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Stability Training For Greater Strength Gains

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Co-Creator DVRT Restoration Certification, Shoulder, & Pelvic Control Courses)

If I say stability training most people think that this post is about those who have an injury, don’t move well, or who can’t possibly be “strong”. I get it, stability training often sounds like the vegetables of the workout dinner. Something that everyone realizes is good for them, but let’s face it, most don’t like to actually do it!

I think a lot of that stems from a rather poor understanding of stability training. Typically when people think of stability training they think of exercises that make them stand on something wobbly, or perform an exercise that makes them shake a lot. Neither of these are great examples of true stability training so I thought I would clear up a large amount of the misconceptions around stability training and help you see how much value that true stability exercises can bring to your workouts and achieving all sorts of fitness goals.

What Is Stability Training

It is easy to say what something is not or even make fun of something that looks like a circus trick. However, it can be MUCH more difficult to actually say what something is that has generally not been well defined in mainstream arenas. So, what is stability training?

stability training

Dr. Lee Burton of FMS has a great definition of stability training as you can see above. For many, this may not help clarify anything so what is he really saying? If we have good stability then we can move in a variety of planes of motions, positions, and movement patterns with great efficiency and seamlessly. You know the person that has to gear up and warm-up for about an hour before they perform squat? Chances are that person is trying to make up for poor stability because they don’t have the body working at a level where it can move in a foundational pattern with ease, fluidity, and upon demand.

I’ve found that people who can lift big weights in a gym can actually have terrible stability. How so? They often rely on supportive equipment (which by their very nature increases stability through artificial means), they can’t move well unless they take excessive time “warming-up”, and they can’t take these skills and movements outside of the gym. None of this really gets solved by standing on unstable objects or lifting objects that make you almost fall over.

The Misunderstanding of Stability Training

This may sound like a brain teaser, but stay with me. What people think of as unstable movements typically have very little to do with the intent of stability training. How in the world could both those things be true? Well, standing on something that wobbles, tries to throw you off balance, etc, is definitely unstable, however, it doesn’t teach the body how to create stability for better movement as this famous study points out.

“The current study did not demonstrate any advantage in utilizing the BOSU Balance Trainer. Therefore, fitness trainers should be advised that each of the aforementioned lifts can be performed while standing on stable ground without losing the potential core muscle training benefits.” (Willardson et. al, 2009)

If you think, “oh Jessica, that is only one study!” Well, there are many others like this one that showed greater muscle activation of the trunk during standing on the ground versus an unstable surface (HERE) Instead of making fun of the use of such tools we should ask why do they not produce the stability training that we are often told should occur? This really happens to stem from the fact that most of these tools place our body in such an unstable environment that our bodies can’t learn how to create the stability needed to create efficient and effective movement. Add to the fact that loads tend to drop tremendously we don’t build strength in a manner that can have a positive impact as does the overall amount of movement we usually can create on these unstable surfaces.

Well, you might think “of course Jessica that is why I use bands attached to kettlebells on my barbell and barbells that shake a lot!” While those types of movements are challenging, do they really create stability and even more muscle activation than doing so more than just a standard barbell? With all the hype, few have looked at the research. Time and time again the research is not showing us a significant difference in muscle activation (few actually look at improved stability of the shoulder) (HERE and HERE). Even to say…

“These results suggest that upper body muscle activation is not different in the bench press between unstable and stable loads.”

I don’t want today’s post to get too crazy with science, but the issue is when people talk about these factors of stability training (in the shoulder for example) they often don’t understand what we are looking for as stability to of the shoulder. Muscle activation alone doesn’t ensure stability. Issues like…

-Ability to move in all directions and planes of motion freely.

-Is there pain with any movement of the joint.

-Does the joint show strength in all these positions and angles (the shoulder for example moves in WAY more positions than we see in the bench press)

-The movement of structures related to the joint (in the case of the shoulder the scapula)

-Is there laxity of the joint during movement? Most people don’t realize that in physical therapy we don’t use one test for stability of the shoulder, but a battery of tests because there are many qualities to look at when it comes to proper stability of a joint.

So What ARE Important Concepts of Stability Training We Should Learn/Teach?

With all that said, what are concepts of stability training we can and should use to make us move better, perform better, be more injury resilient, all so we can train hard and accomplish our fitness goals? These are some great places to start!

-Focus On Movement Patterns

stability training

We discuss foundational human movement patterns quite a bit in DVRT and within each movement pattern there are very advanced levels we can progress towards. However, it is important to start at a foundational level, build quality movement, and then progress in a systematic manner. A great example is the squat pattern. As I show below, we can start very foundational and then progress to challenging the squat in both the force it can produce as it resists force to create a great squat.

You should have as much balance of the movement patterns in your workouts not giving too much to any singular pattern!

-Train In All Three Planes Of Motion

In life we know that we move in 3 planes of motion (usually moving through one while resisting the others). Yet, there is very little discussed in training about how to use these planes of motion in a deliberate and progressive manner. Mostly because a lot of people don’t even understand the planes of motion.


The above is a funny image that does help break down the planes of motion to people but also helps us see there should be a specific way we progress them. Here are a few examples.

Rotation and resisting rotation get confused all the time, hopefully the above examples give a better understanding of the differences.

Just like rotation, frontal plane stability (the ability to resist the frontal plane) is often misunderstood. We can move through or resist the frontal plane and both require different levels of stability training.

-Learn To Resist Motion AS You Move

A lot of “stability training” exercises in most programs have no movement to them. That may be necessary for some foundational or rehab stages, but ultimately, stability should be occurring as we move in the patterns previously mentioned. This is far more applicable to the skills that transfer to real life as the stability we often need to move well and perform well has to do with our ability to resist forces trying to make our movement less efficient. Movements like those below are some great examples.

-Stability Shouldn’t Only Be Performed Slowly! 

Stability training just like any other training method has levels to it. The highest levels aren’t actually about how much you can resist shaking, but adding more reflexive stability demands like those that are required in power training. Power is essential to overall health, not just performance. However, few ever think of power training as stability training, yet, when you look at examples below you will see how that is the case. It is the highest level of stability training because you can’t correct your movement, you just have to react!

Hopefully there are a few things that you got out of today’s post. For one, you have a better understanding of what stability training is suppose to be about and can use better exercises. You hopefully have a better appreciation how stability training correlates to strength training and how we use principles of stability to enhance our strength goals. Lastly, you can make better decisions on the right tools and methods to train stability. People often think that the only benefit of the Ultimate Sandbag is that it is unstable. That in of itself has limited use, HOW we use that instability, dimension, and ability to load the body is where the power comes into play.

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