“Stabilizer Muscles”, it’s a term that you probably hear from time to time, but do you fully understand what it means? While you likely know the general idea (after all, the name makes things pretty clear), learning exactly what stabilizer muscles you are using and how they function will make you a more cultivated fitness enthusiast. It can also help you enhance your workouts and become a better athlete.
Although “strengthening stabilizer muscles” doesn’t sound very glorious, it is still a crucial aspect of exercising and fitness. So, let’s dig in and tackle the following questions…
What are stabilizer muscles?
Where are your stabilizer muscles?
Why strengthen stabilizer muscles?
How to strengthen stabilizer muscles?
Plus, there are some common misconceptions that we'd like to address.
First off, every muscle in your body can act as a stabilizer muscle. It all depends on what exercise or movement you are performing. Certain muscles take on the role of stabilizing during specific exercises, rather than always existing in that persistent state…
Let’s go over how our muscles collaborate with each other.
When performing an exercise, there are primary movers and stabilizer muscles. Stabilizer muscles are tasked with stabilizing the body and extremities during multiplanar movements, while primary movers are the muscles doing most of the work. Primary movers are moving the load and they will be the muscles you feel the most during the exercise. Stabilizer muscles aren’t directly involved in moving the load, they are working to keep certain body parts stable and steady so the primary movers can perform the exercise efficiently, effectively, and safely.
Take bench press for example. Your rear delts are the main stabilizer muscles during this exercise. They help you control and decelerate the bar or dumbbells effectively. When the bar reaches parallel and goes behind your body, this is a very important role, as you want to prevent injury and stabilize the weight so the primary movers (pectoralis major and the triceps brachii) can press the weight back up.
Now, let’s look at another example, the pull up. Your triceps act as the main stabilizer during this exercise, while your latissimus dorsi and teres major are the primary movers.
As you can see, for bench press, your triceps are acting as a primary mover and for pull ups they are acting as stabilizer muscles. So, to reiterate, it’s not about specific muscles being stabilizers all the time. It all depends on what exercise is being performed…
That said, certain muscles are frequently acting as stabilizer muscles rather than primary movers. Such as your rear deltoids. Every time you perform exercises that involve your shoulders, like bench press or overhead shoulder press, your rear delts are stabilizing the movement. But, again, that doesn’t mean they are only stabilizer muscles.
To sum it up, stabilizer muscles do exactly what their name implies, stabilize muscles. They often play several different roles during a movement. They help coordinate and stabilize the movement, and they work to restrict the movement of the joints involved in the exercise so that the joints don’t get injured. When a muscle acts as a stabilizer, it contracts, however, it doesn’t significantly lengthen or shorten as the primary movers do.
Some people believe that “smaller stabilizer muscles” is a myth and that the above is the “be all” to stabilizer muscles, but that isn’t true.
Although any muscle can act as a stabilizer depending on the movement, there are such things as smaller stabilizer muscles, they are known as stabilizer complexes.
The three main stabilizer complexes in the body are located in the shoulders, hips, and trunk. These stabilizer complexes are essential for maintaining healthy joint function and biomechanics…
So, let’s briefly discuss each of the three.
The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint. These rotator cuff muscles help stabilize the shoulder. The muscles of the rotator cuff are supraspinatus, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and teres minor. Their function is crucial to maintaining optimal function and biomechanics of the shoulder joint.
You also have scapular stabilizers, which are the serratus anterior, upper/middle/lower trapezius, and levator scapula. These muscles cooperate with the rotor cuff and deltoid muscles to upwardly and downwardly rotate the scapular while the shoulder joint and arm is moving overhead, behind the back or reaching away from your core.
The hip stabilizer complex is made up of multiple muscles, but the main one is the gluteus medius. This is the muscle of hip joint that maintains proper biomechanic function of the lower body when walking or running, as to prevent injuries at the ankle, knee and hip. If you have weak hip stabilization, it can lead to poor alignment of the pelvis and cause compensation from other muscles which then creates muscle imbalances.
Again, the gluteus medius/hip complex is not the only muscles working to stabilize the body, they are just one part of the “kinetic chain” that’s needed to create a solid foundation of coordinated movements. Nevertheless, strengthening the hip stabilizer complex will surely further reinforce your kinetic chain.
The major muscles used for core stability are the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm.
These can be simplified into three main muscles, known as the deep core stability muscles:
These 3 stabilizer complexes play an important role in biomechanics and maintaining healthy joints. Moreover, these muscles can be targeted, though they are not muscles you are intending to grow like your mirror muscles or other "part-time" larger stabilzer muscles. You simply want to strengthen them for optimal function, and to do this, you can use light weights or bodyweight exercises that specifically target these muscles.
All of that said, these stabilizer complex muscles will get worked during most free weight and unilateral exercises, to the point that they may not necessarily need more focused attention.
However, they do require more attention if you are noticing issues with stabilizing a particular joint.
At this point, you understand that saying exactly where your stabilizer muscles are is precarious. It all depends on the exercise and movement being done.
So, let’s look at some of the most common exercises to see which muscles are acting as a stabilizer muscle:
During squats, your glutes and quadriceps are the primary movers and your lower back, calves, abdominals and hamstrings are the main stabilizers.
During bench press, your pectorals and triceps are the primary movers and your anterior (rear) delts are the main stabilizer.
During deadlifts, your hamstrings, quadriceps, erector spinae (a muscle that runs all the way up both sides of your spine), and calves are the primary movers and your abdominals, trapezius, and forearms are a few of the stabilizing muscles.
During pull ups, your latissimi dorsi is the primary mover and your triceps are the main stabilizer muscle.
As for your stabilizer complexes, they are all functioning depending on which joint is involved in the movement.
