Is Stability Training Dumb?
One of the best pieces of fitness advice I ever received was “not to speak in absolutes.” I know, there are things right now you believe really strongly in and you feel so sure they are right. However, I can tell you from my own experience there will be a time when you say, “Whoops.” You will want the right to say that you evolved, you experienced things, and yes, you grew.
I felt that way when it came to the idea of “stability” training. In the late 1990s I was suffering from a bad back injury. So bad to the point I could barely sit in a chair for any extended period of time. It was at this time that I was first exposed to “corrective exercise,” and I couldn’t have been more interested in the concepts for no other reason to help myself.
Some may remember that “functional training” and “corrective exercise” were largely based off the use of standing on unstable surfaces. You may laugh now, but the truth is many well-respected coaches and fitness professionals used these methods. It made a lot of sense, when we stood on these unstable objects it was very hard to perform many movements. We assumed that was a great indicator that we had a lot of instabilities preventing us from better performance and hindering our strength gains.
As time passed, I found the end results less than impressive. I didn’t need a lot of scientific studies to show me that I really didn’t get any stronger. Although I practiced many of these “stability” concepts, the transfer to other lifts or performance didn’t seem to be evident. A few years would go by and then the research would start to show the same thing. Standing on unstable surfaces didn’t do much to improve “core” strength or overall force production.1 The lack of results that I personally saw and the growing scientific evidence made me do a full 180.
Heavy weight was the answer! Lifting hard and heavy was the cure-all. In following my new philosophy, I thought this idea of “stability” was both silly and unnecessary. Stability training wasn’t the answer. It had to be about lifting heavy on big lifts all the time. I knew this had to be the answer! After all, I got much stronger. But there, too, was a wall.
As I continued to work on getting “stronger,” the more and more gear I found myself wearing. It started off with finding an excuse to use a lifting belt because I was “maxing out,” then it was adding knee sleeves because you need that stuff if you are going to lift heavy, you know. “Warm ups” were really becoming rehab sessions because everything hurt so bad. Elbows, low back, - oh, it was probably easier to name things that didn’t hurt.
It made me think again. Had I fallen into the classic “overreaction, under reaction” paradigm? Did stability training really have a place and was it even the biggest weakness I possessed? Was I wrong not in my stability training, but in the manner in which I had been applying it to my programs?
Re-Examining Stability Training
One of the biggest mistakes I made early on in my use of stability training was not realizing there is a difference between the stability of a specific joint versus whole-body stability. Whole-body stability refers to more of the center of mass of the body altering over the base of support, while joint stability is, “the ability to maintain or control joint movement or position.”
Huh? What I was doing wrong with my initial effort with unstable surfaces was actually challenging my ankle and foot stability and thinking it correlated to the stability of my entire body. The problem was that the huge amount of instability coming from my foot and ankle made my body work so hard that it could not create any force or develop strength. What I learned, and hope to share with you, is that whole-body stability is important and needs to be as progressive as load, volume, and any other training variables.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on whole-body stability. After all, that is what I was trying to improve with the idea of standing on unstable surface training.
Better Stability Training
The big question is why you should care about stability training. My experience with myself and my many clients may not be compelling enough to make you spend time giving stability training serious thought. Truly effective training comes through understanding that some important concepts and skills be established.
The following is the recommended progression from spinal expert Dr. Stuart McGill.
- Good Motor Patterns: Highly coordinated and efficient movement skills
- Stability: Building stability of both joints and whole body
- Endurance: Strength coaches have long used “anatomical adaptation” or general physical preparation as a means to lay a foundation for higher intensity strength work
- Strength: Not just to see how much you can lift, but teaching the body how to coordinate, connect, and utilize the natural chains in the body
- Power and Agility: Performance specific training methods
How does this play out in the real world? The truth is they are all interconnected, it just depends on which point you are emphasizing. Understanding how we use training variables for these goals is very important.
We can see these ideas in practical ways. In squatting patterns we can introduce or help “groove” the pattern by using a kettlebell goblet squat. We can add more stress to the movement by loading a front squat. Finally we can introduce instability with a shoulder sandbag squat (try to minimally use a load 50% of your front squat weight).
With even more complex drills like thrusters, we have a lot of options. Just by using kettlebells instead of dumbbells or dumbbells instead of kettlebells (use the opposite of what you have been) you are going to feel a great new level of instability. We can move in a more unstable manner by going from a drop lunge up to an overhead press. This adds instability via different body position. Finally, we can add instability through a new plane of motion and unstable implement with a lateral lunge to rotational sandbag press.
Should You Change?
Doing something different from the crowd may be a little intimidating, but fitness changes, and changes fast. Using the methods I am describing will open up a door to more than just novel exercises. This approach to training will allow you to progress in more ways in your workouts and allow you to scale the workouts for your clients through more than load or volume. Try these exercises out and see how your training can skyrocket.
1. McGill, Stuart, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Waterloo, Canada: Backfitpro Incorporated, 2006.
Photos 1 & 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.