From Rehab Clinic to Your Gym
If you mention "unstable" and "training" in the same sentence, there's a good chance some knowledgeable meathead will stuff you into a locker. And for the most part, doing so is warranted. BOSU balls, wobble boards, and other unstable shenanigans belong in a physical therapy office, not a gym – and therein lies the problem.
The unstable surface training (UST) craze began in clinical rehab settings after showing some promise in treating particular ankle issues. As is often the case, though, something that was useful within a single context took off and weaseled its way into the mainstream.
Hipsters doubling as personal trainers began putting their clients on balance boards and Swiss balls while they juggled kettlebells and talked trash about egg yolks.
The problem is, UST doesn't hold any water outside of the physical therapy realm. As a matter of fact, multiple studies chastise its use for injury prevention as a whole, limiting its efficacy to individuals with a history of ankle sprains. Other studies have found that people who train on unstable surfaces are more likely to experience significant injuries.
Does that mean that UST is more likely to contribute to injuries? You can be the judge. If there's one thing that the research undoubtedly proves, though, it's that training on a STABLE surface is the clear king for getting bigger, stronger, and more athletic.
But not all unstable training is created equal. Some unstable training methods and exercises can provide unique benefits that, when implemented properly, can stimulate newfound gains in strength, hypertrophy, and performance. To reap the unique benefits that certain forms of instability can provide, give the following methods and exercises a go.
To get bigger and stronger, your training should be centered around exercises that can be sufficiently loaded and progressed over time. For the most part, exercises that fail to meet these two criteria serve little to no purpose for gains in strength and size.
But there are a number of unstable exercises that can be valuable when used as "primers" prior to your regular training. Why? When performing certain exercises with slight instability, each rep reinforces proper movement mechanics, improves intra- and inter-muscular coordination, forces joint stabilization, and grooves stability.
By checking these boxes, your muscles and nervous system get to a place where they're better equipped to handle heavy loads with pristine technique.
Here's a few examples of how to get primed to lift using unstable surfaces:
One of the recurring themes of intelligent unstable training is a constant demand for core stability and control, and the chaos push-up is no exception.
On top of pushing the anterior core to the max, it targets the entire musculature of the upper body while strengthening the scapula and shoulder stabilizers. Since the oscillations are significant, chaos push-ups require a slow tempo and perfect mechanics, which translates to increased shoulder stability and better pressing mechanics.
Half-Kneeling Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
Who said unstable training has to involve fancy equipment? By nature, holding a kettlebell in a bottoms-up position is inherently unstable. This will improve your pressing mechanics, help you build healthier shoulders, and get a slight pump.
And as an added bonus, the half-kneeling position requires full-body tension in order to resist extension, rotation, and lateral flexion at the spine.
The only bad news is, you're going to have to check your ego and use lighter weights. Because of the movement's unstable nature, a high demand is placed on maintaining stability in the shoulders, forearms, and hips.
Single-Leg Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
Relax, tough guy. The stability ball isn't completely worthless. The benefits of these curls are two-fold:
First, they train knee flexion (working leg) and hip extension (elevated leg) simultaneously, unlike most hamstring exercises that focus on one or the other.
Second, the unilateral aspect of the movement requires balance, stability, and control. Plus, you'll elicit a brutal hamstring pump that will prime your knees and low back for optimal function prior to squatting.
Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat
With this variation, you'll place your back foot on a band. Why the band? Well, when doing rear-foot elevated split squats, most lifters allow their back leg to take on a large part of the work. While that isn't necessarily bad when the goal is overall load, using a band to elevate the back foot forces the front leg to work in isolation.
At the same time, the band necessitates tri-planar balance and hip stability, similar to a pistol squat or one-leg squat to bench/box. Unlike those two movements, though, the rear-foot elevated split squat actively engages the hip flexors and forces a deep stretch. The result: healthy hips, better movement, and a stronger squat.
You should never stand on an unstable surface. Pairing squats and deadlifts with an unstable surface is on par with putting anchovies on pizza. Unacceptable.
Here's why: Have you ever gone to an ice rink to run sprints? Hopefully not. When you step onto an icy surface, the body's immediate reaction is to tense up and maintain balance at all costs, ridding the body of its ability to produce maximum force.
Any time your nervous system senses an unstable surface, its immediate reaction is to protect you by making you weaker. Assuming your goal is to get bigger and stronger, leave unstable surface training to Cirque de Soleil performers and guys with puny arms.
Fortunately, there are beneficial ways to incorporate instability into your compound lifts without standing on a wobble board or sacrificing the sufficient loads required to build muscle and strength. The hanging band technique, as popularized by Dr. Joel Seedman, is a valuable tool that challenges stability while stimulating strength and size, and dialing in technique.
Per Seedman, the hanging band technique (HBT) offers these unique benefits:
- It allows you to add in perturbation and challenge stability while using meaningful loads.
- It forces three-dimensional stability as the weights bounce up and down, back and forth, and side to side.
- It's joint friendly, since the instability and unpredictable oscillations require constant tension and strong positioning throughout every muscle in the body.
- It has an incredible effect on muscle activation while simultaneously aligning the joints, enabling the body to attain biomechanically efficient positions.
- Its effects on strength, size, and muscularity are significant because HBT capitalizes on all three mechanisms of hypertrophy: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
Watch as Dr. Seedman demonstrates how HBT works:
This gives you immediate feedback on your technique while inevitably requiring high levels of tension, spinal rigidity, core stability, and mental focus – all of which translates to improved mechanics and a stronger squat.
