
NOTE: when you do these exercises, you can work the exercise as a superset, doing one side then immediately moving the unbalanced load to the other side and doing a set for the other side, or you can rest in between working each side, doing each side as totally separate sets. Both methods work quite well.
1. The Uneven Barbell Bench Press
I will start with the bench press as my first example. First, load up a bar with a weight you could normally do for 15 reps (we want to start light to get a feel for it). Now, add an extra 10 pound plate onto the right side of the bar. Set yourself up on the bench and prepare for a very unique set.
When you unrack the bar, push hard against the ground with your right foot (this is to help balance the extra load on the right). Lower the bar to your chest as you normally would, striving hard to keep the bar itself horizontal - don't let the bar tilt or tip to the right!
Now, when you push it up, keep it horizontal as well. Because of the unbalanced load, almost ALL of the tension of the entire load on the bar will feel like it's going straight to the right pec.
Not only are you going to get that extra tension on the one side, you'll also feel a surprising bonus - the hard-to-reach, extreme inner pectoral area will be on fire.
The way the pec has to activate in order to cope with the unbalanced load places a HUGE amount of tension on the inner pec area (on par with or even greater than the pec deck or cable cross-overs, I've found). The best part is, you don't need those big pieces of equipment to achieve this effect - just a barbell. This is ideal for home exercisers with limited equipment.
On your next set, be sure to switch the extra 10 pound weight to the other side of the bar to hit the left pec equally.
The uneven loads force each pec muscle to take up the majority share of the movement. If one side tends to take over in a regular bench press, this technique will let you know which side is weak and give you a way to fix it.
2. The Uneven Bent-Over Barbell Row
Looking for a way to hit the back in a way it's never been hit before? Loading the bent-over barbell row (close-grip underhand or wide-grip overhand) unevenly allows you to hit the extreme inner aspects of the back, especially the middle trapezius area by the spine. Again, a 10 pound weight plate on one side will do it.
These inner/middle back muscles are extremely difficult to work with regular barbell rows - you have to really focus on getting the shoulder blades back. With uneven barbell loading, however, your body has NO CHOICE but to activate those hard-to-reach muscles to move the weight.
Like the bench press, you want to focus on keeping the barbell horizontal while you're doing the movement. When you lift the bar off the ground or the rack, remember that you will be unbalanced and be prepared to push with your feet a little harder on the side that is heavier.
Use a lighter weight the first time you do this exercise because remember, the majority of the tension will feel like it's going to only one side of the body.
3. The Uneven Barbell Curl
Imagine the entire weight of a barbell curl going to ONE bicep. That growth stimulation can be achieved by adding as little as 5 pounds onto one side of the bar when doing barbell curls.
Again, start with a fairly light weight as it will feel as though the majority of the weight is being lifted by only one side of the body. When you lift the bar, keep it horizontal. It will feel as though the lighter side bicep is doing almost nothing while the heavier side bicep is doing all the work.
But the assistance being given by the bicep on the lighter side will actually help keep the bar moving, allowing you to push the bicep on the heavier side much harder! The contraction you will get from this technique must be felt to be believed.
4. The Uneven Shoulder Press
Having trouble with your shoulder development? Standard barbell or dumbbell presses just not doing the trick for your shoulders? Try the unbalanced loading technique with the military shoulder press (to the front ONLY).
When you add a little extra weight to one side (5 or 10 pounds), the tension goes right into the meat of the shoulder muscle. Even if you normally have a hard time feeling the shoulder muscles working when doing the press, this uneven loading will put the burn in the right place. You will feel a pump in your shoulders like you've never felt before.
As in all the exercises, keep the bar horizontal as you press it up and prepare to be unbalanced when you do the exercise. For this reason, I would recommend standing up when doing this exercise - you'll have an easier time with the balancing.
5. Other Uneven Barbell Exercises To Try
Now that you have the idea of how uneven loading works and how it's done, here are a number of other exercises you can try it with. The only exercises I WOULDN'T recommend it with are squats, deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, good mornings and upright rows (I don't actually recommend doing upright rows at all!). Squats and deadlifts (and similar exercises) require evenly-distributed spinal support and throwing the load to one side could lead to torque on the spine.
Here are the other exercises you can try:
- Uneven Close Grip Bench Press
- Uneven Lying Tricep Extensions
- Uneven Barbell Lunges (the lunge is already an uneven exercise, making it a good candidate - experiment with which side feels best to add the extra weight, depending on which leg you are using).
- Uneven Preacher Curls
- Uneven Incline and Decline Bench Press
Give this technique a try the next time you're in the gym. I guarantee you'll be shocked at just how much difference a 5 or 10 pound weight difference on one side of the barbell can make.
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