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Within the fitness and exercise community, there has been for some time now an increasing amount of interest in the body’s “stabilizer muscles.”

Some trainers believe that these mythical entities are responsible for increased strength, power and athleticism. There’s just one problem though: There is no distinct, mysterious group of “stabilizer muscles.”  In fact, every muscle in the body can play a stabilizing role.

Take the biceps muscle, for example.  During a barbell curl, the biceps are the primary working muscles, also known as the motive muscles.  But during deadlifts, the biceps stay stiff and taut to steady the forearm, and in doing so take on the role of stabilizer.  

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that we should ignore the role of muscular stabilization, but rather that we should understand it better if we want to design the most effective strength, fitness and conditioning programs possible.

What Stabilization Is

According to the American Council on Exercise, “Stabilizing muscle contractions are generally isometric contractions that act to support the trunk, limit movement in a joint, or control balance.”  In other words, muscles acting in a stabilizing role aren’t directly involved in lifting a weight, but instead keep certain parts of the body steady so that the primary working muscles can do their job properly.

Why do we care about this?  There are a few reasons:

* The inability to stabilize the body during strength training may reduce the amount of weight you’re able to use on exercises.  For example, the military press exercise directly works the shoulders and triceps.  The lower back muscles, though, help stabilize the trunk, and if they’re weak, then the amount of weight you can use on the exercise is reduced – regardless of how strong your shoulders and triceps are.  This then reduces the effectiveness of the exercise on the target muscles.

* Athletic movements outside of the weight room depend largely on the ability of the body to stabilize itself.  A football lineman throwing a block drives forward with his hips, but if his feet, calves, torso, and shoulder girdle aren’t tight, then the power of his block is vastly reduced.  Even everyday activities, like picking up a bulky sack of groceries or walking up steps, requires the body to balance and steady itself, which in turn requires strong stabilization abilities.

* Stabilizing contractions in and of themselves build muscle.  Competitive powerlifters rarely do direct abdominal flexion work, such as crunches, but they often have very impressive abdominal muscles because they train extensively in the squat and deadlift.  Both squatting and deadlifting put the ab muscles in a stabilizing role rather than a motive role, but nevertheless cause the abs to get stronger and more muscular.  Using any of your body’s muscles in a stabilizing capacity can directly result in added muscular size.

How to Train for Stabilization 

There are three ways you can train if you want to increase your body’s stabilization abilities.

1. Perform exercises that sufficiently tense the entire body.  Please notice the word “sufficiently.”  Practically any exercise will tense your entire body to a degree, but some exercises are particularly effective at causing your entire body to stay tight.  For your legs and hips, try squats, deadlifts and weighted lunges instead of leg presses and leg extensions.  The former exercises require the muscles of your back and shoulders to support and steady a barbell, while the latter exercises allow you to shift much of the stabilization responsibility to the seat on which you recline.  For similar reasons, pull-ups are better than machine pull-downs, dips are better than bench presses, and standing military presses are better than the seated equivalent.

2. Incorporate unilateral movements into your workouts.  Do exercises with one arm or one leg at a time.  Try one-armed dumbbell bench presses, one-legged squats, one-armed dumbbell rows, and whatever else seems appropriate.  One-armed work causes the abdominal obliques and the lower back muscles to fire, to keep the trunk from excessively rotating.  One-legged work causes all of the muscles of the planted leg to work in a stabilizing capacity, to help maintain balance.

3. Experiment with unstable loads.  This is an advanced technique that’s not appropriate for beginners.  But some trainees would benefit from lifting unstable loads such as sandbags, kegs and barrels half full of water, and unevenly packed boxes.  When lifting unstable loads, as the weight shifts, the muscles have to take on the role of stabilizer, then prime mover, then stabilizer again.  This teaches your body to recruit muscles in a stabilizing capacity as rapidly as possible.  If you do decide to use this technique, proceed with caution.

  • ACE Personal Trainer Manual, Green, Daniel J. Page 271