The importance of stability for weightlifting performance and how to achieve it

628551004I am always amazed at how popular mobility work has become in the last few years and how stability work is often ignored. People stretch to no end, but they don’t work on their stability. There is no doubt that the weightlifter has to be mobile in key body parts in order to be efficient. Weightlifting without mobility would not be the athletic and dynamic sport it is. There would be no such thing as receiving the bar in an extreme position of knee and hip flexion (bottom of a squat), for instance. That is, weightlifting requires full range of motion of every joints. However, the weightlifter also has to be able to stabilize the weights and he has to be able to do so at maximal range of motion.

By definition, joint mobility is the inhibited range of motion of an articulation (Degree of possible movement around a joint). In other words, it is your ability to freely (read : actively or without huge resistance) go to full range of motion. A counter example of this can be seen by looking at sport injuries. For instance, if you are a sprinter and your hamstrings are not flexible enough, you can pull them since they are resisting the knee extension motion (Other things can contribute as well, such as muscle co-contractions). In this case, we consider the knee to lack joint mobility because the range of motion is limited because of the hamstring action (unless it was pure bad coordination as evidenced by co-contractions)

weightlifter-front-squat

Mobile AND stable (See the back and overall position)

Another example closer to our sport: In a squat, going butt to ankles means that musculature that attach to the knee, ankle and hip (probably more joints, as well) are mobile as they allow for full range of motion. Obviously, there might be energy leaks due to muscular tightness or bad coordination, but,mechanically, the mobility of tissue around the key joints is high enough for the performance of the squat. In other words, although your squat strategy might not be perfect (how you achieve it is not optimal), if the tissues are mobile enough, you will reach the bottom of your squat. This is why we see plenty of squatter with their butt 2-3 inches away from the floor at the bottom of the squat, yet their back is rounded.

By definition, stability is the capacity of the muscular system (and other tissues such as ligaments) to maintain and resist movements. Stability is important for the weightlifter as he receive the bar either on his shoulder or above head but also as he pulls. A dislocated shoulder or elbow is usually the result of lack of stability (and not dropping the bar in some cases). It could be due to anormal elbow mobility due to the shoulder not being stable enough as well.

Weightlifters tend to be quite stable in the frontal plane but not so much in the lateral and rotational planes due to the nature of the sport (We go up and down). This could explain common injuries in weightlifting are knee tendonitis (too much ”up and down”) and the not so common elbow dislocation (turning motion/rotational force). If you happen to watch a competition where the show a replay of the lift from the top down, you will see a lot of weightlifters rotate.

Another example of what being mobile AND stable means.

Another example of what being mobile AND stable means.

Going back to the rounded back squatter example, although he is mobile enough to hit rock bottom in his squat, his lower back is not stable because it is not able to resist forces (rounds, rather than stay upright). This could be due to a lot of things – such as flexibility issues or strength issues and you will have to address them. Anyhow, the chances of injuries are high whenever stability is sacrificed at the expense of excessive mobility because parts of the body structures that should be stable (such as the lower back) are not.

In a jerk article, I talked about the base of support and how it can explain how stable a lifter can be. Basically, the wider the base of support is, the more stable you can be. If it is wider, Forces applied to the body will be easier to match with muscular force so that the center of gravity stays within the base of support. If you watch a baby start to walk, you will notice that they run after their head (they run hunch over). That is because most of their body weight is in their head and the head is slightly forward. Thus, the center of gravity is always out of the base of support and the baby will have trouble stabilizing, hence how wobbly their walk is (and how even standing up without walking is wobbly). (Here is a random youtube video depicting it)

Two things should be noted. First, the lifter has to be stable in key joints as well as stable in the biomechanical sense of the word (coordinating the body joints to resist multiple forces rather than a single force applied on a single joint). Doing so will allow him to prevent injuries, lift heavier, and lift well or efficiently. In other words, he has to understand how to stabilize his body and the weights (Body awareness and coordination) in key positions. That is, whenever you are transitioning to get under the bar, it is normal to be mobile by definition.

