How to strengthen stabilizer muscles is a common question asked by young lifters. When I started my fitness journey at the age of 16, no one knew a sh*t about technical terminologies like “stabilizer muscles”, we were all focused on doing what our coach asked us to do.
The new generation lifters are way more curious about understanding new concepts of bodybuilding and if you are reading this article that means you belong to the same category.
Understanding the stabilizer muscles requires an understanding of basic biomechanics first. So if you don’t have knowledge about the basic skeletal muscle anatomy then you might find it difficult to understand. I will try to answer every question by giving relevant examples, so bear with me and let’s understand the basics first.
What Are Stabilizer Muscles?
Stabilizer muscles are not some specific muscle group, it’s a muscle that you use to supplement the primary muscle group to withstand the given resistance. The fact is, every muscle in your body can act as a stabilizer muscle.
Every bodily movement requires a primary muscle and secondary muscle groups (to do the stabilization work). But the problem is, sometimes you need to train your body to use these muscles in coordination to achieve improved performance.
Stabilizer muscles are not directly involved in completing the movement but they play a crucial role in completing the lift.
For example, benchpress is mainly performed to improve the chest strength but it requires forearm work for wrist stabilization, tricep work for elbow stabilization, scapula work to stabilize the shoulders and posterior chain.
The fact is, without these stabilizer muscles, you will not be able to complete even the basic movements.
Importance of Stabilizer Muscles
Our body is naturally programmed to use all the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in coordination but things get complicated when you get ignorant towards our own body.
Lifters are often seen to pay more attention to the certain body part that creates muscle imbalance. Example: Mr.X wants to have a strong and big chest, so he start training it 3 days a week, but Mr.X pays almost no attention to the stabilizer muscle, what do you expect to happen? Since stabilizer muscles are not given appropriate attention, they are not strong enough to withstand extreme pressure, which results in injuries.
Let’s discuss the importance of stabilizer muscle strengthening before we jump on “ways to strengthen stabilizer muscles”
Prevent muscle imbalance
Muscle imbalance and lack of strength in stabilizer muscles are the most common reason for the majority of injuries.
Every joint in the body is surrounded by a group of muscle fibers that control various movements. If muscles on one side of a joint become too tight from overuse, it could cause the muscles on the other side to become too weak because of lack of use. Example: if you train your chest too much and neglect the back, you might develop a hunchback posture because of the tight chest muscle and week upper back. This is called muscle imbalance.
Muscle imbalances can be a potential cause of injury because they can affect the position of the joint at rest and change its path of motion during movement, muscle imbalance leads to limited mobility, pain, and potential injuries.
Training your stabilizer muscle allows you to work on achieving muscle symmetry which not only keeps your muscle strength balanced but also avoids bad posture.
Have you ever trained with the powerlifters? These power athletes devote a tremendous amount of time in strengthening those supporting muscles for stronger stabilization and strength.
Working on stabilizer muscles not only helps in injury prevention but also helps in boosting muscle recruitment to generate stronger force.
If you want to improve your bench press, start to pay more emphasis on the tricep strengthening. Similarly, want to improve squats? pay more attention to hip activation and strengthening.
Do you know? Working on your forearm strength can drastically improve your bench presses and lat-pulldown strength? It’s because stronger forearms improve the scapula stabilization.
Better Range of motion:
Oftentimes, a lot of our focus shifts towards mobility issues when you have a low range of motion in a certain exercise. But truth is, sometimes the body doesn’t let you get into a certain position not because of low mobility but because of lack of stability.
As we know, stabilizer muscles are used to support the primary muscles but you can experience a lack of range of motion if your stabilizer muscles are not strong enough to support the movement.
For example: when you do the barbell squat, your hamstrings, quads, and gluteus maximus are lifting the majority of weight but your gluteus medius (abductor’s muscle) plays important role in stabilizing the whole movement. Low strength in gluteus medius may result in a lack of range of motion.
Similarly, the lack of strength in anterior deltoids may restrict the range of motion while bench press.
