The Importance of Stabilizer Muscles in Movement Training

By Annette T. Thomas of Ballet for Figure Skaters

The demonstrator in this article is Angela Kim – owner of Balanced Skaters, a certified Pilates Instructor and is a long time performer with Cirque du Soleil.

We often think of dance and movement training as more about flexibility than strength – beautiful long lines, sweeping movement and amazing extensions, but artistic skating and dance require an equal if not greater degree of strong muscles, ligaments and tendons to create stability, balance and power. Our bodies are the very instrument of our art – and HOW we train has everything to do with the outcome of that hoped for art. 

There has been a growing concern that training practices in both skating and dance are moving at an ever faster pace – trying to keep up with social media influencers and the constant demand for unique and exciting exercises. This type of “training” generally revolves around    

  • Large, whole body “choreographed” movements 
  • Teaching by follow along demonstration
  • Extreme flexibility and “wow factor” moves

This all sounds like fun (and is!) but let’s take a closer look at what the above type of training actually focuses on.

Psychologically, we enjoy large, fast movements because they release endorphins – which make us feel good and like we are accomplishing “more”. Large fast-paced movements all focus on what are known as the Mobilizer Muscles (generally speaking, the muscles that are closest to our skin), which help us to make those big sweeping movements, jumps and spins…only problem is: 

You can’t effectively mobilize (technically or artistically) what isn’t stable

 Likewise extreme stretching can quickly cause injuries when the stabilizer muscles are weak.  So, a focus on this type of training gets the cart before the horse because, in safe effective training practices, the body needs to be Stabilized first so that it can move correctly, efficiently and progressively. 

We often talk about “Core Training” – basically focusing on the deep abs and pelvic girdle – but our core involves ALL of the stabilizer muscles, not just those areas.  

The Stabilizer Muscles (generally speaking the muscles closest to our bones) act as the fundamental support to everything we do. They are responsible for articulation and fine motor skills; like when a child first learns to walk, they begin using their stabilizer muscles first by rocking back and forth on their hands and knees, then crawling then standing and finally taking that first step. No different for athletes and artists as we train with the understanding that training for stability first will help us to reach our goals faster, stronger (less injury prone) and with our “artistry” – our ability to articulate every part of our body – built in. This goes for top athletes as well as complete novices – if we begin with the mobilizers (fun fast movements) we will eventually have to go back and fix the “basics” which are controlled by the stabilizer muscles. 

A different mindset

Stabilizer exercises tend to be much slower with a smaller range of motion, and require more FOCUS and being “in the moment” of mind-body connections skills. 

Think Tai Chi or other martial arts forms, where being present in the body is paramount

  A CLOSER LOOK AT THE STABILIZER MUSCLES

We have 3 Layers of muscles in the torso, which have different functions in moving and holding up the body: 

  • Superficial 
  • Intermediate 
  • Deep 

FIG 0.0

Mobilizer muscles are found in the Superficial and Intermediate layers. These muscles are responsible for LARGE, dynamic movements. 

Stabilizer muscles are found in the Intermediate and Deep muscle layers of the body and are responsible for holding us together in a safe and well-aligned manner while we perform large, dynamic movements. They also stabilize the torso, arms and legs through multiplanar movements, while the Mobilizer muscles are doing most of the kinetic (dynamic) work for large movements. Stabilizer Muscles also help to restrict the movement of the joints involved so that the joints don’t get injured. 

A few ways to detect strong mobilizers and weak stabilizers:

  • Able to kick high but the torso collapses and the standing knee bends. (Compensating and/or counterbalancing)
  • Able to hold a pose but has difficulty transitioning to another pose (fine motor and multiplanar coordination are missing)
  • Has great stretch/flexibility but cannot hold landings
  • Can hold skated leg close to body but when the leg is let go it drops to the floor or ice.
  • Torso and shoulders collapse on jump landings  

A few qualities of strong stabilizers as well as mobilizers:

  • Maintaining deep quality edges while moving the body through various poses (multi-planar movement) 
  • Ability to maintain a high extension without outside support (as in holding the leg up with your hand)
  • Ability to hold a strong position and posture on jump landing – maintaining correct edges.
  • Ability to articulate details of movement and expression no matter what type of choreography you present. (Fine motor skills)
  • Fewer joint injuries because alignment can be maintained at all times.
  • Ability to use head and eye focus in any direction during choreography as proprioception is instilled in the mind-body connection.

Some science behind the training:

There is a “Kinetic Chain” of 3 Stabilizer Complexes that are needed to create a solid foundation of coordinated movements. *This entire chain constitutes our core (not just the deep abs and the pelvic girdle). 

1 – HIP STABILIZER COMPLEX (pelvic girdle) 

Which includes: 

  • Gluteus Maximus, medius (the most important!) and minimus, 
  • Piriformis and the other 5 Deep Rotators

This is why it is so important to learn “turnout” as a strengthening exercise not a stretch! 

Part of the “Kinetic Chain” crossover from the Hip to the Trunk Stabilizers, are the 6 deep rotators (which also affect turn out of the legs), Iliopsoas and Quadratus Lumborum, which balance the Lumbosacral joint.

2 – TRUNK STABILIZER COMPLEX

Which includes:

  • Multifidus muscles (along spine)
  • Erector Spinae (pronounced “spiny”) 
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Obliques  
  • The Diaphragm (why breathing correctly is so important!) 

3 – SHOULDER STABILIZER COMPLEX

Which includes:

  • Rotator cuff  – a group of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint. 
  • Scapular stabilizers which include:
  • Serratus anterior – attaches from shoulder to upper ribs
  • Upper/middle/lower trapezius
  • Levator scapula – raise and lowers “shoulders”

This is one reason why teaching “carriage of the arms” in a scientific (not choreographic) way is extremely important as arms are an assist to jumps and spins training from the trunk not just shoulder joints. 

