TRX, Bosu and yoga balls, resistance bands, the list goes on. These are all tools used within the broad scope of what we call “fitness,” and they’re predicated on one concept: stability. Or, rather, the lack of stability the user is afforded while using the product. After generating millions and millions of dollars while becoming a staple in the contemporary gym, we have to ask, do they work? Let’s discuss.
Stability training is a controversial subject. Inside any commercial gym you can find several people using an exercise ball, resistance bands, or Bosu balls to do pushups, squats, Romanian deadlifts, and especially exercises that look disastrous if one wrong move is made. There’s also a small group of people who try wild exercises like the two below. Most fellow gym goers stand by and ask “what the hell is that supposed to do?” While the gym owners stand by and think “please don’t fall, please don’t fall.”
My take is that stability exercises can be very beneficial if used properly. As far as the Bosu ball goes, I’m not sure. I haven’t found a good use for one (or at least I haven’t found a use for it that didn’t seem unnecessary or could be achieved in a safer way without it) after some years of training clients. Yoga/Swiss/exercise balls, whatever you want to call them, can be great tools and are much more versatile than the Bosu. When clients have trouble activating their hamstrings I’ll have them do leg curls on an exercise ball during a few workouts (once they can reach 12 reps with perfect form they’re done with leg curls), and they’ll have no trouble using their hamstrings after that. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a video demonstrating this exercise that’s even remotely acceptable. This is the standard practice and it’s garbage. What they’re doing in that video is extending the hip (thrusting forward) while flexing the knee (pulling the heel to the glutes). In no sport or movement that I can think of do you extend the hip while flexing the knee. It just doesn’t happen because it would oppose the way humans generate force to push off/strike the ground while running/jump/backpedal/etc.
Running may look close to this motion, but if you watch here you can see that the hip and knee extend simultaneously to generate power, then the hip and knee flex simultaneously to play catch up. (Aside: this is why treadmills suck. Treadmills move the ground back for you, so you don’t have to extend your hip/knee as much to push off, but you’ll have to pull your leg forward extra hard to catch up to the track. Hip flexors and hamstrings become very tight and back pain will likely ensue. It’s unnatural and I will have no part of it. To Hell with the hamster wheels.) There is a fraction of a second where the foot is directly beneath the hip and it’s pulling the ground back, but the knee angle essentially does not change and is followed immediately by a pushing off motion. The leg curl with hip bridge makes me lose sleep at night, so what?
Back to the matter at hand, the matter I was discussing before I was sidetracked by leg curls, the stability training devices. The most important thing to remember with these training methods is that everything in the gym is a tool, especially if the guy below is in the gym.
I Mean Every Piece of Equipment Is a Tool
Remember that a back squat (squatting with a barbell resting on your traps) is an exercise, a modification of the fundamental squatting movement that we are born with. The barbell is used to add a bunch of resistance to the squat, so that you can practice generating more force within that movement’s parameters. The movement is always the key. This is why it’s important to ask yourself what movement is being practiced during each exercise of your training.
For the past couple of years I haven’t been the biggest fan of stability training because I thought the risk:payoff ratio was too close to one for my taste. After some research (and fairly obvious anecdotal evidence of gymnast aesthetics) I found that the gymnastics rings are one of the best (if not, THE best, but this is of course highly contextual) tools you can use for developing a dense, symmetrical, and functional upper body. Gymnastics is the epitome of stability training.
So, as of late, I’ve been experimenting with gymnastics rings during every workout. Conclusion: Most of us can’t do any of the stuff gymnasts do, but gymnasts can do almost everything we do, and with ease. You and I don’t need to learn the iron cross anytime soon, but there are loads of benefits to being able to manipulate and contort your body weight however you’d like. I know they’re all 5’4″, but you can’t use that as an excuse because I’m 6’6″ and trying to make it work.
To Hell with Stability – The Argument Against
The main argument I hear involves people trying to say that we humans don’t have “stability muscles,” and that we either use a muscle or don’t. To me that shows a lack of fundamental anatomy knowledge. “They” say all we need to do is get under a heavy barbell and go to work. I think that’s an extremely important aspect of training, but it’s not everything and it most certainly does not make a great athlete. What we all really need is for these Opinion Havers to go read a boring kinesiology textbook, and then they can come sit at the adult’s table.
The argument for: science.
BORING ALERT: BELOW IS INFORMATION FOR LEARNING, PREPARE TO DROOL AND POSSIBLY LOSE CONSCIOUSNESS.
- To bend (flex) your elbow, you need to active muscles, specifically the group of muscles (two biceps brachii heads, brachialis) commonly referred to as biceps. In elbow flexion, the biceps muscle group would be called the prime movers (agonists). These prime movers are aided by helper muscles (synergists), which would be the brachioradialis in elbow flexion. The joints involved in the movement, the elbow in our example, are somewhat coddled and stabilized by opposing muscles (antagonists) that engage in coactivation (dense research abstract). Finish the example: the triceps muscle group would coactivate to stabilize the elbow joint during flexion.
- Muscles are activated when a motor neuron tells the fiber within the muscle to contract. This is a surprisingly complicated process, and it’s amazing that it happens in every single movement of which we are capable. There’s an all-or-nothing phrase tossed around frequently within training, but it’s often misunderstood. Muscle fibers either contract or they don’t. That is true of the all-or-nothing principle. What’s not true is that the entire muscle follows the all-or-nothing principle, which many people believe. The central nervous system (CNS) turns on the motor neurons that it needs to make the muscle contract. The greater the resistance on the joint, the greater motor neuron activation we receive from the CNS.
