The Stable Fable
Adding stability routines to your exercise routine can strengthen muscles and joints, protecting you from injury and enhancing performance
Many of you will have tried push ups, where your feet and hands are in contact with the floor, so that tremendous strength can be gained in the triceps, shoulders, chest and core by pushing up and easing yourself back down.
Similarly, you may have tried squats. With your feet well anchored beneath your torso on a firm surface, bending and straightening the knees will provide excellent gains in the glutes and quads.
But what happens if we remove the stability of your base in these exercises; if we change the firm, steady floor on which your hands or feet acquire their anchor?
By finding ways to make the base on which we work less stable, we vary the strict linear route that each rep takes, introducing instead the need to make lateral, balancing corrections to compensate for the lack of stability we’ve introduced. The upside here is to develop strength in different parts of our muscles, enhancing their versatility, making them more resilient to the less predictable stresses in everyday life and protecting us from the injuries that might result.
To guard against injury, stabilisation endurance training uses high repetitions and with lightweight resistance, that challenges your balance, enhances your muscular and joint stability, thereby enriching your routine. A little thought can create a variety of great workouts.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this, and one that many of you will have experienced, is the difference between strength exercises using a machine e.g. a bicep curl or bench press, and performing the same exercise using free weights, i.e. a dumbbell or bar. When you switch to the dumbbell for your bicep curl, the rigid linear form disappears and is replaced by the same overall vertical movement with the additional need to make balancing course corrections. This is because your arm now has to compensate for the minor uncontrolled lateral movements as you curl the weight towards your shoulder without the stabilising support of a mchine.
These small corrections engage far more of your bicep in significant activation, giving you a broader range of strength and protection from injury.
Machines tend to super stabilise us on a broad bench or secure seat. These machines are therefore very effective for developing big gains in strength. By supporting us with stability, we are able to take on more weight and more reps.
A cautionary note is important here though. Ditching the machines occasionally for the introduction of stability-based exercises, will test areas that these very secure linear exercises don’t fully examine. So, even if your basic linear strength is now high, you should approach stability exercises with small controlled movements and lighter weights, thus preparing yourself for the unpredictable nature of some of the equipment you might encounter.
For example, your push ups can benefit from setting up a TRX strap in your space. Whether you lock your feet into the stirrups or instead plant them on the ground with your hands clutching the strap, the system you’ve set up is now far less laterally stable than the standard push up where both hands and feet and anchored to the floor. The TRX can move you in any number of directions should you overbalance and it’s that control that you engage to prevent yourself from collapsing, stabilising your body in the process. This is the kind of routine that a machine finds hard to replicate. Similar results can be achieved with push ups that make use of a stability ball or a vibration platform.
Stability balls open up many doors in boosting your routines here. As you progress from a bench press using a machine, to one using an free bar, then further still by switching to dumbbells (which activate your weaker side by not receiving compensation from your dominant side), now you can switch the whole thing up by removing the bench and performing the set on a stability ball. Balance will be your key test, so make sure the weights are light and manageable to avoid injury.
A single leg squat with the resting leg unanchored becomes a far greater challenge than one where the resting leg is anchored (however lightly) on another surface. However, be sure to have a nearby frame or balance bar to stop you from toppling over, should you overdo it. Power squats, where you jump off the ground can have stabilising element added by holding the landing with knees bent at their lowest point for three seconds.
Think about how beneficial a bicep curl would be with a light weight, while balancing on one leg – great for the knee and the bicep in one movement. But again, be sure to have your other arm (or leg) well placed to save you, should your balancing act get the better of you. A great way to build to this is simply to practice a single leg balance while moving the arm in the form of a bicep curl, without using any kind of weight.
King of the crop or my personal favourite is the single leg deadlift. We’ve touched on what a great exercise deadlifts are in any case, but by putting the bar to one side and putting far less weight on a dumbbell, you can introduce stability to your hamstring workout. Push the resting leg out behind you and with a straight arm, lower the dumbbell towards the floor before returning to the upright position. As always bend that standing leg and push that butt out to protect your back.
Explore your Gym Pod to see how creative you can get in stabilising yourself. The rewards are there for all to see.