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Ask the Expert: What are the stabilizer muscles?

Ask the Expert - Stabilizer muscles

Q: What are the stabilizer muscles and why are they so important to activate?

A: Most muscles in the body fit into one of several categories, depending on the role they play in movement. Those that are considered ‘stabilizers’ are categorized into two types: local stabilizers and global stabilizers. Local stabilizers are deep and close to the joint (e.g. the pelvic floor, deep rotators of the hip and multifidus). Ideally, those are continually turned on to support the joints in any movement, regardless of the direction of the movement. They control the neutral zone and maintain the integrity of the joint when the larger superficial muscles are creating big movements. It is important to keep those muscles firing properly with the appropriate amount of force production to prevent abnormal movement patterns or injury.

Global stabilizers are generally more superficial than local stabilizers (e.g. obliques, gluteus medius), but still cross only one joint. They mainly work eccentrically to control the range of the movement, particularly in the inner and outer range of the joint. Dysfunction of the global stabilizers, when they work too much or too little, can cause problems across several joint segments, resulting in pain or injury.

Q: What sort of exercises, movements or modalities help us work these muscles?

A: Both the local and global stabilizer muscles are trained with exercises that use low load, closed kinetic chain (where the hand or foot is fixed in space for a greater base of support), slow pace and proprioceptive input. For the local stabilizers, focus on movements with very little resistance that will prevent the larger global muscles from taking over. Global stabilizers will respond best to simple exercises focused on isometric and eccentric muscle actions. Often, it is appropriate to target the deeper muscles first, followed by their more superficial counterparts.

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