HBT squats are also effective from a hypertrophy standpoint, as the constant tension combined with heavy loading provides a powerful stimulus for growth.
Any lunge variation performed with hanging bands provides a novel stimulus that targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Since perfect technique is required, there's a high demand for stability and coordination, and the core must work overtime to maintain tension on every rep.
Incline Bench Press
Doing an incline bench press with hanging bands requires optimal mechanics and perfect shoulder positioning. The result is healthier shoulders, maximal pec recruitment, a huge pump, and more muscle.
As the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Whatever those weak links may be, the HBT overhead press will expose them.
There's arguably no better exercise that targets the entire upper body from a strength, size, and stability standpoint. On top of eliciting a painful pump, this variation will challenge your ability to stabilize the trunk and force every muscle of your body to lock the movement in.
When used with isolation exercises, HBT's muscle-building benefits are unparalleled. The constant tension being created, as well as the inherently slow tempo, elicits painful pumps and triggers the muscle damage and metabolic stress required for hypertrophy. Given some creativity with setups, HBT can be applied to a number of exercises aside from just curls: shrugs, skull crushers, dips, lateral raises, etc.
Unstable training doesn't require bands, balls, or goofy equipment. An easy way to incorporate instability is to do exercises that are unstable by nature, many of which are incredibly effective for strength and size. By adding the following methods into your training, you can capitalize on the benefits of unstable training without turning your workouts into a circus act.
Reduce the number of ground contact points.
Progressing exercises via instability doesn't have to be complex. Something as simple as lifting a limb off the ground can increase the demands of the working musculature while imposing an anti-rotation challenge. This is a powerful way to add instability into your training without sacrificing the use of sufficient loads.
One-Arm, One-Leg Floor Press with Glute Bridge Iso-Hold
Ben Bruno introduced this challenging press variation that requires full-body stability, a strong brace, and optimal pressing mechanics. Unlike other goofy-looking exercises, this doesn't require a significant reduction in weight. Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to handle a load on par with your normal dumbbell bench press.
When done properly, you'd be hard-pressed to find another movement that targets the upper back, lats, and entire core as effectively as the renegade row. In essence, what you're doing is holding a single-arm plank while doing strict single-arm rows.
If you think you have to go light, think again; you should be able to use 80-90% of the weight you typically use for one-arm dumbbell rows. In the video, Joel Seedman is doing renegade rows with two dumbbells totaling his bodyweight.
Use offset loading.
Offset loading can be used with virtually any type of exercise, since the only thing it requires is the use of a heavier load on one side of the body. By using uneven weights, the core must develop greater stability and strength, thus eliminating potential energy leaks and providing you with a stronger base to create more force and lift more weight.
Offset Trap Bar Carry
On its own, the farmer's carry challenges the entire core as well as the shoulders, forearms, and glutes. By using offset weights on a trap bar (which enables heavier loading), the challenge is even more intense. On top of hammering the core from an anti-lateral flexion standpoint, the muscular demands on the heavily loaded side are amplified.
Add some unilateral exercises.
One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
This is an underrated exercise that hammers the core and exposes strength imbalances while still enabling the use of heavy loads. If you don't think it's an inherently unstable exercise, you haven't gone heavy enough.
As I mentioned in 7 No-Barbell Strength Tests You Need to Pass, you should be able to do 5 reps per side with a dumbbell that's 50% of your bodyweight.
Front-Racked Reverse Lunge
Front-racked reverse lunges employ one of the simplest and most overlooked strategies to increase an exercise's difficulty: raise the center of gravity.
It's the same reason why an overhead squat is so difficult – the need for stability is magnified. By the same token, the front-racked position forces you to stabilize the anterior core to avoid losing the bar or tipping over. Plus, the dynamic component of a reverse lunge paired with the temporary instability of standing on one leg further increases the need for full-body stabilization.
I always laugh when people say that BOSU squats are good for the "little stabilizer" muscles. What little stabilizer muscles? Noodle arms? Chicken legs? Pencil necks?
Call me crazy, but if I'm getting ready for a max effort bench press, I'd rather have support from "big stabilizer muscles" like the upper back, lats, and anterior/medial delts as opposed to the supraspinatus and teres minor.
Here's the reality: A stabilizer muscle isn't a real thing, and no muscle exists with the sole purpose of providing stability. The muscles that stabilize the body differ based on their role in a given movement.
The only muscle group that plays a legitimate role in stabilizing the body regardless of movement is the entire musculature of the core. While many exercises targeting anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion are valuable, instability can take your core training to the next level.
Here's how to train your core with unstable exercises:
Stir the Pot
Check out Nick Tumminello's challenging variation of stir the pot. This exercise is a fantastic way to combat anterior pelvic tilt while also imposing an anti-rotation challenge.
According to Dr. Stuart McGill, it's a better alternative than most other core exercises because it allows for a brutal training effect without robbing capacity from the spine. Since it's impossible to cheat the movement, you have to maintain a solid brace and keep a strong position. The result is better posture, a resilient core, and greater time under tension to support abdominal hypertrophy.
Zercher Hold with Hanging Kettlebells
The Zercher hold is already a powerful core exercise on its own. When you add hanging kettlebells into the mix, it becomes unmatched in its ability to target the core from a 360-degree perspective.
The Zercher position forces you to create high levels of intra-abdominal tension, to the extent that your eyeballs feel like they're popping out of their sockets. The hanging kettlebells also add an anti-lateral flexion component. This further requires you to tense your abs and glutes as hard as possible while avoiding any forward, backward, or side-to-side lean.