Are you interested in:
- Running faster?
- Lifting heavier?
- Improving your endurance?
- Improving your mobility?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you need to pay attention to stability.
Stability can be defined as: ‘the property of a body that causes it when disturbed from a condition of equilibrium or steady motion to develop forces or moments that restore the original condition.’
In a more ‘functional’ definition, we can think of stability as primarily related to Balance and Co-ordination out of the CrossFit 10 key physical skills. Stability is our body’s ability to withstand perturbation through motion.
perturbation being “a deviation of a system, moving object, or process from its regular or normal state or path, caused by an outside influence”.
Real life examples would be running without excessive sideways shifting of the hips, or catching a snatch without taking a step, or the barbell leaning or twisting, all the way through to doing a pistol squat without crazy arm swings to avoid falling over.
So, what gives you good or bad stability? Like pretty much everything else, it’s a skill. We’re matching sensory input with appropriate motor outputs. Our input comes from our proprioception – the body is packed full of receptors that detect stretch and pressure, giving us information on how the body is organised in space. The foot especially so, which is why if someone loses a toe, they fall over a lot until they learn to cope without its input. The motor output comes from our muscles contracting just enough to perform the task accurately, be it just standing upright, or keeping the bar path vertical on a lift, or making sure to hit the sweet spot swinging a tennis racket. The skill of stability is our body’s ability to match the sensory input with the motor output. To stand upright, if our weight shifts too far forward, our toes will feel the pressure and trigger the posterior chain to bring us back. When lifting, similarly we’ll feel our balance point through our feet and adjust our torso angle to make sure the bar doesn’t drift too far, IF we’re experienced or highly skilled. Swinging a tennis racket, we’ll feel how the racket sits in the hand, and combine the balance information in the feet with the stretch sensations in our body AND the visual input of the incoming ball to adjust those muscle contractions and keep the racket on path to hit that winner.
Given stability is a skill, it needs to be practised. Repetitions challenging the body’s ability to stabilise our chosen movement will refine the linking of input and output reinforcing neural pathways. As with all practice, we need to make it meaningful, so how can we break it down into chunks to focus our practice on?
Co-ordination of muscle contractions can be both intramuscular and intermuscular. This means improving the skill within a muscle and/or between different muscles. When improving joint stability, we might find that a specific muscle is poorly skilled at stabilising a motion (intramuscular coordination), or we might find that the motion overall is poorly controlled due to poor sequencing of the surrounding muscles (intermuscular coordination). Once we have identified the limiter, we can refine our practice to address it, targeting both the main muscle not pulling its weight and the overall movement pattern.
That’s a bit of the what, and the how, but what about the why? Sorry, Simon, I didn’t start with Why. With improved stability, we get less deviation from optimal mechanics before correction. This means the bar doesn’t drift as far in front, the hips don’t shift so far to the side when running or the racket doesn’t go out of the swing plane as much in your forehand. What this means for you: less wasted energy. For every deviation, there needs to be a corrective muscle contraction, which uses up your valuable ATP.
Less deviation = less wasted energy = more energy to direct as you wish.
The less deviation we have, the better our mechanics, so ATP aside, we’re also making the movements feel easier, as less force is required when your bar path is good or your foot is landing in a better position, to create the same output (lifting the bar or taking a stride).
As we improve the co-ordination of our balance, we also increase our ability to ‘stick’ our landing, finding stability to push off sooner in a lunge or rebounding a box jump, or catching that snatch that used to wobble loads before standing it up.
Greater stability also reduces our injury risk – too much wobble at the ankle or hip can mean that the knee is ‘rattling around’ every time ground reaction forces go through it – if we stabilise the guilty party, the knee will track better and cause less friction/rubbing. Similarly, an unstable shoulder can lead to elbow tendinitis caused by over-gripping to compensate.
Finally, stability can actually improve range of motion. The body does not like range of motion it can not control. If it doesn’t have the skill to stabilise a range e.g. bottom of squat, it will not let you access it. Improving stability will teach your body to ‘trust’ a range as safe, and permit you to access more range than if your body is unstable and ‘fearful’ of it. For example, you might have an ‘ass to grass’ overhead squat, but struggle to access it in a squat snatch.
Now we know what stability is, how it works, and why we should care about it; what should we DO about it?
Spending time on single leg and single arm exercises will benefit your two legged/two armed movements. The challenge to stability of the single side variations will carry over to more efficient coordination in the two sided lifts.
For example, lunges and step ups will support your squat. DB presses will support your BB presses. Not rocket science, but needed to be said.
Be conscious of your back leg taking weight and absorbing ground reaction forces – it’s a way of your body still favouring the stronger leg. Also, performing exercises barefoot will improve your body’s capacity for stability more than when wearing shoes, as shoes will provide artificial stability.
A slightly lesser-known concept:
Similar to what we said about intra and intermuscular coordination, stability can be better and worse in different planes of motion. Get out of the saggital plane and challenge your balance from different angles to increase the likelihood you address the root cause of your instability.
Unsure? RedPill can help:
If you are unsure how to identify your root cause instability, contact your local RedPill coach and book a muscle imbalance assessment, where we will assess (among other things) all planes of motion in the foot, hips, spine and shoulders then consider which muscles and motor patterns need to be up-skilled in the unsung hero of movement, stability. We will also assess your mobility and function…tune in next time for our definition of what these buzzwords mean.
RedPill Coach, Ashley Grossmann
Ash successfully completed the 2017 RedPill Mentorship. A London based coach with a methodical and considered style. He believes every single part of a programme should have a specific purpose related to the goals of the athlete. He has an analytical brain and is very data driven to ensure progression, stemming from his science and management-consulting background. Through RedPill training he has built on his fascination with biomechanics and strives to improve his athletes’ movement patterns to add kilos to the bar and squeeze out every bit of their potential possible.