stability training

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7 Stability Exercises to Help You Build Functional Strength

Boosting your balance during movement is a fun and useful way to challenge yourself.

By Karla WalshApril 9, 2024

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Without it, we wouldn’t be able to exercise, conquer a flight of stairs, ride a bike, or walk. Find out why stability is such an important component of fitness and how to lean into more stability training.

Starting from the moment you woke up this morning, begin to retrace your steps to get to where you are in this present moment. You probably arose from bed, then perhaps you walked to the bathroom to brush your teeth. Even something as autopilot as that—and everything up to the most athletic of feats—requires some form of stability.

“Every human has the same issue weighing them down: gravity,” says Zachary McConnell, physical therapist and clinical director at FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers Sun City in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Every muscle in our body is designed to withstand gravity and the external forces that we place on our body simply by standing up from a chair, bending over to pick up something, or walking up a hill or set of stairs, for example.” 

If we’re not stable and steady on our feet (or in our seats), gravity can make it difficult to maintain posture and balance. Whether you’re seeking out the best stability exercises to take your fitness routine to new heights or simply want to stack the deck so you’re at lower risk for falls later in life, the pointers ahead will help you get the upper hand on gravity. Read on for some of the best workout moves that will boost your balance.

What is Stability Training?

Balance is what allows us to stand or sit steadily, with weight distributed evenly. Stability works in tandem with balance, but it adds a layer of complexity. Stability involves keeping your alignment and control of your body as it moves, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Stability exercises focus on major muscle groups like the shoulders, core, hips, and knees, as well as what’s referred to as the “stabilizer muscles.” The latter is something that bolsters the core and extremities throughout movements, but doesn’t act as the primary “mover” during the exercise. Think of the quads, glutes, and hips in a squat, for instance, which are primary movers. The stabilizer muscles in this movement would be the smaller muscles around the knees, as well as your abs and erector spinae muscles in your back.

Stability exercises may be static (staying still, such as practicing balancing on one leg or on a Bosu ball) or dynamic (a functional movement that closely relates to daily movements or your preferred form of fitness), McConnell adds.

Stability training is key for balance inside and outside of the gym. Without enough stability, you might struggle to progress in your workouts, put your body at higher risk for injuries, or struggle with balance or falls. 

Should Stability Exercises Be Part of Your Routine?

In short, yes. No matter what your goals and regardless of your age, it’s wise to incorporate stability exercises into your agenda. You might already be doing just that without even realizing it. 

Beyond certain strength training exercises, elements of dancing and yoga (think: Eagle Pose) as well as cycling (specifically, being able to climb out of the saddle on your bike) “count” as stability training. Although stability exercises might be folded into some of your workouts already, it’s wise to incorporate a handful of stability moves on their own each week to accrue all of the benefits below

Who Should Incorporate Stability Training Into Their Routine?

“Everyone benefits from stability work,” says Peloton instructor Erik Jäger, noting that it’s important to tailor the stability exercises to the individual.

For kids and teens, it’s beneficial for the stability training to be in tandem with playful coordination exercises, he says. As for those who might be new (or newly back to) exercise, or individuals who are noticing symptoms of aging, “the aim is to reactivate muscles that are inactive due to movement restrictions or to address muscles that specifically help to activate the center of the body,” Erik adds.

Even the fittest among us will benefit, McConnell tells us: “Maximizing our stability, not just in a sense of balance but in keeping our spine and postural muscles strong and resilient to the load and stresses we place on it with daily life, is paramount to staying independent as we age.”

While stability exercises might not be the most splashy or boastful part of your routine, they’ll be among the most vital moves you do all day.

“We all want to work towards becoming the most maximized version of ourselves. If not for us, at least for our spouse, or our children and grandchildren. I want people to be able to do the things they enjoy for as long as possible, and having the ability to bend, reach, lift, walk, and carry things is not optional. It’s mandatory if folks want to maintain their quality of life,” McConnell says.

How Often Should You Do Stability Training?

While the World Health Organization (WHO) has exercise recommendations related to cardio (150 to 300 minutes of moderate or 75 to 150 minutes vigorous activity each week) and strength (hitting all major muscle groups at least twice per week), there are no official guidelines as to how long you should perform various stability exercises, Erik admits.

But as you now know, stability training is valuable—and can be a boon to your lifestyle and your fitness gain goals. 

Erik and Wooderson agree that beginners will notice the benefits in 3 to 4 weeks after performing 2 sets of each of the stability exercises below 2 to 3 times each week (on non-consecutive days). 

