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Why Stability Training Doesn’t Work

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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, “OOOOOPS!” You will want the right to say that you evolved, you experienced things, and yes, you grew.

Years ago I was lured into “corrective exercise” and “functional training” by a back injury at just 14 years old. That led me down the path of wanting to look at EVERYTHING and ANYTHING to help my low back pain issues. 

One of the main concepts I devoted a lot of time to learning, studying, and examine was stability. In the late 1990s I was suffering badly from bad back pain. So bad was the pain that 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.

This was when terms like “functional training” and “corrective exercise” were very new and often the recommendation was the use of standing on unstable surfaces.

Funny how unstable surfaces largely went out of favor for a good portion of the 2000’s (because research on their use couldn’t really validate the training method), but now they are making a comeback. Did the science change? Not really, we just have a new generation of coaches that don’t know what we found out about 20 years ago, unstable surfaces aren’t the best way to go about developing better stability training

stability training

At first, trust me, it made a lot of sense that standing on these unstable objects was very difficult. Having the ability to lift and perform many movements on such objects was hard to do, so we made the false assumptions they were beneficial. 

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. 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.

overhead press

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.

Coach Robin Paget shows what better stability training looks like and how we can build strength and mobility at the same time.

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 Ultimate 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 Ultimate 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.

Don’t miss saving 25% all throughout DVRT with our fall sale by using code “fall25” HERE and absolutely do NOT miss our 4-week live Myofascial Integrated Movement Chronic Pain MasterClass HERE and our live online workshop HERE