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3 BIG Reasons Why Stability Training Doesn’t Work

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Stability training is what I typically call the “vegetables” of most people’s workout dinners. Meaning, we know it is good for us, we know that it can help us move better and be stronger, but we don’t really like it and don’t do enough of it. That is largely because most people associate stability training with goofy looking balancing exercises. Others think they are doing stability training by throwing bands and kettlebells on bars and trying not to fall over as they move. Neither is true stability training and the reason why we don’t really get the benefits and spend enough time focusing on stability training in our workouts.

In order to explain why so many efforts of stability training do not work, we have to first understand the intent of stability training. What is it, how are we defining it? While there are several good ones out there, I do find what Dr. Lee Burton shares to be very strong in understanding the intent of stability training.

stability training

What Dr. Burton is really referring to is what is known as motor control. What’s that?! Motor control is a pretty in depth field of study that has many subsets, but in general it is defined as “Motor Control is defined as the process of initiating, directing, and grading purposeful voluntary movement.”(Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing. (2012). Retrieved March 11 2016 from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/motor+learning) If that doesn’t really help you, let me break down for you in terms that are relevant to training and our purposes of looking at stability training in a better way.

stability training

What Dr. Brandon Marcello says above really sums up stability training well. For example, a lot of people think just working your core in an isometric fashion (like a plank for example) is sufficient for developing stability. However, what the research shows is that people with low back pain often have inappropriate timing of when their core muscles activate and how they work in conjunction of a chain of muscles.

As one of the primary researchers that stimulated a lot of discussion of the Transverse Abdominis (TVA), Paul Hodges explains the following, “Back pain is not an issue of a single muscle, it is associated with complex changes across a whole system. Although the early studies focussed on this muscle, an abundant literature has evolved that shows that the changes in back pain are complex and involve many muscles and many control properties…Recent work even suggests that many people with back pain may have increased stability rather than decreased stability, potentially as a result of increased activity of the more superficial trunk muscles, and this puts a whole new perspective on the meaning of optimal spinal control; not simply to increase stability, but to find a balance. It is increasingly clear that rehabilitation should not target a single muscle, but instead should involve careful evaluation of a whole system.”

So you want to know what this all means and how this impacts what you SHOULD be doing in order to get stability training to work. In order to answer this question let’s go over the top 3 mistakes in stability training as most people approach it.

Artificial Stability

We’ve probably all done this at some point in our training, I know I did! An example of artificial stability is when I would have a client that struggled with a movement and have them hold onto something as they performed the lunge. They were inevitably able to perform the lunge, but we always struggled to get them to be able to perform the lunge without holding on in any form. That was largely because I didn’t realize that by having them artificially supported, their nervous system wasn’t learning how to control the movement. So, when it came to having them organize their muscles in the correct fashion to perform the lunge it didn’t know how without that stability of holding on to rely upon.

This isn’t just on the lunge though, we see this in a whole variety of ways as physical therapist, Jessica Bento explains below…

You can learn more in Jessica’s DVRT Rx Healthy Knee Program HERE

Because those techniques create compensatory actions and don’t teach the body how to control itself we need to rely on smarter progressions of stability training. Below Jessica shows how we would make many of those progressions (we have tons of options in between that we teach in DVRT but this is a good start) and what you will notice how we aim to make the smallest change in stability demands as possible. That is what the research actually points to, that good stability training has to be very small and progressive as not to overwhelm our body and create poor patterns or compensation.

Stability Training Is ALL About Static Movements

Isometric work like planks and side planks all do play a role in building a foundation of stability, but I see people relying on isometric work almost exclusively. What Dr. Marcello listed below are 3 methods of building stability. Most people ignore or go to extremes in two of the 3 concepts.

stability training

Feed forward is where your body becomes active before the movement even occurs in anticipation for the body will need to control the movement. For example, when you walk that is 60-70% of the time one one leg, that is very unstable and yet you don’t consciously think how you are going to “catch” your body, decelerate, and then redirect force. That is largely feed forward type of movements. There are very strong elements this feed forward system in what DVRT Master, Cory Cripe, shows below.

 

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People often don’t think of power movements as having strong elements of stability to them, but especially as we move outside the very stable base of being on two legs, those demands go way up! You noticed that these drills also fulfilled the last aspect of dynamic and multi-planar training. This is quite an in depth topic on its own, but below you see how I take a commonly used stability training drill in the Pallof Press and make it better by using the Ultimate Sandbag and Core Strap where I can engage my core at a higher level, but how I start dynamic and move to static which is the reverse order, but makes social media more interesting. So, I would want to work from the last drill to the first in order of progressions.

 

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Making Instability Too Extreme

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen coaches post videos of their clients supposedly using a stability based exercise, but the client is holding onto dear life. That could come in many forms, whether it is trying to balance on one foot on a BOSU, carry a water pipe that is pushing their body all over the place, or even trying to deadlift a barbell with weight on just one side. The issue is actually the SAME for all 3!

A great paper by Juan Colado and David Behm in “Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach” makes an important point about stability training and the need to be more thoughtful and progressive in how we use these methods. “Greater instability can result in a decrease in muscle activation. For example, a 70.5% drop in leg extension force in an extremely unstable environment was implemented versus a 20.2% decrease with a plantar flexion exercise on a moderately unstable surface. Quadriceps activation decreased with extreme instability by 40.3%, while plantar flexors activation decreased 3% on a moderately unstable surface. To achieve or maintain sufficient muscle activation, the degree of instability should be moderate.”

Ben Beeler does a great job demonstrating this concept with our DVRT principle of altering load position during a movement. In using a lunge (a drill that already requires stability) and changing the specific demands based on how the load is being moved or loaded on the body in conjunction with what type of rear step lunge we use is a perfect example of how we can build true stability training and do so in a very progressive and thoughtful ways.

My hope is that posts like this does change how you think of stability, but more so have you ask the question we should all be asking ourselves, “am I using the best methods possible” when we are training ourselves or others! Learning and making mistakes is part of the journey, but I hope by sharing my own errors you can make your training much better!

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