No matter your fitness goals, there are small — yet crucial — groups of muscles you’re likely overlooking.
I’ve been in the fitness industry a long time and worked with people of every fitness level, from those new to exercising to athletes whose future depends on it. No matter who I’m working with, I start with a core philosophy: Your body is a system.
Think of it like a car. There are small parts and big parts. You’ve got the frame, the tires, the engine, down to all the little nuts and bolts that keep everything connected and working together. No matter how small, every part is necessary to keep the car running, whether it’s a sedan or a sports model. Your body is the same way.
During the winter, we spend more time indoors, and our vehicle (aka our body) isn’t out as much, resulting in a decrease in natural movement. When you work out, you likely focus on the big parts of the system – large muscle groups like quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes – and neglect the small parts.
Less natural movement, coupled with an overemphasis on major muscle groups, is not good for the system. That’s why this winter, I challenge you to spend more time strengthening your small muscles.
The forgotten muscles
The small muscle groups I’m referring to are called stabilizer muscles, and they play an essential role in how your body moves, from working out to daily activities. As the name suggests, stabilizer muscles work to stabilize or steady your body and movements.
These muscles are critical for balance, as well as starting and stopping the force of movement. You can thank your stabilizers for the ability to perform explosive movements like running and jumping.
Strengthening your stabilizer muscles is also essential for injury prevention. When people get injured, they often blame wear and tear on the body. I don’t believe in the wear and tear philosophy. I believe in quality training. When you understand that your body is a system and train it as such, you won’t experience wear and tear.
It’s all in the hips
The stabilizer muscles I most often see ignored are the hip flexors. Weak hip flexors exist across the board, from athletes at every level to people I see walking down the street (yes, I can tell if you have weak hip flexors simply by the way you walk).
Your hip flexors are a major player in how you move your lower body. They help you walk, run, kick, bend, and rotate. It doesn’t matter if you’re into weights, marathons, yoga, biking, skiing, golfing, or basketball, the strength of your hip flexors will impact your performance.
Lengthen and strengthen
Spending more time inside usually means spending more time sitting. Excessive sitting causes your hip flexors to shorten and become tight. Tight muscles cannot generate as much power and put you at greater risk for injury or pain.
Therefore, it’s important to both stretch and strengthen your hip flexors. The good news is you can accomplish this inside and without needing much space. Stretches like seated butterfly, runner’s lunge, knee to chest stretch, and pigeon pose can easily be done while watching TV.
To strengthen the muscles, add exercises like glute bridges, high knees, mountain climbers, and straight leg raises to your regular workout routine. These can be done with or without weights, but adding resistance will increase the rate at which you increase your hip flexors’ strength.
Get a leg up
Your calf muscles are another set of smaller muscles that are too often neglected. They act as stabilizers for your ankles as well as your knees.
Just like your hip flexors, your calf muscles can get tight and weak if you don’t actively work on stretching and strengthening them. This can affect your fitness performance and cause issues for your feet, ankles, and knees. Strong calves are necessary to help you maintain proper form, increase your power and speed, and prevent injuries and unnecessary pain.
Calf raises are an easy way to strengthen those muscles. You can stretch your calves up against a wall, in downward facing dog, or by massaging them with a foam roller or tennis ball.
The resistance movement
Resistance bands are the best way to work your stabilizer muscles. When training with weights, there is often a moment of rest at the top or bottom of a movement. That is not the case when training with resistance bands.
With bands, you cannot use gravity to your advantage and instead must continuously work against it to control your movements. This constant tension activates all the small muscle groups that surround and support your larger muscles. And resistance bands don’t require any additional weight on your joints, making them a safe and effective way to strengthen all your muscles.
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