Pain and stabilizer vs mover muscles


Here is a story I hear ALL the time. “I have a back problem. I stopped my exercise program and my back pain went away. But every time I begin my exercise program again, within days, or sometimes a week, my pain comes back and I have to quit again. I’m so frustrated because I’m out of shape and gaining weight, and I don’t know what to do about it.” After I assess them, I frequently tell them I think I can help them. There is a very good reason this happens, and there is definitely something you can do about it to get back on track.

We essentially have two muscle systems in the body – the muscles that move us (movers ), which are the muscles we tend to exercise in the gym, and the muscles that hold our joints (stabilizers), maintaining proper axis of rotation during movement at the joint. These muscle systems are quite different in how they work.

Mover muscles

  • tend to be larger
  • tend to be further away from the joint (closer to the outside of the body)
  • greater leverage
  • can exert higher forces
  • they move bones (body parts like arms, legs, the trunk, the head etc.)
  • Act more like the gas pedal – you want to move, they move you
  • they turn on when we need them, and turn off when we don't.
  • turn on quickly (more fast twitch fibres)

Stabilizer muscles

  • tend to be quite small
  • very close to the joint so they are in an ideal position to be able to
    stabilize a joint
  • very little leverage
  • smaller forces (just enough to do the job)
  • they control the joint motion
  • act more like brakes to prevent excessive joint movement, rather than
    actually move bones
  • they anticipate movement, so they turn on before we move
  • tend to stay on at low levels most of the time
  • turn on slowly (slow twitch fibres)
  • Pain may result when there is an imbalance in the stabilizer function
    around a particular joint, resulting in the resting bone position being
    altered, or the bone movement pattern at the joint being dysfunctional

An easy example to understand is the rotator cuff of the shoulder. The job of those small muscles is not to rotate the arm, but rather to hold the arm bone (humerus) into the socket, and make sure your humerus is maintaining the proper axis of rotation in the socket while your larger muscles throw that ball.

If the rotator cuff were not there, at best your arm would have slipped in the joint, and at worst your arm would have followed the ball! If there is an imbalance in the function and/or strength of the muscles that form rotator cuff, the humerus may not sit in the socket correctly, and when one moves the arm, pain may result.

The spine and pelvis is another location where imbalances side to side in the stability muscles can result in resting position of a vertebrae, or perhaps the sacrum being altered, creating pain, often one-sided. If the stability muscles on one side if the bone or joint are not working, the bone will be pulled towards the stronger side, outside its optimal functional position.

One can go to the gym and work the mover muscles all we want, but it probably won't resolve the pain unless the underlying dysfunction in the stabilizer muscle is also addressed. And working the movers in this scenario may make the painful condition worse, as the dysfunctional stabilizer won't be able to do anything to stop the excess movement at the joint. Movers may then go into spasm trying to stabilize the area, but because they are not in the right location to do the job, frequently more pain results.

So, do you have back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, pelvic pain? If you live in the Vancouver please don't hesitate to contact me by using the contact page on my website if you would like one-on-one help. We would be happy to assist you.

If you live elsewhere, see a good physiotherapist or CHEK Practitioner who can assess you, figure out which stabilizers are not functioning optimally, and teach you what to do about it.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to

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Lee, Diane The Pelvic Girdle Churchill Livingston, 2004.

Lee, Diane and Lee, Linda JoyAn Integrated Approach to the Assessment and Treatment of the Lumbopelvic-Hip Region DVD, 2004

Lee, Diane and Lee, Linda Joy Postpartum Health for Moms – An Educational Package for Restoring Form and Function after Pregnancy
CD ROM 2006.

Lee, Diane Assessment Articular Function of the Sacroilac Joint VHS

Lee, Diane Exercises for the Unstable Pelvis VHS

Richardson, C, Hodges P, Hides J.Therapeutic Exercise for Lumbopelvic Stabilization: A Motor Control Approach for the Treatment and Prevention of Low Back Pain Churchill Livingston 2004.

