It’s so easy to focus on training the muscles you can see, like the muscles in your arms, butts, and thighs and neglect the muscles that aren’t visible and don’t make you look better in a swimsuit. Yet, these muscles are important for good posture and for lowering your risk of injury. To strengthen these “hidden” muscles, also known as stabilizers, you need stabilization exercises.
What Are Stabilization Exercises and Why Are They Important?
The purpose of stabilization exercises is to activate the muscles you normally don’t target when you train on a stable surface. The muscles in your body can be divided into two main types: movers and stabilizers. The job of the movers is pretty obvious: they’re designed for movement.
In contrast, stabilizing muscles or stabilizers play a supportive role. It’s these muscles that help maintain your posture while you’re standing or sitting. They also provide a firm foundation when you’re moving other muscles. Stabilizers don’t develop as much force as the movers but they have to work for long periods of time, meaning they require lots of endurance. Whether you’re standing or sitting in a chair, stabilizing muscles help you stay upright and, hopefully, stand or sit with good posture.
As mentioned, stabilizing muscles also play a supportive role when you move. Stabilizers hold things in place when you move so that that you don’t get injured when you train. Needless to say, if these muscles are weak, you’re at higher risk of injury. Plus, doing the movement will be harder when your stabilizers lack strength and endurance. With weak stabilizers, your weight training form can fall apart too. These muscles are always working in the background, providing a supportive role when you train. That’s why you can’t afford to ignore them.
Stabilization Exercises: Where Are Your Stabilizing Muscles?
Some of the most important stabilizing muscles are in your core region. These include the deep muscles in your core and back that hook directly to your spine. One of the most important deep stabilizing muscles is called the multifidus, a stabilizer that supports your spinal column. Dysfunction of this muscle is strongly linked with back pain. No wonder! It’s the multifidus that helps hold your spine in place and helps relieve pressure on discs.
Another major stabilizing muscle is in your hips. It’s one you’re already familiar with – the gluteus medius. Unfortunately, most of the glute exercises we do target the gluteus maximus, the muscle that makes our backside look firmer and rounder. The gluteus medius sometimes gets slighted. That might not seem like a problem until you consider that a strong gluteus medius stabilizes your pelvis when one leg is off the ground. Without this stability, you’re at higher risk of knee injury. In fact, if you have a weak gluteus medius and you stand on one leg, your hip may drop on the opposite side.
Your gluteus medius is called into play when you walk or run or you spend time on one leg. Without strong gluteus medius muscles, other muscles will try to compensate for the weakness, including muscles in your back. You’ll also alter your gait, thereby increasing your risk of injury. When your hip stabilizers are weak, particularly the gluteus medius, you’re at higher risk for patellofemoral syndrome, shin splints, and iliotibial band syndrome, conditions that affect the knee and calf.
Finally, the shoulder is a highly mobile joint. Without adequate stabilization, you run the risk of injuries, including serious ones like a dislocation. Several ligaments provide stability but the major stabilizers are the rotator cuff muscles – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor. These muscles work as a team to keep the shoulder stable. The lower trapezius muscle also helps stabilize and protect the rotator cuff muscles from injury.
While the muscles above commonly act as stabilizers, a number of muscles can act as stabilizers, based on the movement you’re doing. For example, when you do abdominal exercises, muscles in the hip area contract to hold your pelvis in place when you do ab crunches. Otherwise, your pelvis would rise off the floor. It’s not completely accurate to say a muscle is either a stabilizer or a mover. They can be both but not at the same time.
Stabilization Exercises: Build a Strong Base
Stabilizer muscles form the foundation that helps keep you upright and free of injury. Yet, too often we ignore these muscles and focus on the muscles we can see. If you overlook these muscles in your training, it’ll limit your performance when you train. Even worse, it’ll place you at higher risk of injury.
Now you know why you need to work on your stabilizers – but what’s the best way to do it? Focus on compound exercises, like squats, lunges, and deadlifts. For example, squats work stabilizing muscles far more than leg extensions because your stabilizers are activated to keep you balanced. When you do leg extensions on a bench or machine, your body is already stable because you’re sitting during the exercise and the stabilizing muscles don’t have to work harder. Most isolation exercises and exercise you perform sitting or with the help of a machine do little to work stabilizers and exercise machines also allow stabilizing muscles to be lazy. With machines, you’re moving your body through a set path and your stabilizing muscles aren’t really challenged.
Free weights are the best option for working your stabilizers. Incorporating unilateral exercise helps too. Even isolation exercises activate your stabilizers when you work them unilaterally. Some options to try are unilateral overhead presses, unilateral dumbbell rows, and one-legged squats.
Another tip – your foot stance can impact how hard your stabilizing muscles work. By placing your feet closer together, your body is less stable and the trusty stabilizer muscles have to kick in. Placing one foot directly in front of the other when doing an exercise creates the same lack of balance that forces the stabilizer muscles to work harder.
Another thing to keep in mind – stabilizing muscles have a higher ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch fibers relative to the primary movers. To target the slow-twitch fibers, use lighter weights, slow the tempo of your reps, and do more reps. You may also hear that doing weight training exercises on an unstable surface, like standing on a BOSU ball, is an effective way to work stabilizing muscles. Unfortunately, one study showed doing exercises on a BOSU ball didn’t activate the core muscles more than working on an unstable surface.
The Bottom Line
Now you know how to work your stabilizing muscles harder and why it’s important to do so. Make sure you’ve worked up a certain level of fitness and can do exercises with good form before doing them unilaterally or in a less stable position. Also, when you’re working your stabilizers, reduce the weight and make up for it by doing more reps. You’re not trying to increase the size of these muscles but, instead, give them more endurance. When these muscles have more endurance and stamina, they’ll give you more support when you sit, stand, walk, and when you strength train. Whatever you do, don’t focus so much on the muscles that move that you neglect the stabilizers and stabilization exercises.
HealthHabits.ca. “Fitness Myth Busted: Core Stability and the Bosu”
Sports Health. 2013 Nov; 5(6): 500–503. doi: 10.1177/1941738113477815.
Physiother Can. 2014 Fall;66(4):348-58. doi: 10.3138/ptc.2013-51.
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