You've probably heard the term "stability" in conjunction with some of your exercise and workout programs. But what exactly is stability, why do you need it, and how do you get it?
I use terms like stability, mobility, flexibility, and balance all the time in my podcast episodes and articles, but I rarely have the time to do a deep examination of each. So today, with the help of my special guest expert, I am going to rectify that.
You don’t need to be a sports scientist or even an elite athlete for this to be meaningful stuff!
To help me in the endeavor, I have asked Yoga15’s Abi Carver back on the podcast (check out Abi’s other Get-Fit Guy episode about how you can use yoga to improve your athletic performance). Abi is the founder of and an instructor at Yoga 15, a two-time 200-Hour Yoga Alliance Certified Yoga Teacher, and a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. So she knows a thing or two about how the body works. Which makes her the perfect person to explain stability and how it relates to the human body.
What is stability?
"So, stability as it relates to the human body, from an anatomical perspective, is the ability to hold a position, but it's also the ability to control your movement through different movements and different positions," Abi said.
This seems simple and straight forward enough, but I think it gets a little muddled up with some of the other terms like mobility, and balance. So I asked Abi to set us straight on that.
"Stability and mobility typically refer to joints," she explained. "So, for each of our joints, we have a spectrum of available mobility and a spectrum of available stability. Stability, you can think of it as the strength of a joint. And mobility is the range of motion at that joint. So let's take the ankle, for instance, there's quite a lot of mobility at the ankle, you can circle your ankle, you can flex and extend your ankle. So there's not so much stability there as there is mobility, but if you take something like the lower back or the pelvis, there's much less range of motion or mobility there and much more stability. So each of the joints has an optimum range, both for mobility and for stability."
And then how does balance fit in?
"Well, balance to me is slightly separate because balance is essentially a much more complicated," Abi said. "It's not just to do with joints because it also relates to proprioception, which is your body's sense of where your body is in space. So, for instance, if you were going to challenge your balance by standing on one leg, not only do you need stability—stability in your ankles and your core and your hips and pelvis—but you also need a good sense of balance and proprioception. So, balance is actually a little bit more complicated than those other two (mobility and stability), which typically are just related to the joints."
At this point, you may be feeling like this is a great lesson in biomechanics (and more specifically, how nerds like Abi and I have categorized movements and functions), but there's much more to it. You don’t need to be a sports scientist or even an elite athlete for this to be meaningful stuff!
Who needs stability?
"My initial response to this is that even if we are elite athletes, we're not spending very much time in the day just dedicated to our athletic endeavors," Abi said. "There's a lot more of the time doing the other mundane activities of the day, whether that's walking up and down stairs or picking up awkward objects at strange angles, or sitting in front of the television. All of these activities, we're going to spend a lot more of our time doing. So really, even though it is incredibly important to have good stability as an athlete, as a human being, it's of pretty high importance just for our day to day activities."
So having said that, how would having stability, which we're primarily developing for our regular life, actually help us with our athletic endeavors? How can we make the most of it during the 30 to 90 minutes per day that we devote to actively focusing on getting fit?
"Well, in terms of every day, we don't want to hurt ourselves," Abi stressed. "We don't want to fall over. We don't want to fall down the stairs. And then also, in our athletic pursuits, there are a few really important aspects that we need good stability for. I would say that good stability is the foundation for effective movement. So moving with control, moving with precision, moving fast, moving with high reaction speeds. For that, we need to have good stability at the joints. There's also an efficiency element to it. So if any part of our body is unstable, then we're going to waste energy. ... So, let's say we're riding on a bicycle and we don't have good core strength, then another muscle, another group of muscles, another joint, is going to have to take up that slack. And that's when we're going to waste energy. So there's a kind of an effectiveness point and efficiency point."
Stability helps you prevent injuries
"Also, stability is crucial for preventing injuries," Abi said. "So there's as a quote from Peter Attia MD (quite a nice and well-known doctor) says, and I love this line."
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.
"I think that's so important," she continued. "He's a big proponent of stability training. And basically it does come down to that. I remember my brother fell down the stairs recently. He thinks he tripped or he slipped, but actually I think you can slip and not hurt yourself. It's just because you have instability (maybe your ankle is unstable), then that's when you're going to actually hurt yourself.
Stability is crucial for preventing injuries.
"Actually, there is one other reason that athletes need stability, and that is the sort of muscular imbalances that arise from repetitive training. Let's take a cyclist again. You're going to set up imbalances in the body from being on the bike for such a long period of time in the same posture, and these muscular imbalances can lead to pain. Often that might be in between the shoulder blades or lower back pain. We can actually use stability training to correct those muscular imbalances. So we can not only stretch muscles that are tight, but we can also bolster those that are weaker. We can strengthen the muscles that support our shoulder blades. We can strengthen the muscles at the lower back. We can strengthen the muscles in our ankles. And by doing that, we are addressing the muscular imbalances that, over time, can lead to pain and to injury."
