By Michael Alsup
Let’s dive right in.
Stability training is, essentially, health training. It provides the foundation of movement needed for all other forms of fitness training. Like all other fundamental things, it can be a bit boring and looked at as “below my ability level”. Because of its simplicity it is often modified to be more powerful or explosive. The resulting hybrid, unfortunately, is pointless as an exercise. (One could argue it can be used as a test-of-fitness.) I like to avoid useless exercises. So let’s discuss stability training and how to do it right.
The most important thing to note with stability training is that it needs to be slow and exists primarily in the eccentric (the controlled extension/lengthening of a muscle) and isometric (the holding part) phases of a movement. Tight rope walkers don’t sprint to regain control, they hold still and focus on the tiniest of movements. It should be the same with a stability exercise; slow way down and do your best to keep every body part where it should be. And don’t worry about the weight. Narrow-up your stance, close your eyes, do one limb at a time and so on. Adding weight to a stability exercise is always the last option. Lastly, keep it safe. In the quest to find more instability some people will use set-ups that do not have a safe bailout system. You want to work on the edge of ability…so have a plan that’ll keep you from injury when things go wrong.
A very common mistake used to spice up a stability routine is to add speed. I get the logic. Clapping pushups done on a Bosu or with your feet on a ball is one hell of a hard exercise! Jumping lunges or power squats on an unstable base are also insanely difficult! It stands to reason that developing the ability to do it would be a good thing. But here’s the rub: with no meaningful time spent in the eccentric or isometric phase there can be no improvement to stability ability or stability endurance. And because you’re using an unstable base the rate of speed you can perform at is slower than it’d be otherwise. It has become an exercise with no direction, no clear benefit. Really, the only thing it is good for is to garner attention from other people.
*I’ll go into this in another post but it’s worth a mention here. All exercises work on a thing called SAID: Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand. Any exercise will challenge the body, and possibly in a number of different ways, but there will always and only be one challenge that wins out. You cannot get 2 ability benefits from 1 exercise. Find the primary focus of any exercise, be it stability, strength or power, and modify everything else to support that result. (Also keep in mind SAID when doing excessive compound movements; the weak link/muscle is likely the only muscle that’ll progress. While this isn’t a bad thing, it may not be what you intended.)
Some other things to pay attention to.
The body likes to work bilaterally. Switching to one arm or leg at a time is a simple way to add difficulty. When you first start it’s likely you’ll catch yourself anchoring with the opposite leg/arm (or, when the exercise position allows, crossing your legs). This is the body’s way of cancelling out the torque effect. It’s not a bad thing but is something you should try to avoid as you progress. If, for example, you’re doing one arm chest press on one leg, stand on the same leg as arm that you’re working.
Stability and functional training exist very near to each other but are not the same thing. Stability is the ability to keep your joints and body parts where they need to be to avoid injury. Functional training is about natural movement, be it fast or slow, in all planes of motion. Stability is only about precision of control while functional lets strength and power to come into play. Speaking broadly, it’s a good thing to keep all stability exercises functional. As soon as you are able to stabilize cleanly in a single plane of movement begin to include multi-planar movements. It isn’t necessary, though, to keep all functional movements as unstable. Once you prove an ability to control everything you should change tempos and resistance to multi-planar movements.
Last thing, stabilize correctly. Find someone who understands proper movement and have them make sure you’re using the correct muscle groups to reach your goal. Common muscle imbalances like upper and lower cross syndromes make achieving efficient movement extraordinarily difficult. These syndromes are the result of a re-wiring of coordination patterns that, if left unaddressed, make progress nearly unattainable. Stability training and its rules of conduct make it an ideal place to correct these issues.