WHAT IS STABILITY?
Stability is the ability to control your movement or body position in proper alignment. This happens through the coordination of several neuromuscular mechanisms including strength, muscular integration and proprioception (your sense of where your body is in space).
Stabilisers vs prime movers
In general, muscles have two primary roles—to support and stabilise and to create movement. Some muscles, like the quadriceps and biceps are primer movers first and foremost, and others, including the transverse abdominis and gluteus medius, are predominantly stabilisers. The job of the stabilisers is to keep your muscles, joints and bones correctly aligned both during movement and while you are stationary.
There is, of course, overlap but in stability training, we are concerned with improving the strength and efficiency of the stabiliser muscles, more so than in building strength and power in the prime movers.
WHY DO ATHLETES NEED STABILITY?
“Core and hips are where every runner should be starting if they are really concerned with optimizing their form, maximizing their speed and minimizing injury potential.” David McHenry, physical therapist and strength coach
Stability is the foundation for effective and efficient movement. Runners require stable knees and hips to generate a powerful stride, swimmers rely on a strong core to stay streamlined and efficient in the water and cyclists with stable shoulders and good core stability sustain fewer injuries and experience less pain in the upper body.
Here are some of the primary benefits of stability training:
- Improves motor control through the coordinated integration of different muscle groups.
- Activates the deeper muscles that protect your joints.
- Enhances balance, proprioception and body control.
- Reduces fatigue.
- Corrects muscular imbalances.
- Improves posture and form.
- Prepares the body for exercise.
HOW DOES STABILITY TRAINING IMPROVE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE?
1. IMPROVES MOTOR CONTROL
“Motor control, at its simplest, is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease. It’s what makes efficient movement possible.” Jarlo Ilano
The goal of stability training is to increase the resilience and effectiveness of the stabiliser muscles. We do this by ensuring that we pay attention to correct alignment, move with control and increase the demand that we place on our joints gradually, over time. As we enhance the structure of the body, our motor patterns and whole-body coordination improve.
2. ADDRESSES MUSCULAR IMBALANCES
“Compensations within chains create more dysfunctional movement.” Vladimir Janda
A key aspect of stability training is that we focus on structures that are relatively weak and inhibited (not firing properly) to restore balance in the body. Muscles work in pairs across joints. As one muscle contracts, the other relaxes. Sports are notorious for establishing muscular imbalances between these pairs. For example, cyclists frequently experience tight hip flexors and weak glutes, which can tilt the pelvis back and put excessive stress on the lower back. They may also suffer from pain in between the shoulder blades as the chest and fronts of the shoulders tighten and the muscles in the mid back are pulled apart and become weak.
3. IMPROVES POSTURE
“Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Jordan B. Peterson
In stability training, we target the stabiliser muscles that need strengthening. These include the core, hips and rotator cuff. And in yoga, we go one step further—simultaneously activating weak muscles and stretching those that are tight. For example, in Bridge pose, we activate the glutes and lengthen the hip flexors. And in Upward Facing Plank, we activate the muscles that support the shoulder blades (the rhomboids and lower trapezius) and open up the chest (pectorals). Both these poses are great for improving and maintaining good posture. Activating the glutes keeps your pelvis balanced and your spine correctly aligned and engaging the stabilisers in your mid and upper back keeps your shoulders from rounding forward.
As an athlete, your goal is to keep your body balanced in strength, flexibility, and range of motion, in all planes of movement. This reduces the wear and tear on your joints and takes you out of compensation patterns established by the repetitive movement characteristic of your sport.
4. REDUCES YOUR RISK OF INJURY
“Virtually every injury a person has is due to an instability—to forces leaking out of the body because we can’t hold the body in its correct place.” Peter Attia, MD
Stability training improves your resilience to injury in a number of different ways. We have already touched on how it improves your movement patterns, motor control and coordination as well as addressing muscular imbalances that can otherwise lead to pain and injury over time. Additionally, weak or de-conditioned stabiliser muscles may not be able to adequately support your joints during exercise leaving you more susceptible to injury. Targeted Stability Training is an effective form or pre-habilitation—a proactive technique that can prevent muscular imbalances and injuries from showing up further down the road.