DonTigny, Richard Pelvic Dynamics and the subluxation of the sacral axis at S3 The DonTigny Method.

Myers, Thomas Body Cubed, A Therapist’s Anatomy Reader “Poise: Psoas-Piriformis Balance” Massage Magazine, March/April 1998.

Myers, Thomas Body Cubed, A Therapist’s Anatomy Reader “Fans of the Hip Joint” Massage Magazine, Jan/Feb 1998.

Myers, Thomas Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists Churchill Livingston, 2001

Chek, Paul CHEK Level 1 Advanced Back Training Chek Institute.

Johnson, Jim
The Multifidus Back Pain Solution: Simple Exercises That Target the Muscles That Count
New Harbinger Publications Inc. Oakland CA, 2002.

Lee, Diane Understanding your back pain – an excellent article explaining the concept of tensegrity and its importance in stabilizing the pelvis and spine.

DeRosa, C. Functional Anatomy of the Lumbar Spine and Sacroiliac Joint 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.

Gracovetsky, S. Analysis and Interpretation of Gait in relation to lumbo pelvic function 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.

Dananberg H. Gait style and its relevance in the management of chronic lower back pain 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.

Online at A fantastic website devoted to sacroiliac dysfunction.

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd


  1. Jim durant said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    Good morning,

    I am looking for a good book on movement muscles vs. Stabilizing muscles.

    Any recommendation would be much appreciated!

    Thank you,


  2. Vreni said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    Hi Jim,

    Not sure how technical a book you want – The Multifidus Back Pain Solution listed above is geared to the lay person and deals with multifidus, one of the key spinal stabilizers. The Richardson Hodges Hides book called Therapeutic Exercise for Lumbopelvic Stabilization: A Motor Control Approach for the Treatment and Prevention of Low Back Pain listed above will be more complete and probably a bit more technical.

    Most books on weight training deal with mover muscles. I don’t off hand know of a book that deals effectively with both. Hmm. Maybe I should write that book …

    Hope that helps,


  3. Gwyn said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    Hi Vreni! I’ve been reading your blog with interest for a year or so now. Thank you so much for your insightful articles!!
    I suffer from SI/low back pain and have for about ten years. I do yoga and walk with varying frequencies/week but sit all day at my job. I go to an ND, massage and chiro and make my own aromatherapy oils for massage at home. However, I have been unable to find any long term releif.
    I love how you see the body as a connected whole in a way most don’t. Do you know of someone in the Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario area who shares your views?
    Many thanks!

  4. Vreni said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    Hi Gwyn,

    I don’t know personally of anyone that is specifically good at SIJ pain in Kitchener/Waterloo – not that they are not there, just that I don’t know them. You can always try Proactive Health in Burlington. They have an ultrasound, which is very useful in determining how well you are connecting to your local stabilizers. And my understanding is that the physios there are very good. Worth booking the appointment and making the trip, in my opinion …

    Another option might be to try and find a CHEK Practitioner in your area. We are trained to look at the body in a very holistic way. You can look for a CHEK Practitioner at You may have to put in an email address to get access to the practitioner list.

    So glad you like the blog!


  5. E.shangarai said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 1:05 am

    I beleave that I am suffering from this pelvic and lower spinal stabilizer muscles. It started last year each time I played soccer I would at times feel the bottom of my spine move slightly and the next day I would be in excrutiating pain. It has persisted until now.

    I am willing to travel to your clinic in vancouver unless you can recommend an expert in the washington metropolitan area.

    Thanks for the information on your blog it’s an eye opener

  6. Vreni said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

    If you are in Washington DC it would make more sense to travel to Toronto and go to Proactive Health in Burlington, website in the previous comment. They have the ultrasound which is very useful in teaching stabilizer function. I don’t have one, although I could refer you to other clinics in the Vancouver area that have one.

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