A good example of this is the common running injury referred to as runner’s knee, which is just a simple term used to describe a whole constellation of knee pain symptoms. Historically speaking, the runner’s knee injury has been attributed to irritation and a softening of the cartilage lining on the undersurface of the kneecap. But more recently, some cases have been linked to the imbalance of having weak quadriceps and overly strong or tight hamstrings.
Abi agrees, and adds, "With targeted stability training, we can do exercises to strengthen the knee, to strengthen the hamstrings, and yeah, to counteract that imbalance."
Abi's story about her brother tripping on the stairs reminded me of a time when I was a young, touring ballet dancer. When we were on the road, I would often go for a morning run before the bus took us to our next performance destination. I recall rolling my ankle many times with absolutely no repercussions. In the moment, I would think, Oh no! Am I going to be able to dance tomorrow? And I always was. It’s like I had achieved a level of stability that made me impervious to that particular issue.
"And part of that is going to be your proprioception," Abi said. "You would have had the opportunity to sort of 'style-out' a fall. You know, you'd have broken your fall in a way as not to cause yourself harm. I think there is the proprioceptive element there too, but I do think that stability is set. My mom did exactly the same thing recently. She fell and smashed her wrist to smithereens. Maybe you or I would have bruised ourselves, but we wouldn't necessarily have had to have surgery. So, it may be a question of how severe an injury is. And that maybe, as an athlete, if you do have a good sense of where your body is in space, if you do have a balance between the muscles and the joints, then potentially we're just reducing the severity of the injury and how much time we're going to have to take off training or just everyday stuff."
The best way to get stability
There are so many exercises and workout options available. It can be overwhelming to decide which workout to do, period, let alone which one will build this amazing stability superpower. I asked Abi what she would suggest—weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, pilates, yoga?
"I think there's a place for all of those," she said. "Each of those disciplines has its advantages and disadvantages.
With something like yoga, you have the ability to move your body in all planes of motion.
"Let's take weightlifting, which actually I wouldn't immediately think of. I would think of something like weightlifting being better for strength training. But actually, of course, in weightlifting, you do take your muscles and joints to there and ranges of movement often. So if you're doing a squat with weight, then actually you are building stability in your joints. But the problem with weight lifting is that you're often working muscles and joints in isolation. So although it does have advantages because you really are subjecting it to stress, which is great for improving stability, because of the inherent isolation that we generally do in weightlifting. And also if you're using a weight, as opposed to using your body weight, then you could potentially over-weight your body, which is sort of impossible to do with your body weight, because you have your own innate system to tell whether that's too much strain on a joint, you've got that feedback loop there.
"So I would say that weightlifting can be great, but also you'd want to balance that with a bodyweight system, as well as something which works muscles in sort of muscle integration. You mentioned pilates, which is also fantastic for building stability. But there, you're not getting the mobility aspect and you're not getting the different planes of motion. With something like yoga—which is obviously the area that I would use to do stability training (because of my background)—what you have there is the ability to move your body in all planes of motion. So you're not only building stability, but you're also building flexibility and mobility and balance at the same time. And also those multiplane motions can help to move your body out of the habitual movement patterns, which can help with their muscular imbalances.
"So I like yoga for [building stability] because of the fact that we're integrating muscles together, that we're not working in isolation, that we're using our body weight, that we're moving through all planes of motion. But also there are some added elements here. There's really close attention paid to alignment. It's important, what all of our joints are doing. We're moving really slowly. So, again, if you were doing CrossFit at that speed and under that pressure, you don't have the time to perfect the alignment and you don't have the time to listen to the feedback signals that you get from body awareness. With yoga, we also pay close attention to the breath. This also helps us gauge the appropriate effort level. If we find that we're out of breath, then we know that we could be over-efforting and that we could be injuring ourselves."
3 simple stability exercises
With all of this in mind, Abi has three surprisingly simple exercises you can perform to develop your overall stability. "One of the beauties of yoga," she said, "is that we have a number of different poses that give you similar benefits from different angles." Here's what she recommends:
Plank. A fantastic pose not only for core stability but for shoulder stability, for the pelvis, for your ankles, and for your legs.
Side Plank. With this modified plank, you're strengthening your obliques at the same time and improving hip stability a little more.
Upward-Facing Plank. This is the supine version. And that's going to work on the posterior muscles and this stability on the back of your body.
"With those three poses, you're enhancing the stability in all of your joints," said Abi. "And they're easy to remember—you’ve just got Plank, Side Plank, and Upward-Facing Plank."
Abi has a free resource on her website, yoga15.com. There's a pose library with video tutorials and written instructions. You'll find the instructions to perform the Plank, Side Plank, and Upward-Facing Plank, as well as other stability poses like Boat Pose or Tree Pose.