Stable-to-Unstable Strength Training Highlights Functionality


  Use this platform with clients that have multiple goals by Dale Huff (This article originally appeared in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of ACE Certified News , an American Council on Exercise publication.)As a fitness model, functional strength training is surging in popularity. Thanks to the writings of numerous fitness educators, many personal trainers have been able to incorporate the basics of functional training in their programs, helping clients reach their goals in and out of the gym.

Functional training focuses less on appearance and more on improving one’s quality of life and ability to perform daily activities. Just because an individual can bench press an impressive amount of weight at the gym doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can translate that same force to a completely different, “real-life” movement outside the gym.

C.C. Cunningham, owner, PerformENHANCE, Evanston, Ill., defines functional strength as “training that carries over outside the gym to improve performance in movements during sport, work or daily activity.” Transferring strength to other activities is the complicated part of functional training. Successful functional strength exercises can’t just “look” like the goal exercise; similarity in body coordination is only one part of the puzzle.

“Strength exercises that will transfer require the brain to produce a movement program with similar coordination, range of motion, type of muscle contraction (eccentric, isometric, concentric) and speed of movement,” Cunningham continues. “Matching these components teaches the brain how to use improved strength during the movement.” In this manner, functional exercise provides a base from which to improve goal movements from sport, work or daily life.

Meeting GoalsThere is no set formula for creating a program that is truly functional for a typical personal training client. This is because many clients have multiple goals. For example, you may want to incorporate functional exercises into your program, but a more pressing goal for the client might be burning a lot of calories or increasing lean body mass. For this reason, strategically building unstable exercises into the program is optimal to keep the client moving toward multiple goals. This takes a little creativity on your part, but the outcome is worth the extra effort.

Stable-to-unstable training is a relatively new concept and many personal trainers may already be utilizing a similar format. Incorporating traditional “stable” exercises such as bench or machine presses, seated pull downs, smith machine squats and leg presses, followed by more functional strength exercises such as unilateral cable chest press on the stability ball, single leg squats and balance one-arm rows, serves to prefatigue the prime movers while resting the stabilizing core musculature. This allows the prime movers to be more challenged by an unstable exercise that typically requires a lighter load. The abdominal region and other stabilizing muscle groups are fresh and better able to stabilize the client during the unstable exercise.

Moderate to advanced exercisers in need of functional strength, core stability, increased lean body mass and weight management will benefit from this program. Even an advanced exerciser may view this platform as a new challenge as the variety may promote increased enjoyment and adherence. It also gives you an opportunity to showcase your skills in creating unique and individualized programs.

A very important note: This platform prefatigues the primary movers, therefore, it should not be utilized with a novice strength trainer, or with individuals with poor postural awareness and/or balance. Because of the increased need for a trained eye to correct posture, cue technique and check range of motion, this platform should not be utilized by an internet-based personal training company. Please remember that it is most important to do no harm.

Where Does It Fit?
There is no magic formula, as the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) and General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) theories have taught us (see glossary). The exercise selection, order and repetition range must all be varied within a four- to eight-week window.

The stable to unstable platform is only part of a well-designed, individualized, periodized program. Depending on your client’s goals, this program could be included in a preseason power phase where the more stable exercise is completed at a repetition range of six to 10, and the unstable exercise completed at a lower weight immediately following at a similar repetition range. Here are some additional points to keep in mind:

  • The weight load should be challenging within the desired repetition range for the prefatigued prime movers.
  • The stabilizing muscle groups should be able to control the body and weight load (especially the spinal stabilizers) throughout the range of motion.
  • All the exercises chosen during this time should carry over (specificity) to the sport or Activity of Daily Living (ADL) you are training your client to complete.
  • This platform could fit into many other micro-cycle schemes.

Other programs could include doing exactly the opposite of the stable-to-unstable method. Unilateral to bilateral, tempo-specific or a split routine utilizing a stable push and an unstable pull and reversing the pattern on day two are all viable options. As a personal trainer your ultimate goal is to use these new platforms wisely with your client’s goals and safety in mind at all times. Ask yourself what the risk versus the benefit is, view the source and then decide if it may fit into a specific client’s exercise regimen.


  • Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) – A training principle that states the body will adapt in a highly specific way. Training must be specific and it is counterproductive to training for anything other than a specific sports skill.
  • The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) – A training principle that concludes there are three main stages in physical stress:
  • The Alarm Phase – The body will not like the overload stress placed upon it and begins to take drastic measures to combat it.
  • The Resistance Phase – The body will try to resist the stress.
  • The Exhaustion Phase – The body will become exhausted if it doesn’t receive rest from the stress. This principle leads to the belief that there must be periods of low or no intensity between overloaded stresses that work the body.
  • TVA – Transverse Abdominus

To follow is a generic sampling of unstable exercises included solely to provide the reader with a further description of specific exercises that will enhance functionality.

Single Arm Press on Stability Ball
Balancing on one leg, tighten the TVA to create interabdominal pressure, and press the cable handle overhead. Place the opposite hand on the abdominal region to monitor TVA tightness. The adjustable cable is in its lowest position on the column.

Single Leg Squat
Adjust the cable to its lowest position. Holding the cable at shoulder height lift your opposite foot off the ground. Perform a single leg squat initiating the movement with hip and knee flexion. Stabilize the core region via TVA activation.

Sitting Cable Press
Adjust the cable to shoulder height when sitting on the ball. Tighten the abdominal region (TVA) and lift the foot opposite the pressing arm off the ground. Press the cable handle to the midline of the body.

Alternating Cable Pullover
Lying on the stability ball with head and shoulders resting on the ball and scapula retracted, grasp the handles with the cables in their lowest position on the cable. Perform an alternating cable pullover with a slight bend in the knees and a neutral grip.

Balance Triceps Kickback
Maintaining a neutral lumbar curvature lean forward with one foot off the ground and a 45-degree bend in the planted leg. Stabilize your upper arm into the posterior plane and perform elbow extension. Maintain cervical and lumbar alignment and cue for TVA.

Supine Cable Torso Rotation
Set the cable three holes up from the bottom of the column. Position yourself on the stability ball with head and shoulders resting on ball. Lift and tighten abdominal and gluteal region. Perform trunk rotation initiating action with spinal rotators, core and hips. Arms are simply along for the ride.

### Dale Huff, R.D., C.S.C.S. is co-owner of NutriFormance Personal Training and Sports Nutrition based in St. Louis, MO. He is an ACE FitnessMatters Editorial Advisor, ACE spokesperson, ACE-certified Personal Trainer, NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist, registered dietitian, Life Fitness Academy member and frequent writer and lecturer for IDEA. Huff can be reached at


1 Comment

Filed under Alternative Strength Training, Body Weight Training, Exercise Science, Functional Fitness, Health and Wellness, proprioception and kinesthetic awareness

One response to “Stable-to-Unstable Strength Training Highlights Functionality

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