Stability for Greater Strength Gains

Students often rush through their sticking points. And I get it—it’s tempting. But the wiser tactic is to slow down. Take note. Assess and correct those errors or problems. The number of potential issues keeping you from achieving greater strength are too many to cover here, but one is particularly common.

The Problem: Lack of Joint Stability

Many people working on bodyweight skills have a lack of stability in their joints. Why would this show up more often in bodyweight work than kettlebell or barbell? Because many of the most popular bodyweight skills are single-sided. When we take an arm or leg away, it is harder to fake or rush past an imbalance. I’ll address an upper-body imbalance another day, but for now let us focus on the lower body. You’ll also be given a program to test and improve your balance when standing on one leg. Because once you become more stable on one leg, your strength gains will skyrocket when you return to all your two-legged lifts.

Get a Baseline

Before starting any new program or learning a new skill set, I always recommend setting a baseline. This allows you to assess your starting point and retest to see improvements. If you are unfamiliar with using baselines, you can read more about it here.

One of the best ways to set a lower body baseline is to stand on one foot with your eyes closed. Set up a recording device, and try it for a moment. How did it feel? What did it look like? Write down detailed information, such as any loss of balance or whether your knee wobbled or ankle collapsed. Save that video in order to reassess and measure your progress later on.

If the single-leg balance drill felt easy, proceed to a slow single-leg hinge/deadlift pattern (eyes open). How did this feel? Were you super shaky or were you stable? Did your ankle or knee begin wobbling or were you able to descend (how far?) under control? Hold at different depths, unless you feel at risk of falling over. If each of those holds was easy, repeat the same test but with your eyes closed. Record the results.

With your assessment and baseline complete, you may begin the following program to improve your stability and start reaping new strength gains. Now remember: There are many progressions and regressions available to meet you at your current ability level, whether you are deficient in strength or mobility. The goal with this program is to build stability, but some of you will also need to work at increasing your mobility to perform the full range of motion for these skills.

At times it is good to regress in order to progress, so do not stress if a skill does not seem easy. Select an option that forces you to spend some time around that sticking point. I promise that the more stable you become on one leg, the stronger all of your lower body skills will become.

The Program

Although this program focuses on stability, the waving the load rule still applies. Therefore, as you repeat the below drills each week, it is best to adjust your exercise volume, tempo, or load. You may add this program to any upper-body training program of your choice.

For each of these skills: time under tension is key!

Day/Session 1
SLOW PISTOL LOWERS  10R/10L (ACTIVE NEGATIVE)

Rest and repeat x 3
**Select an elevation appropriate for your strength and mobility. Lower under control to the selected elevation, pause, and repeat. If you already have a full range of motion pistol, lower under control all the way to the ground. Don’t worry about standing back up—this drill is just about controlling the negative. Over the next 6 weeks as this becomes easier, you can advance to a lower elevation until you reach a rock bottom pistol. If you can already reach rock bottom, feel free to add weight—but remember to practice this slowly so you do not rush past any sticking points.

Day/Session 2
SLOW SLDL (single leg dead lift) 8R/8L

Rest and repeat x 3 sets
**Begin with a very slow negative, pause at the bottom while maintaining a neutral spine and a good hip hinge and knee bend. Then slowly press through the ground and return to standing. If you are not yet stable enough to do these balanced, then you can use a wall or rack for minimal support. Over the next 6 weeks you can either begin to add load or increase your sets bi-weekly.

Day/Session 3
SLOW SEATED PISTOL “ZIP UPS” 5R/5L

Rest and repeat x 3
**Begin seated and relaxed, on an elevation appropriate for your strength and mobility (bench, box, low chair, coffee table, stack of barbell plates, etc.). Extend one leg, tense your body, and stand up on the working leg. Be sure to extend your hips fully and work to maintain that top position under control before resetting. Begin each repetition from a completely relaxed position. Developing that skill—going from completely relaxed to “zipping up” on command into full-body tension—will increase both your stability and strength. (It is of course one of the awesome skills covered at the StrongFirst Bodyweight Course and SFB Certification). Over the next 6 weeks, you can either lower the height of your seat, or increase sets at a given height.

Final Notes

As you can see, the program is designed to be flexible—because everyone’s starting point will be a little different. However, and wherever you are starting, it is important that you perform each repetition slowly and only increase the volume or load after building a solid foundation.  The slower movements will allow you to focus on building stability in your ankle, knee and hip joints.

If you are also lacking mobility in these joints, add some extra mobility drills prior to each training session. For instance, toe and heel walks, calf raises, toe touches, hip flexor stretch and/or tactical frogs. During each training session, pay close attention to any spots that seem to demonstrate instability. Those are the places to pause. Those are the gaps to fill that will make the greatest overall improvements in your strength. So spend more time at those sticking points, fill those weak spots with tension, and enjoy the benefit of improved stability in your joints.

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Karen Smith
Chief SFB, Master SFG
Karen Smith is Chief SFB instructor, a Master SFG instructor, and the fourth woman to claim the Iron Maiden title. She has been personal training students of all fitness levels from beginners to elite US military forces since 2000. Karen specializes in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a certified SFG, SFB, FMS, and Battling Ropes instructor.

Karen currently resides in Dallas where she is available for private and group sessions. She is also available worldwide for distance coaching and program design. She travels regularly instructing workshops and StrongFirst Courses and Certifications.

She can be reached at karensmithmsfg@gmail.com or at her blog, Coach Karen Smith.
Karen Smith on Email

5 thoughts on “Stability for Greater Strength Gains

  • Fantastic article and exercises! I’ve done them 3 straight days and already notice a difference. To keep me even more focused on the SLDL, I’ve added holding a dowel to assure that my spine doesn’t deviate. Definitely a challenge for my stiff T-spine and shoulders, but in a good way!

  • Hey Karen,
    Always love reading your articles!

    Is there a benefit in doing pistols in straight sets of 10/10 vs doing ladders of 5(1-5) to maintain tension?

    I had always used ladders to avoid fatigue and keep the focus in max tension.

    Hank H.

    • It really depends on your goal and starting strength level. I normally do lower sets expect when building a solids stability base with progressions verses a full range moevement.

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