When you think about the basic, functional exercises performed at the gym like squats, deadlifts, and bicep curls, you probably think about the large, visible muscle that will benefit – the quads, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings, amongst others. Besides aesthetic appeal and a great self-confidence boost, training our larger muscles contributes to bone support, injury prevention, and power. In other words, our large muscle groups help us move.
However, it’s essential to remember that we have hundreds of muscles in our body. According to physical therapist and certified personal trainer Dr. Sean Altman, our smaller stabilizer muscles work to stabilize our bodies as we are working our larger muscle groups, especially when moving in greater ranges of motion.
For instance, if you are using free weights, you must control more degrees of freedom (i.e. more planes of motion), so you must recruit more stabilizers to protect your joints as you are working out. Those stabilizers are your smaller muscles, or at least small parts of your large muscles! This is especially important if you are lifting heavy loads, because a lack of strength in your smaller muscles could result in improper form and injury. In addition, having stronger stabilizing muscles will help you be able to lift heavier in general.
Which stabilizer muscles should I work out, and how?
Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO)
The vastus medialis is actually one of the quadricep muscles, but let’s talk about honing in on one part of one muscle!
• Where it is: above the knee and towards the inner part of the leg (that quadricep muscle that looks funky hanging over your knee)
• What it does: supports the kneecap, helps track the knee over the toes, extends the knee, provides support for ACL and MCL
• Weakness in the VMO may contribute to: unstable kneecap, pain and/or injury at the knee joint
Exercises to strengthen the VMO
• Heel Drops: Stand on one foot on an elevated surface (does not need to be higher than a regular stair). Using bodyweight or holding weights, bend the standing leg until the heel of the free leg drops below the step. Keep your knee tracked over and behind your toes and keep your hips back. Complete 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps on each leg.
• Step Ups: If you can do the heel drops with correct form easily, try this exercise. With bodyweight or holding weights, step up onto a challengingly high surface with one leg, keeping your knee tracked right over your toes. Come to fully standing before stepping back down, still keeping the knee tracked over the toes. Complete 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps on each leg.
• Terminal Knee Extensions: These are safer for your knees than regular seated leg extensions on the machine. Anchor one end of a looped resistance band securely (use a pole, bar, etc.). Standing, wrap the resistance band around the back of one of your knees. Walk back until you feel moderate to heavy resistance. Start with the banded leg in front, bent and turned out about 30 degrees. Straighten the leg against the resistance, but do not lock your knee. Repeat for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
• Straight Leg Raises: Lying on your back, bend one leg (foot on the ground) and straighten the other leg. Turn the straightened leg out at a 30 degree angle. Lift and lower the straightened leg just until it comes past the thigh of the bent leg. Control the movement (don’t just kick and drop your leg). Add ankle weights or prop up on your elbows (keeping a straight spine) for more challenge. Complete 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps on each leg.
• Where it is: Underneath the gluteus maximus
• What it does: Abducts hip (brings leg out to the side), rotates leg inwards and outwards, helps maintain a level pelvis during walking and single-leg exercises
• Weakness in the gluteus medius may contribute to stress on the knee and/or hip joint, resulting in a greater likelihood of injury in those places
Exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius
• Side-lying hip abduction: This is the best exercise for gluteus medius, and it’s deceivingly difficult! Lie down on one side. Keeping both legs straight, feet flexed, and body in a neutral position (no arching or bending in the spine, core), lift the top leg above hip level. Focus on keeping the leg directly to the side and toes pointed forward or even slightly down. Complete 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps on each side. Add ankle weights to make this more challenging.
• Bridges: Any variation will work the gluteus medius— regular, single leg, ball bridges, weighted, etc. Complete 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
• Single leg squats or pistol squats: Stand on one leg with the other leg in front of you. Keeping your core tight, lead with your hips into a one-legged squat as far as you can go while keeping your balance and your knee behind your toes. Complete 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps on each leg. If you have short achilles and are having difficulty staying forward on your toes, you can hold your suspended foot or hold a weight in front of you to counterbalance.
• Where it is: center and middle of your back, surrounding your thoracic spine (your traps aren’t just the mountains on your shoulders!)
• What it does: stabilizes scapula, helps to raise arms overhead, helps maintain good posture
• Weakness in the low trapezius may contribute to: difficulty with overhead reaching, poor posture
Exercises to strengthen the low traps
• Prone Y Raises: Lie stomach-down on a bench or physio ball. Holding light dumbbells, thumbs facing upwards, raise your arms in a “Y” position. Keep a neutral neck and spine. Complete 2-3 sets of 15 reps.
• Yates Row: Stand and lean forward about 30 degrees, keeping a neutral spine. Hold a barbell with underhand grip and perform a row by bringing the barbell to your stomach and keeping your elbows close to your side. Complete 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
• Single Arm Dumbbell Row: Place one knee and the same hand on a bench, leaning over until your torso is parallel with the bench. Keep a neutral spine. Hold a dumbbell with the other hand, palm facing towards you, and perform a row. Complete 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps on each arm.