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Stability Training - What Is It Really & Why Is It So Important?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 30 November 2016
Hits: 19604

Stability training is one of those terms thrown around that is often completely misunderstood, abused or not given enough respect as to it's importance in maintaining a healthy strong body. All too often I hear sports people say I am going to do some stability or "core" work and them watch them complete a series of planks and abdominal exercises. This is not even close to stability training. On the flip side I have also seen the abuse of balance equipment where circus stunts are performed that could be classified as dangerous and risky. When most of us think of the term stability, we think of injury prevention, rehabilitation or balance exercises, and while this is very much a big part of any rehab program it is also a big part of any health and fitness program. Where people get it so wrong is confusing strength exercises with stability. True stability is all about TIMING! Being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement. And it not just limited to the legs or the trunk. All joints require stability! This article we will share with you what Stability really means, and how you can use it to enhance your training and performance.

Stability Must Precede Strength Training

This is one area I see neglected all the time by all people. In our training studio located in Melbourne we have specialized in rehabilitation for over 11 years now, and work closely with many local health practitioners, and the amount of people I have seen come to me after completing a rehab program that did not include any stability or mobility work, but only strength exercises is amazing! These people found us after spending several years with little to no success, some even got worse! And in many cases what these people were lacking was being taught two things.

  1. How to STABILIZE their body
  2. How to MOVE correctly

Poor education as to how our stabilizer muscles work is the big problem. Stabilizers react quicker than any other muscle group, to prepare the body for movement. The stabilizer muscles are smaller and much weaker than the larger moving muscles, and the only way they can work effectively and influence the integrity of movement is to fire first. The TVA for example fires before you even move, it actually anticipates your movement and contracts to support and stabilize your spine prior to anything being done. It has been found with back pain patients it fires too late, or not at all, leaving their spine unsupported and requiring the assistance of large prime mover muscles to do the job. This is where exercises to target the TVA are used to reprogram this faulty timing and correct the compensation of using other muscles trying to do the job. However many of these exercises are very simple and do not require the reflex or timing that it would often need in real life situations, meaning their effectiveness is minimal. That is not to say they are no good, as they are needed in the early stages to help the person understand what to do without the complexity of reactions and reflex. The point is that they should be only looked at as a stepping stone to the more complex method of how they are designed to be used. For example we use the TVA Tummy Vacuum exercise in the beginning but once we establish you know what to do, we progress to the Horse Stance exercise that now brings into play reflex, timing, coordination and skill in order to complete the movement. If we progressed to planks and various other strength type exercises we could potentially reinforce the faulty pattern by strengthening the prime movers. This is where I see so many "core workouts" ruin people. They see their strength go up from being able to improve their plank time from 1 minute to 2 minutes but all they have done is teach their body how to use prime movers as stabilizers. Many Pilates style training achieve this same outcome for they are confusing strength with stability.

This is where Infant Development exercises are more beneficial than planks and most isolated abdominal training. Horse stance is really crawling which is an infant development exercise. Prior to being able to crawl however we first learned to move by wiggling and rolling. We were not yet strong enough to use our limbs but we had reflex movements through our torso that enabled us to twist and rotate to create movement. Anyone with a small toddler will know how much you have to keep an eye on them when they are on the floor as they try to explore and find a way to move around. Babies do not hold planks to develop strength to stand but learn how to stabilize themselves via various crawling and attempts to squat that include many mistakes before they can walk. The lessons learned here are clues as to how to regain stability if you have lost it due to injury or pain. 

Training Stability & Why Timing Is Everything

Before I go any further make sure you download the Free Report below as all of this information but also the exercises, instructions and programs on how to do it are set out for you to follow.

We mentioned horse stance being a great stability exercise and it definitely is. Not only do you need great stability through the pelvis, trunk and mobility with the hips but you also need great stability through the shoulder and neck. The one drawback it has is that it is not performed standing up! And it is in the standing position that many problems will be encountered. You can become great at exercises lying on the floor but it is of no good to you if you are unstable the minute you stand up. In a four point position we are mechanically much stronger with the hips and shoulder in extremely strong positions to move. However once we stand up these two joints, which need a lot of mobility to perform their function are now at a much more vulnerable position and the need for stability is significantly greater. Again I see many rehab programs use so many floor exercises that lead to nowhere other than more strength orientated floor exercises. There is no progression from kneeling to standing, and rarely is the timing anywhere what it needs to be. Again I would say this is the biggest problem I often see with Pilates. I should know as I am a qualified Pilates instructor myself.

Nothing beats learning how to move correctly. Stability training is more linked with movement than muscles!

