Monday, January 7, 2013

Strength v. Stability

These are my thoughts on the general, raw strength training versus stability strength training disagreements that I've seen. There are two poles on this discussion and lots of people are at some point on a continuum between these two opposite ends. For the purposes of this commentary I'm going to contrast the two poles, as doing so makes some things more clear.

And as a reminder: the context of this blog is assumed to be athletic individuals training for combat sports and martial arts. Training for general fitness, and/or with deconditioned individuals is somewhat different.

The positions:
1) All you need is conventional, basic strength training. Squats, deadlifts, barbell bench press etc. Exercises done for high weights on stable surfaces with the objective of increasing the weight that can be lifted in that exercise.

2) Functional, and therefore useful, strength training means training on unstable surfaces. Increase the difficulty of squats by doing them on one leg and/or unstable surfaces. Increase the difficulty of chest presses by doing pushups on hanging handles/BOSU/wobble-board.

The problem I see with position 2 is this scenario: you are fighting someone who goes for type 1 and you do type 2. When they are stable, because they train for high force production when stable, they can hit much harder than you. They are more likely to blow through imperfect defenses because of this. They have good technical training and footwork and agility. As such, they are almost always stable; at which they are ideal. You don't suffer as much when unstable, but that doesn't come up as much during the fight. How does strength training influence the outcome of this fight?

The conclusion I've reached is that you need to do the basic, conventional, high-load strength training. And supplement with the stability based training.

A sample 2 day a week program might look like this:

Leg Press
Split Squat
Straight Leg Deadlift
Barbell Bench Press
Cable Low Row

Day 2
Front Squat
Rear-foot elevated or Single leg squat
Single leg, straight leg deadlift
Single arm, Dumbbell Bench Press
Bent Over, Dumbbell Row

If I were going to do only one then I would do the basic strength training. My reasoning being twofold: 1) The conventional lifts do require stability, though I include the split squat as a basic lift; 2) I do stability training by doing technical and agility training.

I'm especially interested in feedback on this particular post. So please share your thoughts.


  1. Personally, I agree that the larger focus of the physical training aspect should be on {Option 1} - conventional lifting. I think that you derive greater benefit for fighting by focusing lifting on developing greater overall strength, then practice and other training to refine the raw power (as I think you are, I'm talking about barbell / dumbbell / kettlebell lifts rather than any sort of machine).

    I'm curious where you put interval / high-intensity training in your workout? That replaces unstable or pure agility training for my workouts mostly. I find vicious interval training pays dividends for me in SCA heavy combat.

    1. Could you clarify your question on interval training? Do you mean when, how much, type, importance etc.?

  2. Would functional training aid your agility and footwork? I.e. would functional training to start with give you better poise and balance for stability. Then once you have achieved this would you then be best to move onto conventional training?

    1. Agility is primarily skill based, so high specificity training is more productive. That is, footwork drills will do more, and faster, than lunges on a BOSU. Also, you can start simple and increase the difficulty and complexity of agility drills to improve.

      And the sample program I described includes both kinds of training. I am suggesting that if you are picking between the two you should do conventional strength training and agility drills, instead of unstable strength training.

    2. Also, I should clarify: functional training doesn't mean unstable surfaces. It means things like free-weights as opposed to fixed form machines and applicable to the persons activities. For us, our activities include high force production needs.

      But there are those who think that the "most functional" means on an unstable surface and similar.

  3. Firstly nice article - brief yet with many interesting ideas. So now a couple questions : Do you find value in power-cleans for HEMA? For that matter, and just to be more olympian : How about clean-and-jerk? These are almost "forgotten" lifts (I have even found them banned at some gyms), yet they have alot to offer, I think. Perhaps espeically for Ringen, which in turn should benefit Fechten.

  4. Oh, I'm a big fan of Olympic lifts.
    I've talked about them before:

  5. Interesting question. I'd think that with unstable surface training, more muscles would be activated so that your body would actually be stable. This also probably means you wouldn't be able to focus so much on specific muscles/muscle group, which would mean slower advancement when compared to conventional ST. However, stability training might be good for proprioception. Perhaps strength training on uneven surfaces could be advisable for people relatively new to martial arts, since it'd build a greater number of muscles, especially stabilizer muscles (also proprioception)? I don't think someone who's been training martial arts for a long time has much use for it, however.

    1. More muscles being activated in unstable surface training is only sort of correct. A muscle is made up of a large number of motor units. Higher intensity exercises activate more of these motor units. There is no way for low intensity training to activate all of these motor units. Whereas an unstable surface will activate different muscles, smaller, peripheral stabilizer muscles. Developing both kinds is important to total strength development.

      I want to make a brief comment on "focus on specific muscles". The core of a good strength training program uses large, multijoint exercises. A front squat, for instance, uses nearly every muscle from the bottom of your feet up to your shoulders. And many of those muscles are being used to stabilize.

      Certainly an unstable surface is good for proprioception. In fact, I recently came across a journal article which referred to unstable surfaces as, "proprioceptively enhanced".

      And I do see a value in including (but not only) using unstable surface in a basic strength training program for a new person. The position I disagree with is the one that suggests that all/most progression should come from increasingly unstable versions of an exercise.