Using instability to create strength

Using instability to create strength

by Evigan Xiao 12 Jan 2018

There’s a saying that goes, “You can’t fire a cannon from a rowboat.” Rather than espousing the ideals of naval warfare, the phrase is meant to convey the fruitlessness that comes with attempting to express force and power from a position of instability. When it comes athletic performance, this all but holds true. Yet, instability can in fact be harnessed to increase strength, and in turn improve athleticism.


When one talks about instability training, we are immediately assaulted with images of people being coerced into performing movements ranging from the most basic to downright circus-esque, all the while balancing on a stability ball. As impressive as it might look, such antics do very little (if anything at all) when it comes to improving strength.


Going back to our cannon-rowboat analogy, closer inspection reveals that it as an unstable foundation (ie. the rocking tide of the sea) that makes it impractical to express strength. And if you can’t express strength to an appreciable degree, how can you hope to train it? Aside from that, there is hardly any carryover to athletic functions, or everyday “functional” movements for that matter. The reason boils down to specificity: how often do you think you’d have to overcome a force while having the ground shake and move out from under you?


It is a no-brainer that for instability training to work, there must be some form of instability at play. However, establishing a shaky surface isn’t the only way to create unstable conditions. Incorporating instability to loads challenges the body the resist multi-planar forces while overcoming an axial load. Basic foundational movements like squatting, hinging, lunging, pulling and pressing can all be done using unstable loads. The added demand on the body’s stabiliser muscles also makes them a great choice for physical training with a greater focus on the core musculature.


Tools such as resistance bands, kettlebells and chains can all be used to create unstable conditions when it comes to moving weight. Specialty implements like the Tsunami Bar can also simplify instability training by eliminating the need for other tools for basic strength work. Regardless of which method you use to effect your training, it is always important to ensure that basic aspects of your movement (e.g. body positioning, mechanics, etc.) remains as close to or even identical as what you would see when training normally.


Here are some ways you can implement instability training in a safe and effective manner:

  • Suspending two equally weighted kettlebells from a barbell using resistance bands for squatting, hinging, lunging and carrying.
  • Putting chains on a barbell for pressing.
  • Draping a towel over a pull-up bar for pulls
  • Ring/banded push-ups
  • Farmer’s walks with sandbags


Instability training is a great way to add some variety to an already well-rounded programme, restore rehabilitating athletes and even prep those in the off-season. By keeping the movements basic and performing under the right conditions, you’ll be able to train your body’s ability to express strength under challenging circumstances.