But it gets even better for stability can be present in one form of movement but missing or dysfunctional in another! I regularly see this with clients who come to see me for knee problems. When we assess how they move, often their deadlift form is exceptional, yet their lunge and squat form is terrible. How can they have great stability in the deadlift, yet be so bad at a lunge? This is where TIMING comes into play and why looking at all muscles as if they all function just like a bicep is not only a waste of time but potentially a disaster. Each pattern of movement is individual from the next and requires different stabilizers firing in different sequences with prime movers producing movement. This is why you must assess all movement patterns and try to upgrade your nervous system computer with quality information in the form of movement skills. This is why muscle focused exercises do very little to improve walking for someone with a walking impairment from an accident or injury. Walking is so complex and uses so many things all at once, trying to use one muscle at a time is a waste of time. Read our article on How To Improve Walking to see a detailed explanation of this.

This is why beginners to exercise are so weak. It is not the lack of muscle strength but the lack of coordination, skills and timing. Their problem is not even a lack of flexibility. Their brain just does not understand how to coordinate movement. It slows everything down so it can understand and make sense of what is going on, but when this happens the timing is disrupted and as we have said many times TIMING is everything. This is very important to understand for rehabilitation with people who do not exercise. The first thing they do when in pain is to go and see a health practitioner who will assess and diagnose the injury. The treatment will most often use loosening techniques with massage, manipulation and various other modalities to restore the loss of function to the affected area. However if the joint is already weak, the joint will stiffen up to protect itself. We will explain this in more detail shortly.

Lack of timing also exists for experienced people when they perform a new exercise they have never seen for the first time. They may have great strength in similar movements but that does not translate to the movement skill they need now. Before they can develop strength they need the skill, they need the timing, they need the stability and also the mobility to perform it. Examples of this could be a Power Clean or a Turkish Get Up. Complex exercises requiring precise timing, coordination and skill. (If you have ever tried to teach someone a hang clean or power clean you will know exactly what I mean).

Watch the video below that explains how we progress the 7 Key Movement Patterns from very low level exercise up to standing. There is many other exercises and variables we do use but this gives you a great insight into how to evolve from floor to standing.

Breathing Is Important

Have you ever tried riding a bicycle without your hands on the handlebars? When you first tried it, it feels scary and you just know that you are going to fall if you don't put your hands back down straight away. Do you remember how you were breathing? Were you nice and calm or were you pretty much holding your breath? When we sense instability our instincts are to create stiffness to make us more stable. But what that often does is make us rigid, and unable to react or use reflexes to correct any imbalance. Our breathing plays such a big role in creating the flexibility and stability we need, and in many cases we need to learn to breathe easily and relax, as opposed to making ourselves stiff. Remember the stabilizers do not function like prime movers. If I go back to the bike example, I can ride easily with no hands, I can even take my jacket of while riding uphill and have something to eat without needing my hands. I have practiced this for a long time and made many mistakes before learning how to correct myself and maintain stability through feel. Now it is an automatic skill, I do not fear doing this, and I do not hold my breath or stiffen up and am very relaxed. I am not suggesting you go out and start riding bikes without your hands but this was to prove that when I learned how to relax and breathe, my prime mover muscles which were also contracting and making me stiff also relaxed and now my stability muscles were able to do their job. And they did it very well. With practice they got better and over time I don't even think about it now. It is just a reflex. The same is true for any exercise whether it is a squat or lunge.

To see how important breathing is to your body I suggest reading our article "Do you know how to breathe correctly?"

Stiffness Is Not Stability

This is another thing I often see in our rehabilitation programs, in particular with knee and hip injuries. The injured leg appears to much more stable? On assessment of single leg balance the injured leg performs much better than the non injured side? This makes no sense for if it is injured you would expect it would have a hard time stabilizing itself. So why does it balance better? I struggled with this for a long time and even with my own injuries. But what is really going on is the body has stiffened the joint in order to protect it. Often stiffness starts from a bad habit, that leads to a faulty compensatory movement being produced over and over. This in turn creates shortened range of motion through the joint for the faulty movement is weaker than the optimal movement. No pain may be present but you can noticeably see a restricted amount of movement. If you were to force the person into the optimal range, pain would be the result as the body would sense it cannot stabilize itself at that position, so a message to stiffen the joint is sent from the brain to protect itself and prevent the deep range being achieved.

Stiffness is a false result of stability. I regularly see this with knee injuries where range of motion on a squat, and more specifically the single leg squat is very poor. Partial range is great and stability appears normal, but when asked to perform at a deeper range cracks appear and stability is lost. Hip pain and various lower back conditions we see the same thing. The hips have become so stiff in order to protect their lack of stability that ideal movement from the lower back, hamstrings and thoracic spine is lost

In this case more Mobility and Flexibility is more beneficial than stability training. This is why you can never skip steps in the Success Formula.