How To Strengthen Stabilizer Muscles
We have discussed enough about the importance of stabilizer muscles, now lets get into the ways to strengthen these supporting muscles.
1# Pay Attention To The Tempo
There are four parts to each repetition:
- The lowering (eccentric) phase
- The pause between the lowering and lifting phases
- The lifting (concentric) phase
- The pause between the lifting and lowering phases
Tempo is the speed of movement, it can be classified into two types: slow and fast.
Fast tempo is responsible for developing explosiveness but it overlooks the strengthening of small stabilizer muscles. On the other hand, slowing down the tempo has enhanced benefits on mobility and structural balance.
I am not saying that you need to totally switch to slow tempo, the best choice is to implement both training methods.
Muscle groups are a combination of thousands of muscle fibers, these fibers are arranged in a group of motor units. Increasing the time under tension also helps in the recruitment of more motor units to fulfill the demands.
Not just that, slowing down the tempo of workout also prevents joint injuries.
2# Unilateral Movements :
A unilateral movement is a movement that’s produced by one limb (single leg squats, single-hand shoulder press, or one arm rowing).
The unilateral movements not only works on the target muscle but recruit more supporting fibers to stabilize the movement.
One side of the body is always stronger than another side, Unilateral lifts allow both sides to train at the same resistance which provides more symmetrical body development while avoiding muscle imbalance and possible injuries.
3# Train Muscles From Different Angles
Why Do pro bodybuilders pay soo much emphasis on doing the same exercise with different variations? Because each variation trains the muscle tissues from a different direction.
Muscle fibers run in different directions, they can be located parallel, perpendicular, or diagonally. In order to train them all, you need to change the angles of your exercise.
Hitting the same muscle from different angles not only results in superior muscle development but you also train those stabilizer muscles from different angles.
4# Multi-planar Movement:
The majority of traditional weight lifting programs contain a significant amount of time in a single plane or direction(squats, lunges, bicep curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions, etc.
The human body is not developed to move in a single direction that’s what makes multi-planar movements soo important.
Whether you are a high-level athlete or a general fitness enthusiast, training multi-planar movement not only help in help in improving functional capability but also strengthens those muscles that are often left untouched.
Some of the great examples of multi-planar exercises: Lung with twist, medicine ball chops, plank diagonal reach, rotating lunge, etc.
5# Bamboo Bars & Balancing Movements
Primary work of Stabilizers is to maintain the balance, adding a balance component to your training can help in enhancing the engagement of your stabilizers.
- Standing on balance board while squats or lunges
- Planking while putting legs on a medicine ball
Bamboo bars are my personal favorite to improve muscle stability and joint strength. These are the light weighted bars designed to destabilize the simplest movement, your muscle requires to work harder to keep the bar stable and balanced.
You can use bamboo bar for bench press, overhear squats, overhead farmers carry, bend over rows, etc.
6# Warm-up The Stabilizers
Most of the lifters warm up the muscle they are about to target, but totally neglect to warm up the stabilizers.
Warmup helps in waking up the muscle fibers to get the work done more effectively. Sometimes big muscles don’t allow the small muscles to do the work which makes the warmup process more important.
So, next time when you have a chest day, don’t forget to warm up your wrist, triceps, shoulder blades. If it’s a legs day then spend a good amount of time in warming up those hip joints and core. Warming up the core and shoulder blades is a great way to start the back workouts.
7# Going High Volume
Going high volume has its own advantages, it not only help in the recruitment of more motor units but also improves muscle activation.
I am not suggesting you do 25 reps per set, but doing multiple sets of 10-15 controlled reps at 70-75% of 1-rep max will help in improving the mind-muscle connection while strengthening stabilizer muscles.
8# Avoid Dependence on Machines
I am not against the machine workout, they work really well for the muscle isolation but I am against lifters who totally rely on the machines.
Incorporating barbells and dumbbells not only help in improving the strength but also put those stabilizer muscles on work.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.