You May have hard that using free weights rather than machines or dumbbells rather than a barbell works more of your “stabilizers” than a barbell. How do stabilizer muscles work, though? Are they really being overlooked by machine exercises, and how crucial are they to your training?
Stabilizer muscles: what are they? Because there isn’t really a consensus on what stabilizer muscles are, this is going to get murky. This 2014 study looked for references to stabilizer muscles in the literature and made an effort to define them. What they came up with is as follows:
Okay, so stabilizer muscles are just that—stabilizing muscles. Those muscles are which ones? That is a trickier query. Research on “lumbar [lower back] stabilizers,” “trunk [core] stabilizers,” and “knee stabilizers” is widely available. Contrary to popular belief, these are not solely general-purpose muscles. In this study on knee stabilizers, we learn that the quadriceps and hamstrings, which are the main muscle groups on the front and back of the thighs, each have four muscles. Are those muscles merely those that move the legs, or are they stabilizers as well?
The major movers in one exercise may be the stabilizers in another.
Because of this, I don’t worry too much about machines ignoring “stabilizing” muscles. You may almost certainly target the quad and hamstring muscles that serve as knee stabilizers when you’re running and jumping if you perform a range of quad and hamstring workouts.
Or, to provide another illustration, single-leg exercises like step-ups and lunges are excellent for strengthening your adductors and abductors, which are the muscles that hold your leg firm as you bear weight on it. However, even if a person never performed single-leg workouts, they might still work those muscles by using devices that target the adductor and abductor as key movers.
Coordination is more important for stability than strength alone.
If we go back and review the studies on knee stabilizers, scientists believe that using those stabilizer muscles when running and jumping is beneficial. This isn’t just about the power of those muscles; it’s also about your capacity to use them when necessary.
Therefore, in addition to free weight workouts, which are excellent, you should also perform running, jumping, pivoting, and cutting activities to keep your knees stable. (Consider soccer players chasing after cones and ladders made of rope.)
In other words, joint stability requires practice in addition to strength. You must train your brain to cause those muscles to contract at the proper times and in the correct sequence if you wish to be steady and stable while doing particular activities.
There are instances when stability and strength conflict.
What, therefore, ought you to do in the gym? You could see that people that are strong typically perform a variety of workouts. They might perform barbell squats and benches but end their workouts with a bench press or leg extensions with dumbbells. Each of the activities falls into a distinct position on the continuum of exercise, with strength on one end and stability on the other.
Let’s take the bench press as an illustration. When performing a barbell bench press, you must support your body with your knees, create a solid platform for your arms, and lift the weight with your arms. Your pecs and triceps are the main movers, but your shoulder, core, back, and leg muscles stabilize them.
If we were to perform an exercise like a dumbbell bench press with our backs supported by a yoga ball, we could engage our stabilizers more. We wouldn’t be able to carry nearly as much weight since we would have to exert more effort to keep everything steady. We would train the major movers less and the stabilizers more.
In a chest press machine, we’d obtain the opposite result. You only need to do what is necessary to sit in the chair without dismounting there; no stabilization at all is required. We can “lift” even more weight because our stabilizers are no longer a constraint on the pecs and triceps. (Of course, you can’t compare machine labels to barbell or dumbbell weights because the way they work is different.)
So, do your stabilizers need to be “trained”?
My opinion is that if you exercise every portion of your body, regardless of how you do it, you will eventually exercise every stabilizing muscle. Yes, even if you perform a machine-only routine. Only that the routine be balanced is required.
If you’ve been practicing “functional” workouts that demand significant stabilization, you are definitely working your stabilizers quite a bit without even realizing it. The trade-off is that you might not be working each exercise’s primary movers as hard.
By engaging in a range of workouts, you can easily achieve the best of both worlds. Consider including some single-leg exercises, carries, or other mildly unstable activities in your regimen if you never do anything that makes you feel unsteady. (You don’t have to stand on a bosu, but you may, I suppose.) Also, if you do a lot of stability work, make sure you do some machine or barbell exercises every once in a while to make sure you are also getting stronger.