While it’s important to follow a well-rounded strength training routine that targets all of your major muscles, maintaining proper form for any of these exercises would not be possible without the concurrent action and strength from your stabilizer muscles.
But what are stabilizer muscles? How can you strengthen stabilizing muscles?
In this article, we will discuss stabilizer muscles, including what stabilizing muscles are, how they function, and how to strengthen them.
We will cover:
- What Are Stabilizer Muscles?
- Why Are Stabilizer Muscles Important?
- The Best Exercises to Strengthen Stabilizer Muscles
Let’s get started!
What Are Stabilizer Muscles?
When you perform any type of movement, there are muscles termed as prime movers, also called agonists, that are primarily responsible for creating the movement.
For example, with biceps curls, the biceps brachii muscle on the front of the upper arm contracts concentrically (shortening) to bring the weight upward as you bend your elbow, and then the biceps contracts eccentrically (lengthening) to lower the weight.
In addition to the prime mover, there is the antagonist muscle, which opposes the movement of the prime mover. With the biceps curl, the triceps is the antagonist.
Depending on the exercise, there are also muscles that assist the movement. For example, with squats, the adductors in the inner thighs are involved in the movement, but they are not the primary muscle responsible for the squatting motion.
Stabilizer muscles, also called stabilizing muscles, provide support and stability to the prime movers of an exercise. The stabilizer muscles help to control and stabilize one joint so the intended movement can be performed in another joint.
Unlike prime movers and assisting muscles, the stabilizer muscles aren’t directly involved in producing the movement, but they help keep your joint stable so that your agonist muscles can carry out the movement in the desired path of motion.
Stabilizer muscles often contract isometrically, which means that they don’t shorten or lengthen as they contract, but they contract and hold the position to stabilize one joint as you move another.
Returning to our example of the biceps curl, the stabilizer muscles around the shoulders (such as the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, and lats) help hold the shoulder in place while the elbow is allowed to move freely.
Why Are Stabilizer Muscles Important?
Stabilizer muscles help ensure that the movement can be executed with proper form and technique.
Strengthening your stabilizer muscles not only helps ensure a movement can be executed safely with proper form but also increases balance and coordination.
Although stabilizer muscles are indirectly worked any time you perform an exercise, you can and should also do targeted exercises to strengthen them.
Evidence suggests that consistently performing a stability exercise routine can cause a significant improvement in balance. For example, one study found that a 15-minute stability exercise routine performed four days a week resulted in a noticeable improvement in balance after six weeks.
Additionally, studies suggest that performing balance exercises, such as standing on one leg, can increase the strength in the stabilizer muscles of the ankle while also improving overall balance, both of which can help reduce the risk of falls and may decrease joint pain.
The Best Exercises to Strengthen Stabilizer Muscles
The best exercises for stabilizing muscles depend on the particular stabilizer muscles you want to target, but as with general strength training, it is best to perform a well-rounded routine that aims to strengthen all of the key stabilizer muscles for each of your major joints (ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders).
Core muscles, including the abdominal and low-back muscles, essentially function as stabilizer muscles in almost any compound exercise, so including dedicated core strengthening exercises in your workout routine is also vital for overall balance and stability.
Here are some of the best exercises to strengthen your stabilizer muscles:
Lower-Body Stabilizer Muscles
Strengthening muscles that help stabilize the ankle can prevent spraining and twisting your ankle and may improve running and walking gait, as these muscles also help control overpronation.
Similarly, strengthening hip stabilizer muscles can reduce the risk of certain running injuries, such as runner’s knee and IT band syndrome, by ensuring that the joints of your lower leg stack up appropriately as you run. Strengthening hip stabilizer muscles may also decrease the risk of low back pain.
The simplest way to target the ankle stabilizer muscles is to perform single-leg balance exercises. This exercise will also work some of the smaller muscles in the glutes and hips.
For beginners, this can be as simple as standing on one leg, and gradually trying to increase the length of time that you balance from 30 to 60 seconds or more. When you are just starting out, make sure that you are standing near a wall or somewhere that you can hold onto in case you lose your balance.
You may feel your ankle shaking and trembling. This is normal and is exactly what is intended, as it will help strengthen the stabilizer muscles of the ankle.