“Make sure that you increase this routine every 3 to 4 weeks and change the exercises as the body quickly adapts to this,” Erik says.

5 Major Benefits of Stability Training

Besides setting yourself up for a long and vibrant healthspan (the number of high-quality, healthy years of life you’re able to lead), stability training can lead to the following health benefits.

You’ll Reduce Your Risk for Falls 

“Stability allows us to move through the world with control and confidence,” says Ryan Wooderson, physical therapist, co-founder and director of Revo Physiotherapy & Sports Performance Denver in Denver, Colorado.

For those who are less active, having better stability can make navigating stairs or curbs easier, or allow for more comfortable shifts of walking and standing. Wooderson confirms that one of the largest barriers to entry into fitness for those who aren’t currently active is fear, “and fear of pain or falling are high on that list. This can be reduced significantly with improved stability,” he adds.

You Might Notice More Well-Rounded Muscle Tone

Most modes of fitness, including walking, running, and cycling, challenge the muscles in the sagittal plane, or in a forward and backward motion, McConnell says. 

“Many people neglect the other two movement planes: the transverse plane (rotational movements) and our frontal plane (motions side to side),” he explains. “Stability exercises develop more balance and strength for these other planes of motion.”

This is crucial because most dynamic activities we do in sport and in daily life involve a combination of all three movement planes, so ideally, training should mimic that.

You’ll Slash Your Chances of Suffering from an Injury

Several studies confirm that core stability exercises in particular can reduce the risk for issues after ACL reconstruction surgery in the knee, ankle injuries among soccer players, and life in general.

The researchers believe this boils down to better neuromuscular control. Practicing stabilization through dynamic movements teaches the body to be able to stay steady and distribute weight in a way that taxes the joints less, whether we’re playing sports or simply going about activities throughout our day.

You’ll Hone Your Brain-Body Connection and Increase Overall Body Awareness

When chosen wisely and done well, stability exercises can set the tone for your brain and train it to engage everything you need from head to toe.

“Stability moves improve body awareness and prepare the relevant joints and muscles for future activity while boosting coordination and the ability to separate control of one body part versus another,” Wooderson says.

You May Experience Quicker Reaction Times and Might Set Some New Strength PRs

Outside of the studio or gym, good stability allows you to react more quickly to everyday situations, such as being able to recover and get your footing after tripping (rather than falling all the way to the ground). 

“Stability exercises help you be more resilient and generally stronger,” Erik adds.

And when training, these moves come in clutch to allow you to sustain loads with or without weight for longer before you feel the need to go into resting postures or compensate with auxiliary muscles, Erik says.

7 of the Best Stability Exercises to Try Now

No matter your current fitness level, these effective stability workout moves will help you earn the health benefits above. Unsure of where to start? Choose 3 or more of the following exercises and perform each for 60 seconds, focusing on “steady repetitions for the entire minute,” McConnell suggests. (We’ve listed them from beginner-friendly to most challenging so you can choose accordingly and work your way up.) Alternate through the exercises with no rest in between, if possible, then rest for 30 seconds after completing the set. Perform 2 to 3 sets in that format, and aim to integrate stability work about 2 to 3 times per week, Erik recommends.

If a movement uses one side (like the left arm or leg), perform one round with that side, then the following with the other side of the body. 

“Using this style of training can make for a great warm-up before getting on the bike or going for a run or walk,” McConnell says, or tack it on to the start or end of one of your strength sessions. All you need is some space, a yoga mat or comfortable floor, and one medium weight.

Woman does a high plank, a deep core exercise

1. Plank

Let’s get back to basics. This no-equipment-required move engages muscles from your shoulders to your heels. The core and shoulders in particular score a major stability challenge. (No wonder we recommend setting a goal of a 1-minute plank per day!)

  1. Start with palms on the floor directly beneath your shoulders. Place your toes on the ground with your legs stretched long behind you. (To make it easier, balance on bent knees rather than your toes. If you have any wrist pain or injuries, perform a plank on your elbows rather than your hands.)

  2. With shoulders situated away from your ears, neck neutral, pelvis slightly tucked, glutes engaged, legs straight, and weight over the balls of your feet, hold this position while taking smooth breaths in and out.

Dumbbell Pass Through

2. Plank Dumbbell Pass Through

If you’re ready to up the ante, add a weight and some movement. Plank Dumbbell Passes strengthen the upper back and core, while boosting core, shoulder, and hip stability.

