Instability ≠ Stability

Stability and control through movement are essential skills for athletes to minimise injury risk and to perform on-field with any degree of competency.

Without stability an athlete will leak force and place their body in dangerous positions ripe for injury, so stablity should be a key focus for athletes and their coaches in almost all sports.

Improving the degree of stability an athlete has throughout their range of motion (ROM) is a multifactorial problem, requiring aspects such as strength through consistently sound movements, eccentric unilateral (single limb) strength, sensory awareness, and core strength, among many other factors. The single most important aspect of stability, however, whether it is upper or lower body stability, is skill of the movement. The motor control an athlete has through their ROM and their ability to control and develop force in the movement through a variety of velocities, loads, and rotational forces. Now, think for a moment about learning a different kind of skill. A skill such as driving a car. When learning to drive a car, most people tend to actually drive a regular car. Sounds simple, right? Surely you wouldn't learn to drive by, say, covering the steering wheel and pedals in grease and oil before driving? If that sounds ridiculous, it's because it absolutely is ridiculous. And it is no different from the rubbish like this that routinely shows up on social media:

This photo is a representation of a complete misunderstanding of stability, the motor patterns and musculature involved in athletic movement and performance.

Other examples include things like push ups on bands, squats on exercise or bosu balls, and overhead pressing while balancing on something unstable.

Whenever you see an image or video like this one you will see a caption along the lines of "Gotta get dat stability!" or "Try adding an exercise ball to really challenge your stability!" or anything similar.

There are actually TWO things that exercises like this will do for you:

1. Increase your immediate AND long-term injury risk

2. Make you functionally weaker

The increase to your immediate injury risk should be completely obvious, so I'll skip ahead to the long-term injury risk, which actually ties into point number two.

Strength is a key component to stability, and strength can simple be defined as the ability to produce force. More force = greater strength. To increase strength we employ a variety of methods. We can move heavy loads, we can move lighter loads with speed, we can even break things down further by doing these things on single limbs. There are other factors but that is the bread and butter of the matter. In developing this strength by applying force in our sound movement patterns, we improve our ability to safely execute movements with our body. Almost all athletic movements, especially those under high loads or velocities, require a stable core and base of support. The core musculature can be developed in a number of ways but the same principle applies: force. For the core it is usually advised to resist movement, rather than create it, and the application of this is to provide extension, flexion and rotational forces for the core to resist.

Further skills like landing mechanics are essential to field sports, and this is a topic for another day, but it is worth noting how many factors come into stability. So, how do push ups on rings improve our stability? The answer tends to be that because one has to control themselves against an unstable surface that can somehow improve their stability.

Let's take this back to the learning to drive analogy. Would learning to drive a car with a greasy steering wheel and slick pedals teach you how to drive? For starters you would most likely crash, but let's pretend you manage to get going and you actually get pretty good at greasy driving. Eventually you have mastered it, adapting to the slipperiness and unpredictability of your vehicle. Since you have got it down, you jump into a regular car without any grease and turn the keys.

You apply the same driving skills you learned in your grease car, but it feels completely different. The wheel no longer slips and slides when you expect it to, the pedals move and resist at first touch, you don't have to grab and push like your safety depends on it, and you promptly crash your vehicle. Thankfully, you haven't made it more than a few metres so in this scenario you are still safe.

Conversely, someone who has been driving in a regular, non-greasy car since their first lesson has learned how an when to apply small, medium and high amounts of force to the steering wheel and pedals. The vehicle's movements are predictable, practiced, and smooth. The same applies to athletic movements. Practicing push ups on rings makes you good at doing push ups on rings, and nothing else. You won't develop the external rotation and control of the arms needed for horizontal pushing movements because you'll be too busy stiffly attempting to stop the rings dropping in or out. You won't develop sound core mechanics because (even without the exercise ball under your feet) your hips will be in poor position due to your shoulder being rounded to control the rings, and you definitely will not develop any genuine ability to produce force, because you simply have no surface against which to apply force.

Sport is performed on stable surfaces, not on exercise balls. When performing a side-step in a football code, you push off solid ground. When you strike a hockey ball, you do so on solid ground with a solid and predictable stick. Even gymnasts launch and land on stable and predictable surfaces. The idea that this sort of unstable training can improve athletic stability is simply false.

Even if we disregard the immediate injury risk, by performing 'stability' exercises that supposedly look impressive on social media, people are developing new, poor motor patterns, reducing capacity for force production, and causing dangerous muscular imbalances by developing strength in unsafe ratios that in no way reflect the co-contraction rates of musculature that occur in athletic movements.

Simply put, if you see #stability on social media, nine times out of ten it is a dangerous waste of your time that would be better avoided.

You don't need to be fancy with your training. Develop whole body strength, work your core, include unilateral exercises, and unfollow anyone doing overhead presses on an exercise ball. Jarrod

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