- To put all of this crudely and as simply as possible, the more complicated a movement gets and the more stress that’s put on the system, the harder the CNS and muscles will work.
Now that we’ve addressed the stability controversy, let’s ask the important question: How do you know when it’s safe to start stability training?
Let’s get one thing straight: squatting 350 lb very slowly does not have much correspondence to the real world. Unless you find yourself lying on your floor and an earthquake causes an I-beam to fall directly on your traps at an impossibly slow rate of .5 MPH. However, there’s no denying that a 350 lb squat makes you a strong person. At a certain point in strength training, though, you will hit a point of diminishing returns. Bringing your squat from 350 to 450 will do a lot less for your body than the initial phase of reaching 350. Reaching the 350 is the base work, what follows is the functional training that’ll make you move better and more efficiently. The question should not be whether or not you can squat 350 lbs, it should be how fast were you moving? There are many ways to turn raw strength into power and efficiency, but today we’re looking for how it relates to stability.
Stability training without a strength base is like trying to ride a bike through quicksand.
Now the question moves to competency. Should everyone do stability or suspension training because it makes you work harder? Absolutely not, but when you reach a level competency you need new stress to challenge the body for further progress.
Here’s my scaled progression:
- Machines – you could start with machines, but I think most machines are a waste of time and remove so much stability that they actually thwart movement and become valuable only for aesthetic purposes. (Three kinds of people use machines: confused rookies, retired folk, and bodybuilders.) I do some cable training with clients, but only for basic rowing exercises to rehab the posterior chain of the upper body.
- Basic movement practice – restoring full range of motion (ROM) for the key movements of the human body, then working with full ROM with relatively light free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells).
- Powerlifting (includes conjugation/accessory lifting) – heavy compound lifting with fixed weights (weight can’t slide or move in unwanted directions. Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells with clips holding the weight still). Heavy is based off a percentage of an individual’s 1-rep max. It will be different for each person, and I’m not saying there’s a range of weights everybody should strive to reach. It’s contextual and depends on one’s goals. (I do think most men should be able to back squat their body weight, bench press 85% of their body weight, and perform a perfect Romanian deadlift with 65% of their 1-rep max for back squat. The same for women, but bench press is 65%. These are respectable numbers and represent a fair level of competency within the realm of strength.) Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength book probably has to be mentioned. For a small amount of money you will learn a lot about rudimentary strength training. Stronglifts is probably the best resource to use for a basic lifting introduction that is free, although I don’t agree with the back squat form in SL or Rippetoe’s SS. You can read my squat tutorial for more on that.
- Basic suspension training – I will define this as suspension training which includes a stabilized body. An example of this would be bench press with suspended weight. This is safer than full suspension training because the only instability is in the joints involved with the working muscles. This will include all closed kinetic chain exercises, or exercises in which the hand (during arm movement) or foot (during leg movement) are fixed to an immovable surface. Squats (fixed feet), pullups (fixed hands), pushups (fixed hands and feet), etc. with instable weight added to the line of resistance. An example would be banded squats or weighted pullups. Note: I do not endorse his squat form and if you hold the bar with your fingertips like that you are asking for trouble because the bar might dump backwards. He needs to work on shoulder mobility by loosening up the anterior compartment of his shoulder, pecs, and probably lats. Pullup guy is killing it, though.
- Full suspension training – Ideally, gymnastics rings. The TRX could fall under this category for certain movements. In reference to number four, this fifth progression will involve the entire body and an open kinetic chain so many more joints will need to be stable and a lot of the body’s muscles will be isometrically contracting, making the exercises drastically more difficult and inherently riskier. Here’s a video demonstrating a ton of gymnastics rings exercises. Lastly: BE CAREFUL WITH THIS SHIT. IT IS NOT FUN AND/OR GAMES. YOU CAN SERIOUSLY HURT YOURSELF. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY LEARN FROM A COACH.
Practical thoughts on TRX training
From what I know, the TRX is a solid piece of equipment, but you’ll notice that the bands go to a point where they wrap around a pole, bar, a giant’s neck, something. This means that the handles can move in and out, but the bands will always be angled in towards the stabile holding spot. The rings are obviously two separate pieces of equipment that originate from their own point, directly above you. I’ve found that the bands get in the way and move in weird ways because they don’t come from two points above you, but one point from an angle. At best this is annoying, and at worst it changes the fundamental movements possible with rings and hinders your workout. An individual could attach gymnastics rings to a tree limb (like 2:48 in this video) and do a full workout anywhere there’s a decently strong tree. The only movements you could do with a TRX while it’s attached overhead would be rowing motions or pullup variations. Ultimately, the TRX is simpler and somewhat easier to set up, but carries a big compromise.
Sources for gymnastics training
I am not your gymnastics source. This is not my area of expertise and I won’t pretend that it is. I know how the body moves, so I can understand quite a bit of the training, but technique, exercises, progressions of gymnastic training are all new to me. And, when you spend thousands of hours studying something, you better appreciate and respect people who are known as experts in their field, so here’s what I’ve found.
Another fantastic podcast by Tim Ferriss was created with a gentleman named Christopher Sommer, who founded Gymnastic Bodies. This guy seems to be an excellent source for gymnastic training. However, I can’t find much stuff of his for free. You might have to spend a bit, but I think the product would be worth the price.
GMB Fitness has a YouTube channel that pumps out tons of great videos and I’ve really enjoyed their stuff. The guy I’ve seen in many videos is named Ryan Hurst, and he explains various techniques very clearly, with plenty of beginner videos. Here’s a cool case study video that shows a 41-year old cat finding his groove with gymnastics rings
“Well, that about does her, wraps her all up… I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail.” – The Stranger
Until next time,