  1. Start with palms on the floor directly beneath your shoulders. Place your toes on the ground with your legs stretched long behind you. (To make it easier, balance on bent knees rather than your toes. If you have any wrist pain or injuries, perform a plank on your elbows rather than your hands.)

  2. Place a single dumbbell or kettlebell on the floor, parallel to your body, just below your right hand.

  3. Without moving your hips, reach your left hand underneath your chest to grab the dumbbell and shift it to the left side of your body in a similar position. 

  4. Return your left hand to plank position, then repeat with the right hand.

Woman does the inchworm exercise

3. Inchworm

The uber-effective inchworm exercise strengthens and stretches muscles from head to toe, and also promotes shoulder and core stability. Think of it like a hip hinge and moving plank fused into one.

  1. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder-width apart and knees loose.

  2. Engage your core, then hinge at your hips. Reach both hands down to the floor about 6 to 12 inches in front of your toes.

  3. Alternating hands, walking your upper body forward until your hands are directly under each shoulder, keeping your breath even and controlled.

  4. Pause in the plank position, with a neutral spine and your core engaged.

  5. Alternating hands, walk your upper body back toward your feet, bending your knees if your hamstrings feel tight.

  6. With your core engaged and knees slightly bent, hinge at the hips to return to standing. Repeat.

4. Single-Arm Deadlift

A classic two-arm Romanian deadlift delivers a whole host of body benefits, including strengthening the entire posterior chain (including your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves). To emphasize core stability, McConnell recommends putting all of the weight in one hand.

  1. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder-width apart and knees loose. Place one dumbbell or kettlebell between both feet.

  2. Engage your core, then hinge at your hips. Push your glutes behind you and your chest open and you lower your upper body toward the floor. Using one hand, pick up the weight.

  3. Drive through your heels and reverse the hip hinge, using your glutes and hamstrings to return to the starting position. Avoid rounding or overextending your back. 

  4. Pause at the top position. Squeeze your glutes, then in a controlled manner, reverse the motion to lower the weight back down to the ground. Repeat on the opposite side.

5. Suitcase Carry

By carrying resistance on one side as you walk (which many of us do frequently throughout the day), this dynamic stability move “is as functional as you can get,” McConnell says. “This stability exercise is ideal to help prevent lower back pain and strengthen your back and hips.” It also bolsters shoulder stability.

  1. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder-width apart and knees loose, with a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand by your side.

  2. Engage your core, keep your neck long, and draw your shoulder blades back and down. Keeping this posture, walk forward 10 steps, or as far as your space allows.

  3. Turn around and walk back to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.

Woman does a dead bug, a deep core exercise

6. Dead Bug

Strengthen your core while practicing hip and spinal stability with this floor move. Focus on keeping your lower back in contact with the floor and move with control during the dead bug exercise.

  1. Lie flat on your back with the back of your head touching the ground. 

  2. Lift knees up to tabletop position and raise arms straight up to point towards the ceiling (in line with your shoulders).

  3. Inhale and lower your right arm back towards the floor above your head as you extend your left leg away from your midline towards the floor in front of you. Try not to let the left leg touch the floor.

  4. Exhale as you bring your arm and leg back up to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.

Airplane Exercise

7. Airplane

 Erik deems airplanes “beneficial and advanced,” so you might want to work up to this one (or use your toe for balance). Airplanes strengthen the glutes and core while honing in on ankle hip, core, and shoulder stability. Talk about a multi-tasker.

  1. Stand with feet parallel, shoulder-width apart and knees loose.

  2. Hinge at the hips as you extend one leg behind you, until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Focus on keeping both hip bones in line.

  3. Engage your core and in a controlled fashion, rotate hips in the direction of your standing leg. Return to center.

  4. Engage your core and in a controlled fashion, then rotate hips to open in the direction of your extended leg. Return to center.

  5. Repeat the hip twist 3 times, then reverse the move to return the extended leg to the floor and come back to standing. Repeat on the opposite side.

The Takeaway

The best stability exercises engage muscles that you use in your workouts and during activities of daily living, such as walking, standing up from a chair, and walking up stairs. Regardless of your fitness goals—or even if you never do formal “exercise”—you can benefit from stability workout moves. 

With consistent practice, the best stability exercises allow you to reduce your risk for injury, improve your balance, and improve your chances of making gains in terms of the amount of weight you can lift and how efficient your cardio workouts can be.

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