Lu-XiaojunHowever, the moment the feet hit the ground, the goal is resist the downward force (bar pushing down on you). If you get buried in the hole or if you are not catching the bounce or if you are as wobbly as the walk of a baby at the bottom of the squat, then you are not able to stabilize the weights correctly. Whenever I have a lifter who has these troubles, I like to program power movements where the lifter catches the bar at 90 degree of knee flexion. Doing so teaches the lifter to receive the bar a bit higher so that he can actively resist the downward motion. Sometimes I will do a complex of 1 power movement at 90 degrees and 2 full movements to be better integrate the new learning.(Its the most specific ”stability” exercise for WLing).

Second, as said earlier, one key to great lifting is stability. Not only do you need to be stable, but you also need to have the ability to stabilize the weights and your body very quickly. When things go wrong and you have to save the bar, only the lifters with the best ability of stability will succeed. This happens mostly unconsciously through neural mecanisms, but it can be trained (see last section). To put it in perspective, watch the following videos :

Daniel Dolega demonstrating his ability to stabilize 179kg. You can see how the body reacts to the movement of the bar and how he adapts his base of support (take a few steps) to reach stability.

 By taking that step forward, Sergei lee adapted his base of support to save the bar. That is, the bar was travelling forward and the only way to stabilize it was by centering it in the base of support (which happened once he took that step forward). This is an incredible display of an ability to quickly react to instability and reach optimal stability quickly (also a good display of mobility in this case).

Stability work : What and when to do it

David Rigert was well aware of the importance of stability in weightlifting. He actually trained himself to be stable by narrowing his stance, from time to time.

David Rigert was well aware of the importance of stability in weightlifting. He actually trained himself to be stable by narrowing his stance, from time to time.

 Most people don’t posses the ability that these lifters have. However, most people can work at it and improve their stability in the lifts. Any stability work is extra to the lifts – meaning that you should not replace the lifts with any of these following drills. You will need to work on two things : Core and Resisting movement at every joints in the case of dynamic work.

Thus, the common way of training stability is to do static work. That will do for beginners, but weightlifters need dynamic work as well to learn to stabilize weights during movements. So the rule of thumb is that once your able to be stable in a static fashion, then you can add in movements as well. In other words, you create instability to allow yourself to stabilize your body.

Static work that is relevant to weightlifters are planks, side planks, bird dogs, hollow rock, bridges and even handstands. Most people will out perform the plank quickly, so harder variations should be picked over longer plank times. Bridges can be done a la Chinese way, with added plated on your stomach (over time). These can be done when you get to the gym

chen-hongquing-135_lgFor dynamic work, all you have to do create asymmetry by reducing the base of support, by moving the center of gravity outside of the base of support or by adding quick changes of direction (as in a drop snatch). I use many drills for this. As activation drills, I like 1 arm KB/DB presses while standing on opposite leg, 1 arm KB/DB clean and presses while standing on opposite leg or holding a weight on one leg and moving that weight around you. The KB/DB movements are not done for muscular development but for the neural activation around the joints. That is why I have people do them before lifting, for a few reps and not too heavy. There will be a point where you will notice that you are more stable (within a few minutes) and that is when you should stop and focus on the real deal… Weightlifting.

For specific work, I like drop snatches, 90 degree powers, ”snatch push jerk” in the bottom position,  etc. For dynamic core work, I like barbell rotation, russian twists, back extension with holds, etc. Not only does the core have to work, but every muscle around every joints has to work together to prevent movement as the weight is being movement around. The goal is not to do every exercise I have listen in this article. Just pick one or two per work out and do them.

P.S : Many people may think that these 1 legged drills are irrelevant to weightlifting. Consider that they will really force you to have stable feet and how could you stabilize something above head if the feet are not stable? Moreover, most people training weightlifting in North America come from a first sport where they suffered one or many injuries. Many have really weak ankles, knees or hips.

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