I mentioned earlier we often see this with people who do no exercise and have little strength. Typical health solutions try to loosen their joint up, which is exactly what it needs, but........ If this treatment is not IMMEDIATELY followed up with stability and movement skill training it will default back to stiffness! Why? For it has not been shown how to stabilize itself. It it remains with this new found range of motion that it feels it cannot control and a possible dislocation of the joint is around the corner it will stiffen back up within 24 hours. Unfortunately I see many people stuck in this revolving door of treatment week after week, year after year and never are the shown how to move. A great story I encourage you to read by clicking here of exactly this scenario is of a young girl, Georgie McIntosh, who had spent 6 years trying to find a solution for a severe back injury, and told to go see a pain counselor to deal with her pain as nothing could be done. No body had shown her how to move. Within 3 months of us using simple movement strategies and methods she was better than she had been in 6 years! She was extremely flexible and all her treatments she was getting were trying to make her even more flexible! This is the equivalent to taking the wheel nuts off all your wheels on your car! When her body felt this loosening take place it's protective mechanism was to stiffen the area most vulnerable and in her case it was her back. It was at a point where she could hardly lift her bag off the floor when I first met her. When she finished training she was able to do 40kg deadlifts.

Many people lack flexibility and need to spend adequate time improving range of motion with their joints. But once mobility is established you MUST follow up with stability training.

Good articles to read on how to do improve mobility are below

Lower Back Pain & Why It Is Important To Stretch First

How To Loosen Tight Hips

Best Exercises To Use & Understanding The Rules Of Progression

Above is a picture that really sums up what I am about to show you. This shows how we progress from lying to kneeling to crawling, then standing and learning skills before taking these skills to new levels with load or speed.True stability is someone who can move through the whole series of movement above without loss of form or fatigue! This is where chance of injury is minimal and performance is at it's greatest! This is where we ALL should aim to be.

One important note here when learning these exercises is to expect mistakes. Just like my experience of learning to ride a bike with no hands, it takes mistakes and experience. Your body need to FEEL the challenge and work it out. Remember to breathe easily, relaxed and without stiffness. Often making your base of support narrow is all it will take to test you, so if you feel you are doing it easy challenge yourself. Make sure it is safe but be prepared to challenge your body. I am going to start with more simple exercises and work our way up to more complex and difficult exercises to give you a feel of gradual progression.

Stability Exercises Level 1 - Infant Development

I know I said it is easy to harder, these exercises are in fact quite hard for many people as they are so stiff and tight and hold their breath too much. The key is to be relaxed and not fight with the movement. Effortless and smooth is the key which is easier said than done. The second video is of Horse Stance variations you can use to enhance your ability on the floor. Horse stance works as both a hip and pelvis exercise and neck and shoulder exercise.

Stability Exercises Level 2 - Swissballs

We have moved from lying on the floor to now being seated. The first video is of the Lateral Ball Roll which is much harder than it appears as it greatly enhances the reflex and timing element we are looking for. A great exercise again for every muscle in your body. Even the head must stabilize itself when it is unsupported. The second exercise is single leg hip extension which begins to look like movements we would use such as squats.

Stability Exercise Level 3 - Standing

Now we have moved from lying to kneeling, to sitting and now standing. Great exercises to use here are single leg stance with eyes shut, the toe touch drill and single leg squats or deadlifts. Both fairly easy to do for anyone with no pain or injury, but extremely difficult for a person in pain.

Stability Exercise Level 4 - Shoulder & Neck Stability

The reason this is level 4 is that the shoulders and neck are very reliant on the legs and the trunk. Far too often we see people with shoulder and neck trouble getting treatment for the area in pain completely neglecting the fact that their legs are weak and unstable. The eyes will always try to maintain perfect horizontal axis and make adjustments in any area of the body to do so. If you favor one leg due to weakness or instability or if you have pain on one side of your body and begin to limp, you will leave the head in a tilted position if it remains as it is. The body quickly adapts and creates compensatory adjustments to the neck or the trunk to bring the eyes back to level. This is where you see scoliosis type curvature of the spine that end up with herniated discs in the lumbar or cervical spine. Assuming you have addressed your leg stability via the previous phases here is two methods we use to enhance shoulder stability. Again timing and reflex movement is the key to making this easy. The first exercise below is a great exercise for teaching even weight distribution between the legs and the trunk, neck and head how to maintain postural alignment. The second exercise is a great stability movement for the shoulder.

Stability Exercise Level 5 - Integrated Movement

Lastly we are now at a point where you begin to sequence movement with lower body and upper body in perfect harmony and timing. Using a lot of single leg and single arm movements is excellent for making this work well. Two of my favorite exercises are below.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! Stability training is a very underestimated type of training that we all can benefit from whether for rehab, injury prevention or sports performance. We must always remember that Stability precedes strength and to be able to train stabilizers effectively it is all about timing and reflex reactivity. The day of using planks and various other abdominal exercises are over. We must become smarter with exercise choices and have a much more intelligent reason for selecting our programs.

If you live in Melbourne and would like to book in for a Free Postural and Movement assessment fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time.

And if you are looking for more ideas on how to take your training to the next level check out our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets below with 101 different programs to try.