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Training myths

This is an excerpt from Conditioning Young Athletes by Tudor Bompa & Michael Carrera.

Myth 2: Train the Stabilizer Muscles

Stabilizers are relatively small muscles that anchor or stabilize the position of bones to give prime movers a firm base from which to pull. For instance, during knee extension, the popliteus muscle (behind the knee joint) contracts isometrically to stabilize the thigh for effective movement of the calf. Similarly, during elbow flexion (e.g., a preacher curl), the shoulders, upper arms, and abdominal muscles contract isometrically to stabilize the shoulders and upper arms, giving the biceps brachii muscles a stable base from which to pull. Other similar muscles, often called fixators, are stimulated to stabilize part of a limb or body in order to facilitate better mechanical work.

For many years, some argued for the need to train the stabilizer muscles and believed that improper development of the stabilizers could limit the maximum mechanical efficiency of the prime movers. As with balance training, some individuals figured that stabilizer training could be another chance to gain fame, and sport equipment manufacturers welcomed another opportunity to create and promote new training gadgets. The most popular piece of equipment for training the stabilizers is probably the stability ball. People in North American fitness clubs rarely do the traditional bench press anymore. Worse, these stability balls have made their way into athlete-development programs. All of a sudden the old-fashioned bench, used for decades for bench press exercises, became a relic.

Many gadgets have been created in addition to the stability ball, and fashion influences the equipment in use. The use of new training gadgets is so exaggerated that you may ask yourself whether this is sport training or circus training! Exercises that require users to balance on top of a stability ball while performing various dumbbell exercises are constantly being invented. Although certain skill is required to perform these circus-like movements, the benefit of such exercises on athletic improvement is questionable at best.Improvements will occur, but the improvements will apply only to exercises performed on the stability ball, and very little transfer to the sporting arena will occur.More important, some exercises performed on stability balls are dangerous, especially for inexperienced lifters (see figure 12.2). Why use such exercises during the earlier stages of development? Injuries have occurred, and legal suits against instructors and the producers of stability balls may follow.

Figure 12.2 A press exercise on a stability ball may be dangerous for an inexperienced athlete.
A press exercise on a stability ball may be dangerous for an inexperienced athlete.

These exaggerations about the need for training the stabilizers are a waste of time and money. The human body is a perfect machine, the efficiency of which continues to marvel scientists everywhere. The body is very plastic and adapts to many environments - both good and bad. Once the prime movers of the sport have been identified, one can create a progressive program that strengthens all the muscles of the body by choosing movement patterns that are required in the sport. Neither coaches nor athletes need to worry about anything more, including specifically training the stabilizer muscles, thanks to a law of physiology called overflow of activation, or irradiation.

We can use a practical example to illustrate irradiation. As prime movers perform a training task, the muscles surrounding the joint are also activated. In other words, an overflow of activation involves not only the synergistic muscles but also the stabilizer muscles. For instance, the quadriceps muscles are stimulated to perform the task of leg extension. This action also arouses and activates other muscles, including a stabilizer called the popliteus (located on the back of the knee joint), ensuring stability and the transfer of power across the joint (Enoka, 2008; Howard and Enoka, 1991; Zijdewind and Kernell, 2001). This means that during knee extension the quadriceps contract to overcome resistance and, at the same time, the popliteus contracts to stabilize the knee joint.

This example shows that as the muscles in a region are stimulated to contract, so are the stabilizers. Consequently, contraction increases the strength of not only the targeted muscles, the prime movers (quadriceps), but also the irradiated muscles (popliteus). Therefore, any additional time spent training the stabilizers via new gadgets and circus-type exercises is a waste. Take the time to do what is necessary and not what is new! Do you want to improve your training efficiency? Be more careful with the exercises you use.

The promoters of the much-hyped new trends in stabilizer and core-strength training claim that the main benefit is injury prevention. Once again, this allegation is anecdotal. Well-informed individuals know that most sport and fitness injuries occur in the ligaments and tendons, not the muscles. A visit to a sport injury clinic will quickly prove this. Stabilizers are at the bottom of the list of frequently injured muscles. Why, then, waste so much time and money on something of very little concern?

Once again, the exaggerated need for exercises for the stabilizers comes at the expense of training adaptation. The more exercises you employ in training, the lower the number of sets per exercise. As a result, adaptation will be very low and training improvements will be more than questionable. Remember that it is not the number of exercises that is important but rather the movement patterns they elicit. So train the prime movers and train them well.


Learn more about Conditioning Young Athletes.

More Excerpts From Conditioning Young Athletes