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New Stability Training

*This is an article on stabilization training. You'll find an example workout at the bottom of it. 

Stability training has gotten a bad name: ineffective/boring. It arouses feelings of despair in PT clients and even many of their trainers as it requires a lot of work and yet delivers less visible results, thus requiring more motivation to get through. It has been a problem for me at times, although not too much any longer. Yet stabilization, or holding joints in proper alignment and having a good load distribution, is an important thing. It indicates that all the muscles are doing their jobs and that there is a lot of potential for growth.

In other words, it has to be done, but people don’t want to do it. At least not in the way it has been traditionally done. There is likely a better way that allows people to train hard, which is what they want, and gets them the results they need, which is what we trainers want. 

Stability training has been poorly executed. I stand guilty as well! The wobble board craze is over. The “little muscles” argument has always been a cop out, even though it is often true. However, a new definition is emerging. Reknowned physical therapist Gray Cook mentioned it in one of his seminars, which confirmed some of my own suspicians while training my clients. Although it isn’t groundbreaking, it is more specific. Up until now, the definitions surrounding stability training have been pretty unclear.

The words “deep” and “proximal” have been circulating around the regular vocabulary of some trainers, including my own, although only in a subtle way. “Deep” refers to something that is deeper than something else in the body ie: the brachialis(muscle of the upper arm) is deep to the biceps brachii, and proximal is something that is closer to a point of reference, usually the midline of the body, than something else. What these words are describing in this context though are qualities of muscles that take up a lot of surface area on the bone or are closer to the midline of the body or a specific bone. 

Here is a great example in relation to my last article on biceps training. Here you can see the amount of surface area the brachialis is taking up on the upper arm(humerous) by being attached along its whole backside, whereas the biceps brachii, a more superficial muscle, only attaches at two end points. (all anatomy pictures referenced below)

Stability training has traditionally had a top down focus: we trained stability by putting people in (too) instable environments. I prefer to have both a top down focus, as well as a bottom up focus. The top down focus is still putting people in instable environments, although only by shifting their center of gravity, which creates milder instability. The bottom up focus would be training muscles themselves whose primary job it is to stabilize. The only thing left to do then is identify those stabilizer muscles!

The description I’m leaning towards is having a great surface area on the bone in addition to often being type 1 muscle fiber dominant(slow twitch), and/or being biarticulate (or crossing two joints). Last, a definition of a temporary potential stabilizer is, quite simply, a weak link. All muscles play a stabilizing role by helping to create and maintain a good load distribution, which is the ultimate definition of stability ie: when all the players on the team do their jobs, it makes an even greater difference than if just the key players do their jobs.

Exhibit A: Vastus Intermedius vs. rectus femoris. The VI is deep to RF. Look at the amount of surface area it takes up on the bone in comparison(RF attachment bottom left pelvis). Not just two end points, rather attached along the length of back of the muscle. 

Exhibit B: The deep muscles of the calf, which are classic stabilizers, are an obvious example. They also take up a large amount of space along the bone whereas the large gastrocnemius does not. 

Exhibit C: Lats. Lats take up a large amount of real estate on the spine. and yet they are seldom thought of as stabilizers. (Got that straight out of a Cressey article).

Exhibit D: The rotatores. Look how close they are to the spine itself.

These muscles are of different sizes, ranging from huge to tiny, but one thing they have in common is that they take up a large amount of surface area on the bone or are very proximal to the bone.

Interestingly, stabilizers are often described as being endurance related muscle groups as their jobs generally have to do with posture and entail longer periods of time under tension. Studies have historically shown that the lats, which are huge muscles, happen to be a muscle group with a near perfect combination of Type I and type II endurance and explosive muscle fibers. Although that may be being rethought now.* They love mid level rep ranges(10s). Huge, strong muscles, yet they too fill the requirements of a stabilizer. 

I’m going to show you a couple of good stabilization exercises, ranging from traditional to untraditional, that could constitute a full workout. The common themes here are shifts in center of gravity to train to create instability and specifically working on muscles which take up more surface area on the skeleton.

Single legged plank: vastus intermedius

Single legged deadlifts: greater focus on glute med and min which are deep to glute max and take up more surface area on bone

Asymmetrical squats: shift center of gravity laterally (to the side) and challenge musculature most proximal to spine

BD presses: Unusual exercise which slightly changes center of gravity throughout repetition via small oscillations forcing shoulder to stabilize. 

T-bar rows: Moves center of gravity up to the T-spine* (typical weak link) and closer to the midline of the body.

Javelin Thrower with band: trains musculature most proximal to the spine in the upper back(t-spine)*

*The t-spine or mid/upper back is significantly larger than the lumbar spine or lower back and is thus important to train and keep functioning properly. People’s lower back pain is often associated with a t-spine that doesn’t do its job(along with a butt).

Lying underhanded french presses with band: Trains medial(deep) head of triceps which takes up most surface area of all triceps muscles.  

The reason all this is important is it means that we can start building some real muscle even during the stabilization phase of training, which is more fun for people. Stabilization has been historically hard to get through as it requires a lot of faith from a client who has to do workouts they don't see a lot of visible results for in the mirror. It could be that stabilization training becomes doing the same “heavy” movements that we want to do with slight changes to make them less stable in addition to a select few exercises targeted at otherwise hard to reach muscles.

Gilroy, Anne M et al. Atlas of Anatomy. Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc, 2008.

2017, April 12. Muscle Fiber Type

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