4 floor exercises to strengthen the stabilizer muscles

Below are a few exercises to get you started thinking and working with your stabilizer muscles. Based on the Vaganova Methodology of Classical Ballet these exercises are the very beginning exercises present in “Level 0” of training. They employ isometric & eccentric contractions more than concentric, as these are what stabilize the body best. There are over 35 floor exercises in the full curriculum, and are responsible for creating a strong foundation and the ability to produce such strong, flexible dancers from day one of the first level of training

*Remember – these are slow exercises done with as much focus, body awareness and precision as possible (like doing figures!) and as I say to my students: “Put your mind in your body”.

1-) Lifting out of the hips 

(For trunk and hip stabilizers)

Begin Seated on the floor with hands on waist and legs in Parallel.Squeeze the legs together isometrically and pull up the kneecaps strongly throughout this exercise – no “locking” knees! 

FIG 1.1.

a-) “Collapse” the torso and then slowly roll up – lifting out of hips

FIG 1.2

b-) Building from lower back to top of head (ears, shoulders and hips in one line) to achieve a 90° angle – torso to legs. USE Yardstick along spine as a template.

FIG 1.3

*Identify the feeling of “in and up” in the torso on both the CORONAL  (using laterals and Iliopsoas) and SAGITTAL planes of the body,  using deep abdominals and Quadratus Lumborum. 

c-) In 4 slow counts each position, and working from the sternum and spine bring arms to:

  • Fingertips on the floor with arms straight
FIG 1.4

FIG 1.5

  • 3rd ( or high “V” and back to 2nd position and HOLD
  • FIG 1.6

    Repeat all from beginning at least 2X with focus, constant “in and up” lift and deep breathing.

    2- Teaching “turnout” as isometric and eccentric exercises  

    a-) Using a wide Resistance band and seated on the floor, wrap the band around the bottoms of both feet making sure to cover the pinky toes with the band. 

    FIG 2.1

    b-) Place hands on either side of hips or on yoga blocks and lift the torso off the floor. Pull knees up strongly to create a strong conduit of force. From hips only, using gluteals and deep rotators – rotate the legs outward so that the toes open into an ever-widening “V” with heels remaining together. Count 10 SLOW counts – relax and repeat.  *feel the isometric squeeze both in the back of the legs (glutes) and deep abs.

    FIG 2.2

    c-) Take the band off your feet (remembering how that strong squeeze felt), place hands back on waist and slowly raise one leg away from your center without collapsing your spine, chest or shoulders. Knees pulled up and feet pointed. Slowly lower and repeat with other leg 

    FIG 2.3

    d-) Repeat with a flexed foot (knee caps still pulled up) with head and eyes turning alternately away and towards the lifted leg  (eye/spine connection)  

    FIG 2.4
    FIG 2.5

    3 –) Retiré seated with straddle and cambré forward 

    (Uses all 3 complexes)

    a-) Begin seated legs straight in front in turn out from hips with arms in 2nd position – maintain the feeling of “in and up”

    Using 4 slow counts each section

    b-) In strong turn-out with HEEL OFF FLOOR immediately upon beginning the retiré, draw toes to mid calf while Keeping torso lifted and turn out at maximum using glutes. 

    FIG 3.2

    c-) Place flat foot on floor, knee up to ceiling without collapsing the spine. Open again to turn-out and slowly lower the leg back to straight in turn-out, and repeat to other side.

    FIG 3.3

    d-) Repeat with both legs simultaneously Open knees out again and slide down to beginning position maintaining turnout and lifted torso.

    e-) Open to a straddle with torso at 90° from legs; arms bent at 90° to sides and knees pulled up and feet flexed and aimed at the ceiling

    FIG 3.6

    f-) With completely flat back lifting “in and up” on count 1 turn head to the right and cambré (bend) forward. 

    FIG 3.7

    g-) At the bottom of the cambré (count 5) lift the torso “in and up” again – and return to initial position. Repeat turning head to the left and repeat all again 2X Making sure that knees and feet do not “collapse inward” on the Cambré.

    4 –) Isometric squeeze, turnout and leg lifts to the back 

    a-) Begin on the Stomach with head down on hands and legs in parallel with toes flexed onto floor and knees bent. 

    FIG 4.1

    b-) Tighten the glutes and deep abs and pull the knee caps up so legs are straight and squeeze the legs together (knees must stay as close together as possible). Hold this position for 4 slow counts.

    FIG 4.2

    c-) Push heels down using gluteals only into 1st position 

    FIG 4.3

    d-) Then point feet in turn-out 

    FIG 4.4

    e-) Then turn the legs back to parallel and repeat from beginning – repeat 4X  

    f-) Keeping hip bones on the floor and without arching the back, lift the right leg in 4 slow counts, hold 4 counts and lower in 4 counts and repeat with Left leg. 

    FIG 4.5

    g-) Then lift both legs – 4 slow counts up 4 hold 4 controlled down and 4 rest 4X   *feel the legs moving away from your centre.

    FIG 4.6

    Strength should be is a primary goal in both artistic and competitive skating – but what our strength training focuses on and HOW it is practiced makes all the difference in the outcome. Learning your instrument – mastery of expression and body articulation – is the goal; and working on your stabilizer muscles FIRST will ensure that strength and flexibility grow up together with artistry. …a good goal, I think, for ALL movement genres. 

    © 2021 Annette T. Thomas, Ballet for Figure Skaters and Prime Radiant Press LLC.