5. ENHANCES BODY AWARENESS
“Don’t flap your wings so hard. It only exhausts you.” Kamal Ravikant
A key aspect of stability training is a focus on correct alignment and appropriate muscular engagement. This greatly improves your body awareness, which has many performance advantages for your sport. Heightened interoception (body awareness) speeds up neuromuscular connections, thus enhancing your coordination and reaction speed. It improves your biomechanics, reduces your risk of injury and crucially, reduces fatigue.
In yoga, we find ourselves making subtle adjustments on the mat continuously, in response to the teacher’s cues. With practice, this allows us to make direct contact with these muscles during exercise. We can correct our posture to reduce effort and make our movements more fluid and controlled. And recruit certain muscle fibres while we allow others to relax in order to preserve energy. Holding onto unnecessary tension in your shoulders, jaw, face or hands, leads to fatigue and increased wear and tear on the body. With consistent yoga practice, you will find it increasingly easy to let go of these patterns of tension during intense bouts of exercise.
WHY YOGA FOR STABILITY TRAINING?
“In my opinion, EVERY athlete – irrespective of sport or discipline – has the potential to enhance his or her ability by adopting a consistent yoga practice. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not practicing yoga, you’re competing at a disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance peak performance.” Rich Roll, ultra-endurance athlete
Yoga is well-suited to stability training for a number of reasons:
- We train stability alongside flexibility, balance and control.
- We move in multiple planes of motion and practice unfamiliar movements that take us out of habitual/compensation patterns.
- We work with our own bodyweight, which allows us to recruit the stabilisers, as opposed to the prime movers.
- We focus on the role of the breath in stabilising the body and regulating the nervous system.
- We remove ego from the equation which allows for greater sensitivity.
- We move slowly and with deliberation, which allows us to tune into the subtle sensations felt in the deeper muscles.
- We take it back to basics, to establish an aligned foundation on which to build strength, power and endurance.
HOW DO WE CREATE STABILITY?
In yoga, we build stability by holding isometric contractions and transitioning between postures, with control. An example of an isometric contraction is Plank pose, in which the muscle length of the engaged stabilisers remains the same. Whereas a bicep curl is a concentric-eccentric muscle contraction, as the biceps contract and relax as you lift and lower the weight. We typically hold isometric poses for 3-5 slow, diaphragmatic breaths to increase the strength of the stabiliser muscles. Transitioning between poses further improves the stability in the joints as it requires greater integration of muscle groups which develops a more balanced and functional strength.
ALIGNMENT AND ENGAGEMENT
“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.” Robert H Schuller
Alignment and appropriate muscular engagement are key to maintaining healthy joints, so it is crucial that you pay close attention to the cues. For example when we’re building shoulder stability, we need to make sure that the head of the arm bone is sitting snuggly into the shoulder socket and to tune into the integration and co-contraction of the rotator cuff stabilisers before we start to bear weight on the upper body.
In dynamic movements, we aim to transition between postures with precision and control—remaining relaxed whilst simultaneously applying appropriate muscular engagement. This requires that you stay focused throughout the session and consciously let go of unnecessary tension at each available opportunity.
“Take yourself to the challenge before the challenge comes to you.” Mark Divine
The best times to practice stability training are when you can put this heightened sense of integration into action—either in the morning to set yourself up for more bio-mechanically healthy movement patterns throughout the day or before exercise to activate or “switch on” specific muscles, tendons and ligaments.
If you are recovering from injury, please do not try to work through pain. Listen to the signals from your body and back off the intensity if you feel you might be exacerbating an injury. Patience, consistency and incremental progress are your keys to success.