Stability Vs Strength: Why Language Matters

Are you actually addressing and fixing an issue?

How can I fix the hip shift while squatting? What about my shaky lockout in the overhead press? I can’t keep my shoulders retracted while benching. What do I do? If you’ve been training for any amount of time, I’m sure you’ve come across at least one of these issues before.

Now, raise your hand if you have heard these phrases before as possible solutions like,“You have weak glutes,” or “strengthen your back.” I’m not going to argue against getting a stronger back or building up your posterior chain, but it might not be the best way to solve your imbalances, why? It depends on the language you use.

Is your rotator cuff weak or unstable? Does your glute med need to be strengthened, or do you lack hip stability? The language we use affects how we train.

Athlete bracing his core during a squat

What Is Stability and Strength?

Let’s pause here and define the main difference between strength and stability.

  • Strength: the ability to exert force
  • Stability: The ability to resist force

How do we know whether a muscle is a strength or stability muscle? The simplest method is to look at fiber orientation, or which way do the fibers of a particular muscle run. Are the running vertically (opposing gravity), like the quadriceps, or are they running horizontally, like the serratus anterior?

Author’s note: Many muscles do have an action and a function, and can serve as a strength muscle in one instance, and a stabilizer in another. For example, the adductor group works to bring the femur to the midline of the body, but also works as a secondary pelvic stabilizer along with the core. This model of action and function is true of the hamstrings, lats, biceps, etc, too. To keep it simple, we will utilize fiber orientation to differentiate primarily strength and stability muscles.

What’s Instability and What’s Weakness?

So how can we determine if the issue is instability or weakness? Increasing instability can happen in one of two ways.

  1. Decrease the base of support.
  2. Deviate the center of mass. 

So, we’ll put the joint in question under stress with either a decreased base of support, or a deviated center of mass.

The two major areas where this instability occurs are two of the ball and socket joints in the body. The hip and the shoulder. Here are my go-to tests for each.

Author’s Note: Both of these tests assume you have the appropriate mobility (freedom of movement) to get in the correct positions. If this is not the case, address the lack of mobility first.

Test 1: Kettlebell Bottoms Up Press

Shoulder: Kettlebell Bottoms Up Press

This test is performed one hand at a time. Start with the kettlebell held upside down in one hand (weight facing up) with the hand by your shoulder in front of the body, and the elbow directly underneath (think starting position in boxing, but just one arm). 

Push the kettlebell up via extending the shoulder and elbow, and externally rotating the shoulder pushing the shoulder blade up in the fully extended position. Then return slowly to the starting position.

Test procedure: Perform 5 reps on each side with light to moderate weight.

Explaining the test: As the shoulder reaches the fully extended and externally rotated position, the joint is at its most unstable position. If the serratus anterior and/or rotator cuff is unstable, the arm will begin to shake, and the kettlebell will likely tip over. 

I’ve seen clients fail this test, wipe their hands, off and try again with the same result. The issue is not sweaty palms, and no amount of chalk will help you. Don’t have a kettlebell, but want to try this now? Put your hands down by your side and squeeze as hard as you can.

Now put your hand as far over your head as possible and squeeze again. What happened? Likely, if there is instability present, as your shoulder was put in a more unstable position the grip strength decreased.

Test 2: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Hips: Single Leg Romanian deadlift (RDL)

It is important to note that this is a hip hinge movement, so there should be no motion through the knee, ankle, or back. Start with one leg planted firmly on the ground, and the knee slightly bent. Then, hinge at the hips, driving the opposite (trail) leg back and letting the hands move towards the ground keeping the shoulders and hips parallel to the ground. 

Author’s Note: The hands should be moving towards the ground at the same speed the back (trail) leg is moving away. Visualize a steel rod running from your head to your ankle. There should be a straight line from the head to the trail leg. Once you touch the ground, or your back reaches parallel, come slowly back to the starting position. 

Test procedure: Perform 5 reps on each leg.

Explaining the test: As the hip hinges, the stability glute med is put on trial. If your hips begin to rotate (chest/hips facing the wall instead of the ground) as you hinge forward, this is a key sign of instability. What is happening when the hips begin to rotate?

The body is moving to a more structurally stable position by stacking the hip on top of the femur. Essentially the muscles cannot provide the stability, so the bony structures are relied upon instead.

What to Do If You Fail the Tests

Ok, so you or a friend failed both tests, have come to grips with the fact that stability is the issue, and realize you might need more than monster walks to fix the hip shift. Now what?

Keep in mind, the goal of training stability is to decrease the base of support, and/or deviate the center of mass. While the kettlebell bottoms up press and single leg RDL can be used to train stability if regressed properly, here are a few more examples for training stability at the shoulder and hip. 

For Shoulder Stability

Serratus Press: This is a good option if you do not have a kettlebell around, but have access to bands or tubing. With both hands, use the same position as the Kettlebell Bottom Under Press with the band around the outside of both wrists and the hands in front of the chest. 

Pushing out on the band, drive the hands up fully extending the elbow and shoulder, and slowly coming back to the starting position.

  • Recommendation: 3×10

For Hip Stability

Walking Lunge: A lunge, really? Yes, but intention is everything. Control when reaching out with the lead leg, stabilizing as you sink into the lunge, and control as the trail leg comes through and extends forward. Slow and steady. Remember, the goal is control not speed.

  • Recommendation: 3×8 each leg

Wrapping Up 

When addressing an issue of muscle imbalance remember, language matters. 

The journey to strength, speed, and power lie along the road of stability. Got any other stability drills you enjoy? Drop them in the comments, or shoot me a message! Keep learning.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from Veles Studio / Shutterstock

Kyle McKee

Kyle McKee

Kyle holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science with a concentration in Athletic Training. Holding certifications with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and Pre-Script, he has worked with the Seattle Mariner’s Minor League affiliate, taught speed and agility for college bound athletes, and coached tennis at multiple levels.

A former college tennis player, Kyle began powerlifting in Mountain View, CA while working in operations at a health related start up. Currently, Kyle is a personal trainer in Downtown Seattle, WA. Throughout his career, the focus has been to prepare individuals to perform at their highest level.

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