Strengthening your stabilizer muscles is a vital aspect of fitness and athletics for many reasons:
If your stabilizer muscles are underdeveloped or inactive, this can cause you to compensate in other areas of your body and/or accommodate for the inefficient stabilization forces by generating momentum during the movement, making the exercise both less effective and riskier.
Strong stabilizer muscles allow you to handle greater loads during training. No matter how strong your primary movers are during an exercise, if your stabilizer muscles are lacking, the movement will be dysfunctional and not as much force can be applied.
The more stable your structure, the more force you can produce during compound movements.
Just as you can produce more force with a stable structure, you are also much less likely to get injured or cause strains to your joints, ligaments and muscles. Strong stabilizer muscles make movements safer both inside the weight room and in the sports arenas, and it puts less unnecessary stress on your primary movers.
This one goes with the above three, but it deserves its own point. Strong, effective stabilizer muscles will allow you to have proper form, which is important for producing more force and preventing injuries.
If you have poor posture, working on improving the strength and function of your stabilizer muscles can help correct your posture during daily life as well.
Your stabilizer muscles are the unsung heroes of your kinetic chain.
Having strong stabilizer muscles is important for having good balance and coordination. When playing sports or performing unilateral exercises, you want your entire body to stabilize your movement from your ankles to your knees to your core. Strong stabilizer muscles make you more agile and quicker to accelerate and decelerate.
So, as you can see, stabilizer muscles are extremely important. Take charge by working on stabilization now before you get injured and have to deal with the draining process of injury rehab later.
We are going to discuss the three best ways to strengthen stabilizer muscles, starting in this order:
Working out with free weights is a guaranteed way to strengthen your stabilizer muscles.
Unlike machines, free weights require you to balance the weight and control its range of movement. With free weights, the load can go anywhere (forward, backward, or to the side) unless you stabilize and control it.
This is a big reason why many people who are strong on movements like leg press are not strong on squats. Their stabilizer muscles are not trained to move efficiently through a self-controlled movement path.
So, if you want to be an all-around gym-goer or athlete, you need to work with free weights rather than machines that control your range of motion.
Additionally, if you want to double down on your stability training, use dumbbells too, not just barbells, as dumbbells will require you to stabilize with each extremity individually, which makes it so you can't compensate a weaker side with your stronger side. It will help even out and correct any muscle imbalances, including stabilizer muscle imbalances.
Unilateral movements are also a great way to strengthen your stabilizer muscles.
Essentially, unilateral movements involve a single leg or arm that is doing the brunt of the work, such as Single-Leg Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, One Arm Rows, Lunges, and Split Squats.
You can use both free weights and bodyweight exercises for unilateral training.
Unilateral training is also a form of balance training, as it will help build the necessary stability involved in having good balance and coordination. This is one of the reasons athletes incorporate a lot of unilateral exercises into their training.
Balance training is a very effective way to train your stabilizer muscles. A balance focused exercise will add extra instability to the movement, which forces the stabilizer muscles to work harder.
Training tools such as bosu balls are good for training balance and core and lower body stabilization, as there is a ton of instability going on during the movements.
Other tools like a steel mace can be even more effective as the weight is offset, which causes a lot of instability. Steel Maces work all the stabilizer muscles, especially your shoulder and core stabilizer complexes.
What’s more, if you combine an offset weight with a unilateral movement (such as a steel mace offset dynamic lunge), you are getting two times the instability which really puts your stabilizer muscles to work.
We have a whole video on balance training using a steel mace that you can watch here:
In fact, the steel mace is so good for stabilizer muscles, we want to dedicate an entire section to it right now.
As we said, the steel mace is going to be constantly putting your stabilizer muscles to the test due to the weight being uneven. Steel mace exercises really hit the stabilizer muscles well as it singles them out with its offset load. It’s similar to using a dumbbell only on one side, but since the handle of the mace is longer, it requires even more stability as the weight isn’t balanced proportionally in your hands.
What’s more, exercises like the 360 and 10 to 2 are going to target your shoulder complex muscles greatly, as the movement requires a tremendous amount of stability, especially when swinging heavy maces. Lighter maces are great for priming stabilizer muscles as well.
Lastly, steel maces can be used as a prehabilitation tool. For example, you can easily target your rotator cuff muscles using a steel mace so you can strengthen a weak shoulder complex to prevent injury. You can also recover an injured shoulder stabilizer complex to get it back up to par.
Here is a video demonstrated by a chiropractor we work with (Michael Risher) doing exactly that...
Steel Mace Rotator Cuff Muscle Exercises.
All of these exercises are going to target your small stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle. At SET FOR SET, we work with physical therapists quite often as they are implementing steel maces to help their clients recover and build strength in a safe manner. That said, if you do have an injury, please consult your PT before trying any new exercise.
Other Great Workout Methods/Exercises for Stability Training:
Athletes who want to boost their athletic performance! During a game you will be moving through multiple planes of motion, constantly. You are going to be bending, turning, twisting, pushing, pulling, running, stopping, moving side to side, jumping, all at various speeds and directions. To do this efficiently and safely, you need to have strong stabilizer muscles that function effectively.
Gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts who want to improve their strength and look better! By making your stabilizer muscles stronger, you will be able to produce more force, which means you can lift heavier weights safely. Thus, you can also look better as you are training harder and breaking plateaus. And, most importantly, you will greatly reduce your chance of injury during lifts and training sessions.
People with balance issues! Some people naturally have poor balance. As you get older your balance becomes worse. Tall people have balance issues. In any case, anyone who is having problems with balance, whether serious or just a slight issue, focusing on strengthening stabilizer muscles can profoundly improve your balance and coordination.
If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.
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