You've come to the end of your epic quest to develop the ‘perfect’ physique. You shed your love handles, trimmed yourself below 10% body fat, and carved some serious muscle definition into your midsection, as if your obliques and abs were damn near carved from marble.
The journey was long yet satisfying. But now that your muscles aren't obscured by the buffer of fat, you might start thinking: Wait a minute—why are my abs asymmetrical?
If your abs look like the ones on the model above, then first off: congratulations. But mainly: Don't freak out.
“It’s not an abnormality, that’s for sure,” says Joel Seedman, Ph.D., strength and performance specialist and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, visit a bodybuilding competition, and you'll notice it among a lot of guys who’ve whittled away their belly fat to expose the 3-dimensional shape, size, and symmetry of their six-pack. There are a couple different explanations why.
What causes asymmetrical abs?
1. It’s simply coded in your genes
“For the majority of guys, it’s purely and predominantly genetic,” Seedman says. The hereditary makeup of your muscles—their tendon insertion, origin point, and shape—is practically impossible to change.
“Physique-focused athletes might have abs that are very symmetrical in shape and size, but undoubtedly staggered,” Seedman says. If this is the case, you won’t be able to eliminate the "lopsidedness," although you might be able to even them out a bit. (More on this below.)
Some bodybuilders dedicate years to fine-tuning their training in an effort to sculpt their body, changing the appearance of certain muscles, like a higher peak on their biceps, fuller, more cannonball-like calves, and abs that really pop. But they won’t notice much of a difference in the "symmetry" of their abs.
“You can hypertrophy a muscle, atrophy a muscle, maybe lengthen it a little bit if the muscles are shortened and spastic,” Seedman says. “But for the most part, shape is predetermined genetically and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
2. Your musculature is dysfunctional
Most people have one shoulder and one side of their spine that’s higher than the other. “Basically, your upper and lower back is lengthened more, so one shoulder sits higher and protracts and elevates more, which can lengthen and stretch out that side of your abdominal wall,” Seedman explains. “Meanwhile, the other side stays shortened, creating this off-set appearance in your six-pack.”
It’s a posterior chain issue, particularly in your upper, middle, and low back. It could also indicate you have undiagnosed scoliosis. In both of these situations, you can improve your condition.
3. Sports and athletic training have created major imbalances
“Athletes who've played sports—particularly one-side dominant sports throughout their lives, like baseball, tennis, and golf—can overdevelop one side of their core,” Seedman says. The muscles are larger, maybe even overworked and stressed, while the other side is underused. Even if your abs aren't necessarily staggered, the musculature imbalances can make your six-pack appear uneven.
How to make your abs appear more symmetrical
Working out some of your asymmetries can help to a degree. Ultimately, you need to work both sides of your core individually.
Your main focus should be working on anti-rotational exercises where your spine has to resist rotation, Seedman says. This is absolutely key. You also want moves that lengthen your abdominals.
The 8 best exercises to address asymmetrical abs
- Single-arm plank
- Side plank
- Long-lever plank: Walk your hands and feet out to help lengthen your abs, Seedman says; the intrinsic overload can help balance asymmetries
- Windmill plank: Come into a basic plank on your hands or forearms. Rotate and swing one side's arm out reaching your arm and hand toward the ceiling like you would a side plank. Hold for a few seconds, then come to the start. Switch sides.
- Pallof press
- Single-arm chest press
- Single-arm row
- Suitcase carry
"Make sure both your shoulders are pulled down and back during these exercises, and your lats are activated and contracting," Seedman advises. "If they’re not, then one side or both sides can become overly lengthened, which disrupts the positioning of your abs, giving an unusual appearance," he says.
You also need to work out any kinks and spasms.
If you’ve got balls of muscles that are tight and knotted up on one side of your body, releasing that tension can help make your abs appear slightly less asymmetrical—especially if it seems like some abs are bulging more than others.
One final note for your sanity: "If it’s to the point where you can visibly tell you’ve got staggered abs, you should be pretty pleased because you’re in a very small percentage of the population," Seedman says. Who cares if you don't have the cookie-cutter physique? All things considered, this is a good problem to have.