As you become more adept at balancing on one leg, you can increase the difficulty of the exercise by closing your eyes. Removing visual input makes it more challenging to balance.
Other ways to increase the difficulty of single-leg balance exercises are to make big circles with your arms as you stand on one leg, turn your head from side to side as you balance, or stand on a pillow or other unstable surfaces such as a couch cushion, wobble board, or foam pad.
In addition to standing on one leg, other exercises for ankle stabilizer muscles include walking heel-to-toe in a straight line with one foot directly in front of the other, walking on your toes, and walking on your heels.
You can also perform upper-body exercises while standing on one leg. For example, while maintaining a single-leg balance stance, try performing bicep curls or lateral raises, bringing the dumbbells out to the side. You can also try overhead presses.
Once this becomes easier, you can perform the upper-body exercises unilaterally, which makes it all the more challenging for your core muscles and hip and ankle stabilizer muscles to balance and stabilize your body.
In other words, progress from lifting dumbbells out to both sides of your body (bilateral lateral raise) to just performing the exercise on one side as you stand on a single leg.
As you get even stronger, you can perform your single-leg balance exercise on top of a BOSU ball or perform squats and single-leg squats on top of the BOSU ball as well.
The unstable surface will require your body to recruit the stabilizer muscles of the hips and knees, even more so than when performing these exercises on stable ground.
Again, for safety, when you first attempt squats on top of a BOSU ball, ensure you are standing somewhere near a wall or other surface you can hold onto should you lose your balance.
Certain yoga poses can also strengthen the stabilizer muscles in your lower body. For example, Tree Pose and the Warrior Pose series is a great way to strengthen ankle stabilizers and hip stabilizer muscles.
Core Stabilizer Muscles
The core muscles, which include all of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transversus abdominis), the erector spinae and multifidus groups in the lower back, and the pelvic floor muscles, are always working to stabilize the body during standing, walking, sitting, running, and any type of exercise.
There are quite a number of effective core-strengthening exercises. Some examples include planks, side planks, anti-rotation presses, bird-dog, reverse crunches, V-ups, and dying bugs.
However, it’s also highly effective to use an exercise ball (Swiss ball) or BOSU ball to strengthen the core stabilizer muscles because these unstable surfaces recruit all of the little muscle fibers that help provide overall core stability.
Swiss ball crunches, planks with your forearms on the Swiss ball, or flipping the BOSU ball over and putting your forearms on the platform surface while the dome is on the ground are great ways to strengthen your core.
The benefit of these exercises is that they also help strengthen your shoulder stabilizer muscles.
Shoulder Stabilizer Muscles
In addition to performing basic forearm planks on a stability ball or BOSU ball, one of the best exercises to strengthen your shoulder stabilizers is to perform a plank on a Swiss ball but while doing so, make a small clockwise and counterclockwise circles by digging your elbows into the ball and moving it.
Having to control your upper body and core on a moving, already unstable surface is a fantastic way to recruit the muscle groups that stabilize the shoulders and scapulae.
Another often-overlooked way of strengthening your stabilizing muscles is to perform free weight exercises using dumbbells rather than weight machines.
Studies have found that using free weights doesn’t necessarily increase the activation or workload on the prime movers of an exercise, but it can significantly increase the muscle activity of the stabilizer muscles.
For example, one study compared the muscle activity of performing a bench press with free weights versus a machine bench press at a load equivalent to 60% of 1RM.
The results indicated that although the muscle activity of the prime movers (pecs and triceps) was nearly identical, the stabilizer muscles (anterior and medial deltoids) demonstrated significantly greater muscle activity during the free weight exercise.
In fact, muscle activity in the anterior deltoid was about 50% greater when using free weights than when using a machine, and muscle activity in the middle deltoid was about 33% higher.
Overall, although we tend to put a lot of focus on the large muscle groups, it is equally important to spend some dedicated training time performing exercises that target your stabilizer muscles.
Strengthening your stabilizer muscles can improve your balance, coordination, and movement mechanics. In doing so, you may reduce your risk of injury and improve your strength and performance for your other major lifts.
Check out some of our plank variations to stabilize your core!